With 116 years separating the first moden Olympics from this year's games, there are bound to be some noticeable changes between the two. Aside from archived photos of the Olympics, one of clearest windows into the first modern Olympics held in 1896 is from G. S. Robertson in an essay titled, "An Englishman at the first modern Olympics" (via Longform.org).
Robertson's account of the 1896 paints a picture of an Olympics in its infancy that, while grappling with the challenges of hosting an international competition without the benefits of modern telecommunications or transporation, still manages to capture what would be described in later generations as the Olympic spirit.
If you can manage to squeeze it in between commercial breaks while watching this year's Olympics, Robertson's essay is worth the full read. For those short on time, here are the starkest contrasts between this year's games and the 1896 Olympics:
Organized by Pierre de Coubertin, considered the father of the modern Olympic movement, the first modern games in Athens in 1896 was meant to include the participation of as many nations from as many corners of the world as possible. As Robertson notes, however, the promoters of the first Olympics had "apparently forgotten that few athletes are classical scholars, and that still fewer have either the time or the money to make so long a voyage."
This meant that a disproportionate number of participants were from the home country, Greece, other nations in continental Europe, and the United States. The United States and Hungary were the only ones to attempt to send an all-around team, according to Robertson. In fact, the first Olympic champion in modern history was an American, triple-jumper James Connolly.
Similarly, although throngs of foreign visitors were expected to swarm Athens for the first Olympics, spectators in Athens were almost exclusively Greek, according to Robertson. Newspapers had estimated 20,000 foreign visitors, but the author puts it closer to 1,000. Still, some 80,000 spectators cheered on the athletes and their victories in 1896.
English and French are the official languages of the Olympic Games. But in 1896, the official book of rules and the program of the Olympics were only printed in French. An unofficial German edition was later printed as well.
According to Robertson, an English-language edition was only printed by a private firm with little lead time ahead of the games. This was partly due to participation of English-language speaking countries as an afterthought by the organizing committee of the first Olympics. This led to a general lack of participation among British athletes.
Despite a general lack of encouragement, American teams turned up in droves fully equipped, due "to the natural enterprise of the American people and to the peculiarly perfect method in which athletics are organized in the United States."
The foundations of the Olympic Charter, the document that guides the Olympic Movement and sets forth the principles by which all participating nations are expected to abide, weren't written down until 1898. Another 10 years would pass before the Charter was published in 1908, bearing the title, "Annuaire du Comité International Olympique." Although the Charter specifies that English and French are the official languages of the movement, the French version of the document supersedes the English edition when there are any discrepancies between the two.
For the first time in Olympic history, the 2012 Olympics will include a female athlete from every participating nation. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the only countries who had yet to field at least one woman on their national teams since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
In 1896, however, women weren't allowed to participate in the games at all. Although female athletes were permitted to enter the games four years later, a mere 2 percent of athletes — 22 out of 997 — were women competing in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, golf and equestrian, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (PDF).
By contrast, 42 percent of the athletes at the 2008 Olympics were women. And in 2012, the U.S. team for the first time in its history will field more women than men in Olympic competitions.
Given the cost of the Olympics hosted in a country dealing with economic difficulties as well as questions about the readiness of the organizers of the games, many expected the 1896 games to be a flop. Sound familiar?
The naysayers proved wrong in 1896. And so far, they're been proven wrong in 2012 as well.
Credit: Corbis Images