Tokyo 2020: Here's How the First Modern Olympics Started 125 Years Ago

By Nova BarelaLast Updated May 3, 2021 11:50:06 AM ET
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The winner of the marathon, Spiridon Louis, on arrival at the stadium at the 1896 Athens Olympics. Credit: DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Banned by Theodisius, the Olympic Games vanished for 1,500 years. But, on April 6, 1896, the Olympics made a modern comeback when Athens, Greece welcomed athletes from 13 nations to compete in various athletic events while 60,000 spectators cheered them on. But why were the Olympics, this symbol of unity, banned in the first place? And why did it take so long to revive them? Here’s everything you need to know about the Olympics’ origins ahead of Tokyo 2020.

The Ancient Olympic Games

Back in 776 B.C.E., the first recorded Olympic Games took place in the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia. Although Greece had many different sporting festivals at the time, the Olympic Games were the most popular.

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Photo Courtesy: duncan1890/Getty Images

No one seems to know how the games officially began. According to one legend, they were started by Hercules (sometimes spelt Heracles), who held the Games to honor his father, the god Zeus. Another theory suggests that the Games were held to commemorate Zeus’ defeat of his own father, the Titan Cronus. And yet another origin story suggests that the Games were tied to the House of Atreus and commemorated the time "Pelops won the hand of his bride, Hippodamia, by competing in a chariot race against her father, King Oinomaos (Oenomaus) of Pisa."

In the earliest iterations of the Games, racing was the sport of choice, but, after a few years, the number of events increased as did the length of the festival that coincided with the Games. Soon enough, the ancient Olympics included horse races, boxing, and

As you can imagine, the very first Olympics focused on one single event, and that was racing. After a few years, the number of events increased, as did the actual days included in the festival. Over time, old-school Olympic Games included horse races, boxing, and pankration, a sort of old-school MMA fighting event that had very little in the way of rules.

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Like other festivals, the Games included animal sacrifices and altars and, on the final day of the festival, folks celebrated and devoted themselves to Zeus. But, years later, that devout paganism would cause some friction.

Banned, Revisited & Reborn

When Rome conquered Greece in the 2nd century A.D., everything changed. The Games continued for a little while, but the Romans never participated. However, they remained a very popular event, regardless of the sacrifices to Zeus. But, in 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius I officially banned the Games, citing that the pagan celebration didn’t align with his Christian values.

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Photo Courtesy: FPG/Getty Images

Fast-forward a few centuries. Throughout Europe, and much of the Western world, artists, historians and the general public continued to find ancient Greek culture and customs fascinating. In fact, many of these fans created their own festivals to emulate the Olympics. Finally, in 1894, the idea of resurrecting the Games was proposed more formally by Pierre de Coubertin, a French baron, at an international sporting conference. All 79 delegates who listened to the pitch agreed to revive the Games, forming the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The first Summer Games took place from April 6-15, 1896 in Athens, Greece. The first gold medal awarded at the modern Olympics was won by a Greek water carrier, Spyridon Louis, who successfully completed a 25-mile marathon. In true fandom fashion, organizers honored the sporting event’s namesake: the marathon route traced the path Pheidippides (or Philippides) ran to deliver the news of the Athenian victory over the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon back in 490 B.C.E.

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Four years later, the Games expanded to include women athletes for the first time. And, by 1924, the Olympics had become a real global sensation. In fact, that was the same year the IOC introduced the Winter Games, allowing athletes of even more sports to go for gold.

On March 24, 2020, organizers decided to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1896, the Summer Games have only been disrupted three times — all due to ongoing wars. That is, the 1916 Summer Olympics were canceled due to World War I, and, in 1940 and 1944, the Games that were to be held in Tokyo and London, respectively, were both cancelled due to World War II.

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As a longstanding symbol of international cooperation and unity, the Games have the opportunity to bring competitors and (virtual) spectators together in the wake of the pandemicif they’re held, of course. And it seems equally fitting that Tokyo 2020 — now 2021 — is set to be held 125 years after the first modern Olympics.

As of now, the Olympics are set to take place from July 23 — August 8, 2021. Check back for our coverage of all things Tokyo 2020.

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