Athletics at the 1896 Summer Olympics

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At the 1896 Summer Olympics, twelve athletics events were contested. All of the events except the marathon were held in the Panathinaiko Stadium, which was also the finish for the marathon. Events were held on 6 April, 7 April, 9 April, and 10 April 1896 (all dates are according to the Gregorian calendar). 64 athletes, all men, from ten nations competed. This made athletics the most international of the nine sports at the 1896 Games.

The American team of 10, which featured only one national champion, was dominant, taking 9 of the 12 titles. No world records were set, as few international top competitors had turned up. In addition, the curves of the track were very tight, making fast times in the running events virtually impossible.

The heats of the 100 metres were the first Olympic event to be conducted, and the winner of the first heat, Francis Lane, can thus be considered the first Olympic winner. The first Olympic champion was crowned in the triple jump, Harvard student James Connolly. Connolly also did well in the other jumping events, placing second in the high jump and third in the long jump.

Many other athletes were versatile as well. Tom Burke won both the 100 metres and 400 metres, a feat not since repeated, while London-based Australian Edwin Flack won the 800 and 1500 metres races. Robert Garrett, a Princeton student, won two first and two second places. His first title was in the discus throw, an event originating from the Ancient Olympics, but never before held at an international event. Garrett had attempted to train for the event with a 10 kilogram replica of a discus, but had given up as it was too heavy. When he learned the actual competition discus weighed only 2 kilograms, he entered the event after all, and won it, to the dismay of the Greek public, who considered their throwers "unbeatable".

A second event held for the first time in international competition was the marathon foot race. It was conceived by Michel Bréal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin, based on the legend of Pheidippides. This Athenian soldier first completed a two-day run to seek Spartan help against the invading Persians in the Battle of Marathon, and then ran from the town of Marathon to Athens days later to announce the victory, dying as a result of his heroic efforts. The race started in Marathon, and ran for 40 kilometres over dusty roads to Athens. The Greek public, disappointed as there had not yet been a Greek victor in athletics, was overjoyed when it was announced during the race that a Greek runner had taken the lead. When Spiridon Louis, a water carrier from Maroussi, arrived in the stadium he was accompanied by the Greek Crown Prince on his final lap. Louis would never again compete in a race, but his victory made him a national hero.

The exploits of Louis, Garrett, Connolly, and Flack would be chronicled in the 1984 NBC miniseries, The First Olympics: Athens, 1896.

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