8 Athletes Who Competed in the First Modern Olympics
On April 6, 1896—120 years ago today—the first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece. A lot has changed about the pool of competitors since 1896 (there are less mustaches, for one), but one thing that has remained the same is their hunger for greatness. Here are eight of the original athletes who paved the way for generations of Olympians to come.
1. LAUNCESTON ELLIOT // BRITISH WEIGHTLIFTER
Launceston Elliot was the man responsible for taking home Britain’s first Olympic gold medal. But Elliot wasn’t born in Britain or even Europe for that matter—he was originally from Imperial India, where his father served as a magistrate. After moving to Britain at the age of 13, Elliot began training under the German weightlifter and father of modern body-building Eugen Sandow. He set sail for Athens to compete in the first modern Olympics at the age of 21, and brought home the gold with a single-handed lift of 71 kilograms (just over 156 pounds).
2. SPYRIDON LOUIS // GREEK MARATHONER
The first modern Olympic marathon was won by a Greek athlete by the name of Spyridon Louis. He completed the 40-kilometer race in under three hours, an achievement he had prepared for with his career of transporting fresh water to Athens on foot. As the marathon champion he was allotted one wish from the King of Greece. Instead of asking for wealth or property, he requested a horse and cart to make his job a little easier.
3. ALFRÉD HAJÓS // HUNGARIAN SWIMMER
At the inaugural Olympics in 1896, 15-year-old Alfréd Hajós was named the world’s first modern Olympic swimming champion. That year’s 1500-meter race posed a few additional challenges that competitors don’t have to deal with today—namely, the 55-degree open water and 12-foot waves rocking the Bay of Zea. Hajós, who was inspired to learn to swim after watching his father drown in the Danube River two years earlier, said he felt driven more by his will to live than any desire to finish first.
4. LEONIDAS PYRGOS // GREEK FENCER
After Leonidas Pyrgos defeated his fencing opponent, he became the first Greek athlete to win an Olympic event since the ancient games. The fencing instructor would later go on to publish a series of manuals for athletes wishing to follow in his footsteps.
5. EDWIN "TEDDY" FLACK // AUSTRALIAN RUNNER
Teddy Flack took a month off from his accounting job to compete in the 1896 Olympics as his country’s sole representative. He cinched victories in both the 800-meter and 1500-meter events, and was dubbed the "Lion of Athens" by the media and fans. Following his Olympic success, Flack returned to his career as an accountant and bred Friesian cattle on the side.
6. FRITZ HOFMANN // GERMAN ATHLETE
Fritz Hofmann was a man of many talents. He entered the 1896 Olympic games as a track and field athlete first and foremost, but his real glory came after winning two gold medals for the German gymnastics team. He also brought home a bronze in rope climbing and a silver in the 100-meter race. Outside of the Olympic games, he enjoyed rowing and cycling.
7. JOHN PIUS BOLAND // BRITISH TENNIS PLAYER
When John Pius Boland attended the first modern Olympics in Athens, he originally went as a spectator, not a competitor. The games were slightly more relaxed in those days: When one of his friends, who was organizing the events, asked if he’d like to compete, Boland thought, What the heck? He then proceeded to win both the singles and doubles in men's tennis and became the first Irish-born champion of the modern Olympic games.
8. THOMAS CURTIS // AMERICAN HURDLER
Athlete and MIT alum Thomas Curtis traveled to Athens in 1896 as part of America’s first Olympic team. He successfully won the 110-meter hurdle event, one of 11 championships earned for the U.S. that year. Later in life, Curtis would go on to work for Lord Electric, where he helped develop the toaster and the blender.