This Day in History: April 6th- A Proclamation
This Day In History: April 6, 1896
On April 6, 1896, King George I of Greece proclaimed the opening of the first international Olympic Games held since Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them about 1,500 years earlier. A crowd of 60,000 gathered in Athens to welcome athletes from 13 nations gathering to compete in 43 events, including swimming, wrestling, track-and-field, gymnastics and cycling. All of the contestants were men, and some were athletic-looking tourists who chose to enter and were allowed to participate.
The first known Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C.E. at Olympia in the Greek city-state of Elis. The Games, which were held every four years during a festival honoring Zeus, are thought to have been held for more than five centuries by that time. The competition was pretty basic at first – just limited to foot races – but over the years wrestling, boxing and chariot racing were added.
In 708 B.C.E. the pentathlon was included, consisting of the long jump, discus and javelin throw, wrestling and foot races. But with the spread of the Roman Empire, the Olympic Games fell into decline. They were abolished completely in 393 C.E. when the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed the Games as part of his “Wipe Out the Pagans” campaign.
During the Renaissance, everything from the Classical period became fashionable, and Europe began a long obsession with all things from ancient Greece. There were small festivals and informal sporting events dubbed the “Olympic Games”, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that any serious proposal to resurrect the ancient contest was attempted.
While Evangelos Zappas, inspired by Panagiotis Soutsos’s 1833 poem Dialogue of the Dead which lamented the loss of the greatness of Greece including the loss of the Olympic games, got approval for, and funded out of his own pocket, local Olympic games in Greece starting in 1859, it was a young French nobleman named Pierre de Coubertin who was key to the international games as we know them today being developed, along with many of the iconic things associated with the games, like the Olympic Rings. He raised the idea in June of 1894 at a conference on international sport, and delegates from 79 nations ultimately accepted his proposal.
The International Olympic Committee was formed, with de Coubertin as president, and it was agreed that the first international Games of the modern era were to take place in Athens, Greece, in 1896. The event only lasted ten days, the rowing and sailing events had to be cancelled due to weather, and there were no real eligibility requirements, other than an individual seeming fit to compete in a given event. So it was hardly the slick show-bizzy sporting event it has become.
All in all, de Coubertin was pleased with the results. He emphasized the importance of changing the location of the Games every four years to make it a truly international event, which was a disappointment to Athens, as the city was hoping to be the permanent venue for the Olympics.
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- In the 1500s, most Roman Catholic countries & Scotland adopted the Gregorian Calendar (established by Pope Gregory XIII to compensate for the errors in time that had built up over centuries) over the Julian Calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC) . A lot of protestant countries, however, ignored this new calendar for another 200 or so years. England stuck to the Julian Calendar until 1751 before finally making the switch. Orthodox countries took even longer to accept the change in calendars. Russia, for one did not convert to the Gregorian calendar until after the Russian Revolution in 1917. What does this have to do with the Olympics? In 1908, the Russian Olympic team arrived 12 days late to the London Olympics because of this.
- While Geena Davis is perhaps best known for her acting work, in roles such as Thelma & Louise, Beetle Juice, a League of Their Own, The Accidental Tourist, and the TV series Commander in Chief (winning an Academy Award and a Golden Globe along the way), what’s less well known is that she is a member of Mensa (top 2% in intelligence by IQ), is fluent in Swedish (after spending time as an exchange student in Sandviken in High School), and began her career in the spotlight as a window mannequin for Ann Taylor, directly after she graduated from college. Further, in 1997, she decided to take up a new hobby- archery. A mere two years later, she finished 24th out of 300 semifinalists who tried out for the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, narrowly missing the U.S. Olympic team.
- At the 1904 Summer Olympics, American gymnast George Eyser fared quite well- he won six medals: 3 gold in long horse vault, 25 ft. rope climb, and parallel bars; two silver in the 4-event all-around and pommel horse, and one bronze medal in the horizontal bar. While winning six medals in the Olympics is quite an accomplishment for anyone, what makes Eyser even more unique is that he competed with a wooden leg. During his youth, Eyser lost most of his left leg after a train ran over it. This, however, didn’t stop him from making history a few years later, becoming the only person to compete in the Olympic Games with an artificial leg, until 2008 when South African swimmer, Natalie du Toit, competed in the Beijing Olympics.
- During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the Olympic flame was lit, they accidentally burned alive some of the doves that were released as a part of the ceremony… If you care to see this, there is footage of it on YouTube.
- The 1904 Olympics included mud fighting. If that seems odd, you should also know that greased pole climbing was also in the 1904 Olympics.
- Tug of war was an Olympic event until after the 1920 Olympics. Multiple teams from countries were allowed, which is how the U.S. won bronze, silver, and gold in tug of war in 1904. Britain did the same thing in 1908.
- In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the person who finished in fourth place in the women’s high jump was actually a man, German athlete Heinrich Ratjen. Two years later, he won a gold medal setting a new “women’s” world record in high jump at the European Athletics Championships, before his real gender was discovered randomly when police got a report that there was a man dressed as a woman traveling in Magdeburg.
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