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The first modern Olympic Games included one winner who'd never tried his sport before

Robert Garrett (USA) wins the gold in the discus at the 1896 Athens Olympics.
Robert Garrett won the discus event, although he'd never touched a real discus before getting to Greece.
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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

As the Olympics are about to get underway with the opening ceremony on Friday night, it's worth remembering how much they've changed. The first modern Olympic Games — which started 120 years ago —included something more commonly associated with entitled children than ancient Greeks: a participation trophy. All 250 participants went home with a bronze medal.

That's not the only way the first modern Olympics, which revived a 1,500-year-old ancient Greek tradition, differed from today's glitzy, highly produced, occasionally corruption-soaked spectacle.

Although the first modern Olympics were unrecognizable in many ways — there were no women, no national teams, and only nine sporting events — the story of the runup to the first modern Olympics sounds awfully familiar: The host country was in political turmoil, and hosting the event turned out to be much, much more expensive than anyone had anticipated.

And just like today, some of the athletes had some incredible stories.

American athletes dominated the competition

In 1896, the American participants were a thrown-together group. There were no trials, very little time to prepare, and a team chosen based on, essentially, who could afford to get there.

The first American Olympians were 14 men, mostly from the Boston area and from Princeton. The mother of one of the Princeton athletes paid for their travel. Two athletes had to drop out of Harvard in order to compete, because they weren't given permission to miss class in order for the Olympics.

But the Americans ended up dominating the competition, winning 11 first-place honors — which were silver medals, because gold medals wouldn't be given out for another eight years. The Greeks had the second most victories.

Athletes competed in 43 events in nine sports: swimming, gymnastics, track, cycling, wrestling, weightlifting, fencing, shooting, and tennis

Robert Garrett, who won the discus event, had never used a real discus until he started participating in the competition. He'd had a blacksmith make him a practice version based on ancient Greek records; it turned out to be a foot wide and 30 pounds in weight, making it impossible to throw and more than 25 pounds heavier than the real thing.

Garrett didn't find out what a discus really was until he got to Greece and saw the 8-inch, 4.4-pound discs the Greek athletes were practicing with. But he entered the competition anyway, and stunned the spectators and the other athletes — all of them Greek — by winning. Thomas Custis, one of the American athletes, described the win in 1924 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review:

His first two attempts… were laughable, as the discus, instead of sailing parallel to the ground, turned over and over and narrowly missed hitting some of the audience. Both foreigners and Americans laughed at his efforts, he, himself, joining in the general merriment.

"On his third and last throw, however, he succeeded in getting the discus away perfectly and, to the chagrin of the Greek champion who had made three perfect throws in the most graceful manner possible, it was found that Garrett's throw exceeded by some two feet the best throw of any other man. I think no one was more surprised than Robert Garrett himself.

The 1896 Olympics also featured the first modern marathon

But the Greeks got their own dramatic moment at the marathon, an event created for the 1896 Olympics (although distances weren't as precise). According to Custis, 30 athletes started but only seven finished — and the winner, in two hours and 58 minutes, was a Greek water carrier named Spyridon "Spyros" Louis:

All contests then in progress were temporarily stopped to await the arrival of the winner. In the course of a few minutes a tremendous cheering was heard outside the gate of the Stadium, and a man in the dress of a Greek peasant ran up the steps and onto the track, making his way towards the King's throne, in front of which had been placed the finish line. His appearance showed the tremendous effort that he had made, and the fearful ordeal he had undergone. He was covered with dust and grime, the sandals that he wore on his feet were in rags, and his drawn face showed the strain he had suffered. His name was "Loues"" and he was a Greek donkey driver from the little town of Marousi.

As soon as the people were able to recognize him, the cheering and clapping of hands that broke forth was deafening. Hundreds of pigeons which had been kept concealed until then were set free, with Greek flags tied to their feet, hats were thrown in the air, the Crown Prince walked onto the track and congratulated Loues, and all the pent up enthusiasm that the Greeks had been saving up during the past six months for this very event, broke loose with a vengeance.

Louis became a national hero and will soon be featured on a Greek €2 coin — an even bigger deal than the honor for most modern Olympic champions, a Wheaties box.

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