Philip Barker

Just over a week ago, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach took part in a socially distanced ceremony to inaugurate the new lights at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

Bach said "Greece gave birth to the Olympic Games twice, once in Ancient Olympia and once here in 1896".

"Greeks gave to humanity the gift of the Olympic Games and also the gift of democracy," he added. "With the new lighting of the Panathenaic Stadium, this heritage will become even more brilliant and enlighten the entire world."

It brought back memories of a very different floodlit celebration in the same stadium 25 years ago this week, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Modern Games.

The centennial Olympics were to be celebrated later that summer in Atlanta. This had been decided at the 1990 IOC session in, of all places, Tokyo. 

The Athenians had also bid, but they had been passed over and this caused some bitterness. Even in 1996, the Athenian streets still displayed posters showing the strength of feeling.

Yet, the Greek Olympic community was soon targeting a new horizon. 

"We dedicate ourselves to the 21st century as well as to the gods and goddesses of our past," announced Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) President Antonios Tzikas. The Athenians were about to launch an ultimately successful bid for the 2004 Games.

The Panathenaic Stadium marked the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics in 1996 ©Getty Images
The Panathenaic Stadium marked the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics in 1996 ©Getty Images

"We are ready and decided," added Athens Mayor Dimitri Avramopolis.

The Greek authorities organised a week of festivities to mark the centenary of the 1896 Olympics which the capital held.

"It is our way of saying happy 100th birthday to the Olympic Games tradition that was revived here in the Greek capital," said the Athens municipality.

The IOC Executive Board met in Ancient OIympia for the first time. This was described as "a pilgrimage" by Olympic Review. Back in Athens, they gathered at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, just as the IOC members had done in 1896.

There was a display of stamps and other Olympic memorabilia from 1896 in the entrance hall of the hotel. This would no doubt have delighted IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, a keen philatelist.

The climax of the festival week was a reenactment of the athletic competitions from 1896. "Exciting moments from Olympic history will be revived in the same place which hosted the first Olympic Games," organisers said.

It was an uncharacteristically chilly afternoon in Athens, with a grey sky and rain in the air, but it was nonetheless a thrill to be present to see the ancient marble stadium come alive with athletic performances as it had done a century before.

As they had been in 1896, all the competitors were men, and were drawn from the countries which had originally taken part. They included a smattering of champions, both past and future.

The first gold medal in the 1896 Games had been won by James Connolly from the United States in the triple jump. This time, victory went to Jean-Pierre Sarant of France. His leap of 15.96 metres was over two metres longer than Connolly's winning effort a century before.

"We have adopted the rules and regulations under which the first Olympics took place," said organisers. "In certain cases, the rules were difficult to use since the safety of the modern athletes could be in danger."

Kory Tarpenning won a pole vault competition using modern equipment ©Getty Images
Kory Tarpenning won a pole vault competition using modern equipment ©Getty Images

Modern equipment was used in the pole vault where Kory Tarpenning of the US achieved a clearance of 5.45m to win. He followed in the footsteps of another American, William Hoyt, who had won the same title in 1896 by vaulting 3.30m. This had begun a sequence of American victories in the event, not broken until 1972.

On the track, false starts were punished by a regulation which required the transgressor to retreat behind the start line for the restart. The 110m hurdles featured double Olympic champion Roger Kingdom and his American compatriot Robert Reading. Both men clocked 13.50sec but the verdict was given to Reading.

"A hundred years ago, that would have been a photo finish," joked Kingdom. Cameras had been present in 1896, but the pictures were mostly carefully posed images of the participants, sometimes in empty stadia.

In the 400m, American Otis Scott clocked 49.01sec despite having to negotiate the very tight bends at either end of the track. The home crowd was delighted when European indoor 3000m bronze medallist Panyiotis Papoulias came home to win the 1500m for the only Greek success of the night.

Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm would eventually win Olympic gold in Athens at the 2004 Games, but in 1996 his best clearance of 2.15m was only good enough for second behind American Rick Noji.

Some hours earlier at Marathon, 11 runners had set out in the classic foot race which bears the name of the town.

In the stadium watching from the marble seats was Waldemar Cierpinski of Germany, only the second runner to win back-to-back gold medals in the event.

In 1896, a cannon had fired outside the stadium to announce the approach of the leading runners, including the ultimate victor Spyridon Louis.

"Like lightning the word spread that the victor was a Greek," said the local newspaper To Asty.

There was to be no repetition in 1996. Instead, it was an Australian, Gary Henry, who came in first some way ahead of the American Marco Ochoa.

Sweden's Stefan Holm eventually won high jump gold at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images
Sweden's Stefan Holm eventually won high jump gold at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images

Henry's time was half-an-hour faster than that achieved by Louis. In 1896, another Australian, Edwin Flack, had started the race and at one stage even led the field, but he did not finish. This was perhaps not surprising as he had already completed the middle-distance double of the 800m and 1500m and also partnered Britain's George Robertson in tennis.

Darkness had long fallen by the time a Flame arrived. Lit the previous week in bright sunshine in Ancient Olympia, it had been carried through Greece over the preceding days.

As the haunting music of composer Petros Tabouris filled the air, the stadium was almost in darkness as a spotlight fell on two runners, Niki Bakoyianni, the reigning Balkan high jump champion, and Nikos Kaklamanakis, the world windsurfing champion.

"The two selected athletes represent the hopes of the younger generation in Greek sport and carry our hopes for a successful participation in Atlanta," it was declared.

That summer in Atlanta, Kaklamanakis won Olympic gold in the mistral class and Bakoyianni silver in the high jump, to fulfil those hopes.

As the words "Athens 1896-1996 100 years of the Olympic Games" were lit in fireworks at the far end of the stadium, the pair ignited a simple tripod cauldron.

As the flame burned, an orchestra sounded the first notes of the Olympic hymn by Spiros Samaras, which was performed for the first time in the same stadium a century before to the very day.

In 1896, there had been a clamour for an encore. Here, it was the prelude to the grand finale of the evening.

"An international Torch Relay will take place in the commemorative celebrations," said the HOC.

"Olympic medallists and representatives of the cities which have hosted Olympic Games from 1896 until today will take part in the international Olympic Torch Relay."

Nikos Kaklamanakis was among the athletes representing Greece at the event in 1996 ©Getty Images
Nikos Kaklamanakis was among the athletes representing Greece at the event in 1996 ©Getty Images

The runners all carried Torches which had been specially designed for the occasion. "The celebration is based on the idea of unity," said organisers. "The Olympic ideas could only be achieved in the country in which they were born, thus simultaneously expressing peace, brotherhood, coexistence and faith in the ancient Olympic philosophy."

Voula Patalidou, gold medallist in 1992 after a dramatic finish to the 100m hurdles in Barcelona, was the first runner representing Athens.

The runners included 1976 steeplechase gold medallist Anders Garderud to represent Stockholm, Shirley Delahunty, star of the 1956 Melbourne Games in Australia, Italy's 1960 200m champion Livio Berutti for Rome, 1988 swimming gold medallist Adrian Moorhouse and modern pentathlete Dominic Mahoney on behalf of London.

Anita de Frantz and Kingdom both carried the Flame to represent the American cities of St Louis from 1904 and Los Angeles in 1932 and 1984.

Long Jumper Heidi Rosendahl and sprinter Renate Stecher both won their gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, but also reflected Berlin 1936, the year the Torch Relay had first been introduced.

As each participant completed their 200m, they were taken in an open top horse drawn carriage through the city before arriving back at the Hotel Grande Bretagne.

"The evening closed with a display of fireworks, to the delight of the valiant spectators who had experienced an historic moment in the Olympic Movement," said the Olympic Review.

A year later, Athens was chosen as host city for the 2004 Games. It meant that Olympic competition returned to the Ancient Stadium. Both marathons finished there, and archery was also held in the arena.