Host City: Athina, Greece
Date Started: April 6, 1896
Date Finished: April 10, 1896
Participants: 63 (63 men and 0 women) from 9 countries
Youngest Participant: Georges de la Nézière (17 years, 250 days)
Oldest Participant: Eugen Schmidt (34 years, 49 days)
Most Medals (Athlete): Bob Garrett (4 medals)
Most Medals (Country): United States (17 medals)
Track & field was the most watched sport at the 1896 Olympic Games, as it has been in almost all celebrations of the Modern Olympics. The track & field events were held in the ancient [Panathinaiko Stadio] in Athens. It was beautiful for the spectators but difficult for the runners. The track was short, at only about 330 metres in circumference, with long straightaways and very short, sharp turns. It also consisted of very soft, loose cinders and made running difficult. In addition, the 1896 Olympic Organizing Committee chose to have the runners run in a clockwise direction, opposite to the norm for current running events, although in 1896 some English track races (though not all) were run in this manner.
The Athens Organizing Committee elected to use the rules of the Union des Sociétés françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA) for the running events and the Amateur Athletic Association of England for the throwing and jumping events. The running events were contested in metric distances, which had not been contested before by an international field, thus many records could have been expected had the track been more conducive to record-setting performances. The weather for the most part was quite good during the Olympics, with mostly sunny days and no rain. On 6-7 April, however, it was quite chilly, and actually snowed in the mountains outside of Athens.
The field for the first Olympic track & field events was a disappointment. None of the great British runners of the time were present, and the American team, although they swept most of the events, included only one American national champion. This did not dampen the enthusiasm of the fans, who filled the stadium every day.
The eleven nations which competed at Athens were as follows, with number of competitors in parentheses: Australia (1), Cyprus (1), Denmark (3), France (6), Great Britain (5), Germany (5), Greece (27), Hungary (3), Smyrna (1), Sweden (1), and the United States (10). Only Greece and the United States had 10 or more competitors, with 63 athletes competing in track & field athletics at Athens.
Seven of these eleven nations had competitors win medals, with only Cyprus, Denmark, Smyrna, and Sweden failing to medal. The United States was the dominant nation, winning 16 of the 37 medals, and 9 of the 12 events - the others going to Greece (the marathon) and Australia (the 800 and 1,500 metres).
There was much which could be criticized concerning the first Olympic track & field competition - the poor condition of the track, the sharp turns, the subsequent lack of world records, the small turnout, and the lack of many top international competitors. But, more importantly, there was much to be commended. Though there were only 63 competitors, they did represent 11 nations, by far the largest representation of countries at any international athletics meeting ever held. The quality of the competition was only fair, but the sportsmanship of some of the outclassed competitors set a standard which may not yet have been surpassed. Most importantly, the 1896 Olympic track & field meeting served as an index, setting the stage for international competition in this most wide-spread of all sports.