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The 1896 Olympic Medals and Awards

In ancient Greece, an Olympic victory had immense impact on the athlete and his home city-state. Spiritual gratification, rather than material gain, motivated participation in the ancient Games. Based on that heritage, the awards of the 1896 Olympic games were simple tokens, yet rich in meaning and symbolism.

Above: Marathon race winner, Spiros Louis, with his awards

Awards of the First Modern Olympiad
At the first modern Olympic games there were no gold medals for the winners, nor were there separate awards ceremonies. (Gold medals were first distributed at the Olympic games of 1904 in Saint Louis.) Instead, all of the prizes were given out by King George at a special ceremony just prior to the closing ceremony on the last day of the Games.

All competitors in the Athens 1896 Games received some kind of award. In this way, the revived Games differed sharply from the ancient model, where only first place merited any kind of recognition. The official awards of the 1896 Olympics were a silver medal, crown of olive branches, and certificate for first place; a bronze medal, crown of laurel, and certificate for second place; and a commemorative medal for each athlete who competed.

The marathon race, however, was treated differently. Michel Bréal, who was fascinated by the legend of Phidippides, proposed "marathon run" for the first Olympic games. He promised a silver cup to the runner who could duplicate Phidippides' famous exploit (but without dying, of course). Lambros, a wealthy collector of Greek antiquities, offered an antique vase as a prize, to be added to Bréal's cup, for the marathon champion. So much excitement grew up around the introduction of this new kind of race that when Spiros Louis, a Greek national like Phidippides, won the race, the reaction of the spectators was understandable exuberant.

1896 Victor's Medal
This medal was designed by Nicolas Gysis of Greece, who was then teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. It was cast in silver for first place and bronze for second place. On the front is a portrait of Zeus with the globe in his right hand, upon which stands the goddess of victory, Nike. She is holding an olive branch in her hands. On the left the script reads in Greek "OLYMPIA."


                                              Above: Front and reverse side of the 1896 first-place silver medal

On the reverse side there is a representation of Acropolis and the Parthenon. The inscription (in Greek) reads, "International Olympic Games, Athens 1896." This same medal was reissued for the 10th anniversary of the revival of the Olympic games. Instead of "1896" the year "1906" was engraved on the reverse.

1896 Certificate
The victory certificate was handed to the winners in a blue and white cover at the Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens. The artist, Nicolas Gysis, describes his creation:

Above: The 1896 certificate awarded to Olympic victors

"...The upper half of the Certificate depicts the ruins of the Parthenon over which the Greek flag is flying. Encircling the Parthenon is a torchlit procession of which only the lights and smoke can be discerned. Behind the ruins, a great Phoenix is presented rising up and dispersing the dense smoke. To the right of picture in the foreground, the Winged Victory, restored to a beautiful and living statue and holding an olive branch, announces her message to the female figure of Greece, who is sitting opposite her...Between Greece and the Winged Victory, a relief depicts the Olympic Games."
                                                     —Nicolas Gysis (1842-1901), Athens 1896

1896 Commemorative Medal

         Above: Front and reverse side of the 1896 commemorative medal

Every athlete who competed in the 1896 Games in Athens received a commemorative medal, which was designed by the Greek artist Nikephoros Lytras. The medal depicts Nike, the goddess of victory, and the inscription on the reverse side reads, "International Olympic Games, Athens 1896."

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