What do 1896 Olympic medalists tell us on changes in the world map 120 years after first modern Games?

Panathinaiko Stadium, home to the 1896 Olympics.
Panathinaiko Stadium, home to the 1896 Olympics.
HISTORY. Exactly 120 years ago today, the first Olympic Games of the modern era were inaugurated in Athens. Reviewing some competition facts helps us see how the world has changed. For example, female athletes were prevented from taking part in the 1896 Olympics -despite a feat by Greek Stamata Revithi-, in sharp contrast with the most recent, 2012 London Games, in which women were 45% of participants. The participation of professional athletes was also forbidden. Still, another peculiarity viewed with today's eyes is how the world map has changed in the light of the participants in the sports event -and official records on them.

How many countries did participate? It must be said in the first place that no unanimous agreement yet exists today on the exact number of countries officially took part in the 1896 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says they were 14, but does not disclose the full list of them. The Encyclopedia Britannica records a figure of 12. In fact, it all depends on how you count the athletes and whether you consider their territories of origin being official countries or not: some studies argue for a figure of 15.

Was Greece just one country, or rather four? Even if in 1896 it had already enjoyed more than six decades of independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece poses a challenge, as many Greeks remained foreign subjects. Thus, Greek athletes in the Olympics hailed either from independent Greece or from other Greek-populated places such as the Ottoman city of Smyrn, Cyprus and Egypt -the two latter under British administration. On some counts, all those athletes are considered to be Greek; in others, however, are listed separately. Thus, according to some sources the first Egyptian sportsman in the history of the Olympic Games was tennis player Dionysios Kasdaglis, but under IOC official registers he counts as a Greek.

A Serbian under Hungarian flag who in the future will meet dictator Franco. As the first modern Olympics went on, the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed as one single -even if composed- state. Official IOC registers count the empire's athletes separately rather as Austrians or Hungarians. Within this latter group, tennis player Momčilo Tapavica is to be found. But in fact, Tapavica -a bronze medal winner- was a Vojvodina Serb. A curious fact: Frank Condron's history on the first modern Olympics explains how, years later, Tapavica ended up joining the French Foreign Legion and, while being in Morocco, he came to know future Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Irish nationalist, British medalist. Ireland was at the time part of the United Kingdom, Irish athletes participated under the UK pavilion. The case of tennis player John Pius Boland is noteworthy. A gold medalist in 1896, Boland was elected Westminster MP as a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which demanded full internal self-government, or Home Rule, for Ireland. Another gold medal was won by Launceston Elliot, who himself made another peculiar case: a member of an aristocratic Scottish family, he was born in India -then a British colony-, lived in England, and died in Australia.

Was Edwin Flack an athlete from Australia or Victoria? IOC records say Edwin Flack, gold medalist in athletics, was Australian. As in other cases, it appears that the IOC is implementing an anachronistic look at the issue: as a political entity, Australia was officially born in 1901, five years after the Athens Games. In 1896, Australia was formally divided into several British colonies. Flack's was the Victoria colony. Thus, according to this logic, Victoria, not Australia, should be considered his country.

A Danzig German killed at the hands of the Nazis. The German Empire expanded way farther than the current Federal Republic of Germany. A champion of the 1896 German team, Alfred Flatow was born in Danzig, Prussia, the city that is nowadays more widely known as Gdansk, in Poland. Flatow, a gymnast, was a Jew. With the rise of the Nazis to power, he fled to the Netherlands. But the German army occupied that country, and Flatow was arrested and subsequently deported to Theresienstadt (now in the Czech Republic), where he died in 1942.

Algeria's Frenchman. If Egypt could now be claiming Kasdaglis's victories, so could Algeria in the case of 1896 cycling star Paul Masson, who despite being French had been born in Mostanagem, a coastal town of the North African country. At the time, Algeria was officially a part of France, and its coastal regions were settled by a large community hailing from Europe -especially from France, but also from other places such as the Catalan Countries-, the Pieds-noirs.