Olympic Firsts

There have been plenty of firsts in athletics since the beginning of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896. From records and results, to new equipment and events, and even new nations, each Games has had a first.

Athens 1896

The first event of the modern Olympics was the first heat of the 100m, held in the Panathenaic Stadium on 6th April 1896.

Athletics was one of the eight sports contested at these first Modern Olympics, the others being cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling.

Image: The opening ceremony of the first modern Olympics at the Panathinaiko Stadium.
Source: originally uploaded on it.wikipedia by it:Utente:Duffo at 09:01, 22 lug 2004.

Paris 1900

The first British gold in athletics

Alfred Tysoe from Padiham near Burnley won 800m gold in Paris 1900, making him the first British winner of a gold medal in athletics.

St Louis, Missouri 1904

Gold, silver and bronze

1904 was the first Olympics where gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.

London 1908

Volcanic eruption changes the course of the Games

The 1908 Games were originally intended to be held in Rome, but the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906 and the devastation of the areas surrounding the volcano meant that Italy had to relinquish the Games. London stepped in as host city, with 1908 becoming the first of three occasions so far that London hosted the Olympics.

This Games saw the first Olympic marathon over the standard 42km distance.

Stockholm 1912

Modern technology

1912 saw the first use of electronic automatic timing systems and photo finish technology in athletics.

These were also the first Games in which competitors from all five continents participated.

Antwerp 1920

First black British athlete to medal and a British champ in the first Steeplechase

This was the first Games at which the Olympic Flag with its five rings was flown.

Harry Edward became the first black British athlete to win Olympic medals, taking bronze in the 100m and 200m.

Percy Hodge took gold for Britain in the inaugural steeplechase

Paris 1924

Chariots of Fire

Harold Abrahams becomes the first British athlete to win 100m gold, as immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.

Image Harold Abrahams, part of the 1924 British Olympic Team and winner of 100m gold. National Union of Track Statisticians Archive Collections.

Amsterdam 1928

Women’s athletics on the Olympic Programme for the first time

1928 was the first Olympic Games at which women’s athletics was permitted, on probation. Only five events were allowed: 100m, 800m, high jump, discus and 4x100m relay. The 800m was dropped after this Games as it was deemed ‘too strenuous’ for women. 100m remained the longest distance women were allowed to run until the 200m was introduced in 1948. The 800m wasn’t reinstated until Rome 1960.

Los Angeles 1932

Three steps, and a whole load more for Tommy

1932 was the first Games at which the now familiar stepped victory podium was used during the medal ceremony.

Britain’s Tommy Green won gold in the inaugural men’s 50km Racewalk, all the more impressive because he had suffered rickets as a child and been unable to walk until he was 5 years old, and had been wounded on three separate occasions and gassed while serving in France in World War 1

Berlin 1936

First Olympic Torch Relay

The first Olympic torch relay, carrying the Olympic flame from Olympia in Greece to the Olympic stadium took place in 1936. It passed through 7 countries, covering 3075km, with 3075 torch bearers.

Image: Olympic Medal from 1936 Games. Birchfield Harriers AC Collection

London 1948

More new technology, and an opportunity for veterans

London 1948 was the first Games in which “American style” starting blocks were permitted for use by sprinters. Prior to this, sprinters would dig small holes into the track at the start to allow them to push off. 

1948 saw the first Stoke Mandeville Games for wounded war veterans. These games would go on to become the Paralympics.

Image: London 1948 ticket for the athletics. National Union of Track Statisticians Archive Collections.

Helsinki 1952

New nations

These were the first Games at which the Soviet Union and Israel competed

Melbourne 1956

First sojourn to the southern hemisphere

Melbourne 1956 was the first time the Summer Olympics was held in the Southern hemisphere.

Image: Melbourne 1956 Olympic badge belonging to Brian Shenton, British sprinter.

Rome 1960

Paralympic Firsts

Rome 1960 is now referred to as the first Paralympic Games, taking place just after the close of the 1960 Rome Olympics, it involved 400 athletes representing 23 countries.
The Games themselves were the ninth edition of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which had been established in 1948 by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, designed to rehabilitate veterans and civilians injured in the War.

Visit the
National Paralympic Heritage Trust
to find out much more about the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Paralympic Movement

Tokyo 1964

First female combined event

This was the first time women’s pentathlon was included on the Olympic programme, comprising of 80m hurdles, shot, high jump, long jump and 200m. Britain’s Mary Rand took silver, splitting two Soviet athletes. The pentathlon was replaced by the heptathlon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Mexico City 1968

Strides forward on the track

Mexico City 1968 was the first Games at which an all weather track athletics was used, instead of a grass or cinder track.

Mexican hurdler and sprinter Enriqueta Basilio lit the Olympic flame in the stadium, making her the first woman to do so.

Munich 1972

A new addition

These were the first Summer Games with an official Olympic mascot – Waldi the dachshund – pictured above.
Olympic mascots have been a firm favourite ever since.

Image: Waldi the Dachshund.

Montreal 1976

Double flame

This was the first time two people lit the Olympic flame at to signify the start of the Games rather than one. Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, both 15 years old at the time, and representing the French speaking and English speaking communities of Canada respectively, shared the responsibility.
Henderson was only the second female to light the flame.

Moscow 1980

Behind the iron curtain

These were the first Games to be held in a communist country. Russia had taken part in the Games in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, but following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, had not participated in the Olympic Games until returning as the Soviet Union to the Games in Helsinki in 1952.

Los Angeles 1984

Throwing history

Tessa Sanderson became the first British thrower to win Olympic gold, with a 69.56m throw in the Women’s javelin, an Olympic record.

The first Olympic women’s marathon was won by Joan Benoit of USA at these Games.

Image: Olympic gold medallist Tessa Sanderson CBE. Courtesy of Blackonsilver.

Seoul 1988

Women’s track firsts

The longest distance on the track for women increased to 10 000m at these Games. Liz McColgan of Great Britain took silver, behind Olga Bondarenko of the Soviet Union.

Barcelona 1992

10k for women and no boycotts

1992 saw the first Women’s 10km race walk, won by Chen Yueling of China.

These were the first Games since 1972 which were free of political boycotts. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant Germany was competing as a united team for the first time since 1936, former Soviet republics were acknowledged with their national flags and anthems, thought they competed under the banner of the Unified Team, and South Africa was allowed to compete once again, with its first racially integrated team.

Atlanta 1996

3000m to 5000m

First time the women’s 5000m is included on the programme, replacing the 3000m which had been on the programme since 1984.

Sydney 2000

More firsts for women’s athletics

These were the first games where women’s pole vault and women’s hammer were included on the programme.
The pole vault was won by Stacy Dragila of USA with a height of 4.60m
Hammer was won by Kamila Skolimowska of Poland with a distance of 71.16m

Athens 2004

Global torch relay

This was the first Games where the torch relay, which was first seen in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, covered to all five continents on its way to the opening ceremony.

Beijing 2008

Women’s steeplechase included for the first time

Women’s 3000m steeplechase was included on the Olympic programme for the first time at these Games. It was won by Gulnara Samitova-Galkina of Russia in a World Record time of 8:58.81 which made her the first women to go under 9 minutes in this event.

Image: Model of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the official Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Games. National Union of Track Statisticians Archive Collections.

London 2012

Three’s the charm

The 2012 Games made London the first city to host the Summer Olympics three times; having previously hosted in 1908 and 1948.
Paris will become the second city to have hosted the Games three times when it hosts the 2024 Olympics, having previously hosted in 1900 and 1924.

2016 Rio de Janeiro

South America

This was the first Games to be held in South America, and only the third to date to be held in the southern hemisphere. Held in the month of August, this was the first summer Games held completely in the the winter of the host country.

Tokyo 2020* (held in 2021)

Global pandemic

This was the first time an Olympic Games was suspended due to a world event – the covid 19 pandemic – rather than cancelled, as they were in 1916 and 1940 due to the the First and Second World Wars.
The Tokyo Games went ahead in 2021, deviating from the four year Olympic cycle for the first time since the modern Olympics began in 1896.