1896 was a special year for athletes. Long touted in the making, 1896 marked the first Olympic Games in over 2,000 years. Through loans, promises and sheer determination, Pierre de Coubertin and his cohort of plucky fitness enthusiasts had somehow managed to organize an international sporting event comprising over 280 athletes from 14 different nations competing in ten different events. Held in Greece, the birthplace of the original Olympic Games, few could deny the importance of the modern day games.
Despite the many obstacles involved in creating such a spectacle, the first modern Olympics were heralded as a success. This was particularly true in the case of Olympic Weightlifting, which was one of the ten sporting events featured in 1896.
Come one, Come All!
Surprisingly given how competitive the selection process is nowadays, the first Olympic games were an open event. This meant that once an athlete could afford to make their way to Greece for the games, they could compete. This was no mean feat as sponsorship for athletes during this time was sparse at best.
The high cost of travel was reflected in the numbers who entered the weightlifting contest, with seven athletes from 5 nations eventually making their way to Greece for the games.
Of these six, two stood out. Launceston Elliot of Scotland and Viggo Jensen of Denmark. Representing Great Britain at the inaugural games, Elliot was the definition of a renaissance athlete, competing that year in weightlifting, the 100m sprint and wrestling. Few would argue however that it was weightlifting were Elliot truly excelled.
Elliot in 1910
A pupil of Eugen Sandow from the age of 13, Elliot competed in the British Weightlifting Championships at the age of 16 and won the Championship outright three years later. He traveled to Greece in 1896 aged 21, confident of victory.
Standing in his way stood the Danish weightlifter, gymnast and shooter, Viggo Jensen. Competing in four events that year, many tipped the Dane, himself only 22 years old, to bring home the Gold.
An All New World
The Impressive Panathenaic Stadium
Weightlifting would be contested in the infield of the Panathenaic Stadium. The stadium, which dated back to 330BCE, was restored thanks to a generous grant from the Greek architect Georgios Averoff. In 1896, white marble adorned the stands, reminiscent of the Olympics of yore.
Although weightlifting is as old as time itself, no internationally accepted rules or classifications for the sport existed. Importantly that meant there no different weight classes to separate the athletes. Instead it was decided that two events, the one hand lift and the two handed lift would be used to decide the winner.
What were the lifts?
The one handed lift consisted of snatching a dumbbell from the ground to arm’s length, with or without stopping at the shoulder. In many ways it was similar to the modern day Olympic Snatch. Lifters would be given three attempts to lift the Dumbbell but had to alternate their hands in between lifts.
The two handed lift in contrast was undertaken with a barbell and was effectively a Clean and Jerk movement, with an emphasis more on brute force rather than impeccable technique. Again three attempts were permitted. Interesting a two-handed lift with dumbbells is said to have been a much more common practice during this time than a barbell movement. It is said that Great Britain’s Lawrence Levy was so upset at the decision to omit the two-handed dumbbell lift that he withdrew from competing in the games, instead choosing to mentor Elliot and help judge the weightlifting event.
Each competitor had three attempts and after every had a turn, the three best lifters would have another three attempts. In the event of a tie, it was decided that the lifter with the better style, as noted by the Olympic judges, would determine the winner.
With regards the lifting order, unlike today athletes started in order of their numbers and could ask for any weight they desired. The following lifters could ask to lower or higher the weights as they deemed fit.
Six Athletes competed for the Gold in 1896
On April 7th, six athletes entered the Panathenaic Stadium with dreams of securing Olympic Gold. Judging the event were none other than Lawrence Levy and the Prince George of Greece.
Up first was the two-handed lift and it soon became clear that Elliot and Jensen were a cut above the rest.
Whilst the other four athletes scored respectable numbers, they were blown away by Elliot and Jensen, who each achieved a 111.5kg lift. When it became clear that neither athlete could better 111.5kgs, Prince George declared Jensen the winner. Cue pandemonium from the British delegation who demanded that the athletes be given another chance to better their score. Again 111.5kgs proved the limit, but unfortunately for Jensen, an attempted 112.5kg lift resulted in an injury to his arm, which severely weakened him for the rest of the tournament. Despite his injury, Jensen could take solace in the fact that he was Denmark’s first successful Olympian and the first man to win a Gold Medal in weightlifting.
There was no time to waste congratulating oneself however as the second event was held soon after the first. This time it was the single handed lift and with Jensen incapacitated, Elliot was able to secure his, and Great Britain’s first Olympic medal. The contrast between the lifter’s was remarkable. Elliot managed 71kg in one hand, with Jensen and Greek Athlete Nikolopoulos managing 57kg.
Amazingly footage of the one handed lift actually exists, as shown below.
A troubled aftermath
Although weightlifting had proved a success at the 1896 games, a shortage of athletes and interest led to the game being withdrawn from the games several times in the following decade (1900, 1908 and 1912 to be precise). It wasn’t until the 1920s when Olympic Weightlifting finally secured a permanent position in the hearts of the IOC. Since then it has gone from strength to strength.
And what of our Olympic Champions?
Following the ’96 games, Elliot set four new records at the 1899 Amateur Weightlifting Championships and was a dominant figure in the British weightlifting scene for the following decade, turning professional in 1903. He also competed at the 1900 Olympics were he finished eleventh in the discus.
Like Elliot, Jensen returned to the Olympics in 1900 where he competed in shooting but failed to make the podium. After becoming a two-time Olympian in Paris, the Dane became an architect, working in Moscow during the 1920s.