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The History of Athens and the Olympic Games


Athens is the capital of Greece and one of the oldest cities in the world with a long and versatile history. Its present cultural and political landscape is shaped by the ancient influences, the history of the Ottoman rule, and the long and hard struggle for independence. The city played a crucial role in the revival of the Olympic Games, which both renewed the Greek ancient spirit and spurred the country’s 20th-century resurgence. The purpose of this paper is to explore the key events in the history of Athens from 1500 to 2020 with a particular focus on the Olympic Games of 1896 and 2004 and their role in the city’s development.

History of Athens

In ancient times, Athens was a powerful Greek city-state and military and cultural center whose achievements in every aspect of life laid the foundation for Western civilization. It was the home of many philosophers, artists, writers, poets, and the world’s greatest architectural masterpieces, including the Acropolis and the Parthenon temple. The Golden Age of Athens lasted from 480 to 404 BC, and it was during this period that many of Greece’s most famous and influential writers and thinkers lived, and all areas of studies were developed. After the Roman Empire was Christianized, Athens lost its significance and independence and became a provincial town mainly engaged in trade.

In 1456, the city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque. The Ottoman rule lasted for 400 years, during which Athens’ population severely declined, and the town lost all its ancient glory. There have been numerous sporadic but unsuccessful uprisings, which asserted the spirit of Greek nationalism. During that time, many educated Greeks were employed in the highest offices throughout Europe and studied the advanced ideas of the Enlightenment, which facilitated the development of the concept of Greek identity. In 1687, the city was briefly occupied by the Venetians, but six months later, they abandoned it again to the Ottomans. Throughout the 18th century, the city passed from one pasha to another until in 1821 the Greek revolutionaries waged the War of Independence that resulted in the recapture of the city in 1833.

The war led to the formation of modern Greece with the borders of the new state defined by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832. Athens was chosen as the new capital, although mostly because of historical and sentimental reasons. At that time, it was a small town of about 4,000 people scattered along the foot of the Acropolis. The first King of Greece, Otto of Bavaria, was commissioned to design a modern city plan fit for the capital of the state, and the second half of the 19th century was a period of active construction.

The 20th-century history of Athens was shaped by the two world wars. The city witnessed a period of growth after the disastrous Greco-Turkish war of 1919–1922 when more than a million Greek refugees expelled from Asia Minor resettled in Greece. During World War II, Athens was occupied by the Germans and struck by the Great Famine, which killed around 300,000 people. In the second half of the 20th century, the city began to grow again. In 1981, Greece entered the European Union, which brought new investments to Athens while at the same time increasing the city’s social and environmental problems. At the end of the 20th century, the Greek government, aided by the European Union, undertook major infrastructure projects and facilitated the city’s development, turning it into a popular tourism destination. The financial crisis of 2007–2008 greatly affected the country’s economy, with Athens having been hit particularly hard. Its aftermaths are still experienced today, with Greece remaining the country with the highest unemployment rate and considerable debts to the European Union.

Throughout centuries, the history of the city has been shaped by several major influences. The first is the ancient Greek culture, which put Athens on the map as the cradle of Western civilization and became the foundation for the Greek national identity. The second one is the Turkish influence, which gave rise to the Greek struggle for independence. The third is the historical developments of the 20th century when the country’s nationalist tendencies have come to coexist with the policy of Europeanization.

The Olympics in the History of Athens

The Olympic Games are the major international sports competition held every two years, alternating between the Summer and Winter Games. Its history dates back to the 8th century BC. Originally, it was a festival held in honor of Zeus in the Greek town of Olympia, comprising a series of athletic competitions among representatives of ancient Greek city-states. The revival of the Games at the end of the 19th century is closely linked to the history of Athens, where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896.

The interest in reviving the Olympics began in Greece during the 1821–1830 War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. The first Games were held in Athens in 1859 between athletes from Greece and the Ottoman Empire. They were sponsored by Greek-Romanian philanthropist Evangelos Zappas, who also funded the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium to host all future Olympic Games. The stadium hosted the Olympics in 1870 and 1875, and in 1890 Baron Pierre de Coubertin, after visiting the competition, was inspired to organize the International Olympic Committee. It established the international Olympic Games that would occur every four years and be held by various host cities around the world.

The first international Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, bringing together 241 athletes from 14 countries. The Games were regarded as a great success and received the largest international participation for a sporting event as of that date. The organization of the Games initially met funding problems, as the country had financial troubles and was in political turmoil. In 1894, the organizing committee claimed that the games cannot be held due to the estimated costs turning out to be three times higher than expected. Only with the commencement of a public campaign motivating the Greeks to contribute, the country was able to raise the required funds. Donations came from both the general public, wealthy businessmen, and the Greek population abroad.

After the success of the 1896 Games, the Olympic movement continued to grow, with competitions being hosted every four years by different cities all over the world. The Games returned to Athens only a century later, in 2004. The initial idea was for Athens to host the 1996 Games, commemorating the one-hundred anniversary of the Olympic Movement. However, due to “political instability, potential security problems, air pollution, traffic congestion, and the fact that it would have to spend about $3 billion to improve its infrastructure,” Athens lost its bid to host the games to Atlanta. The attempt has nevertheless been beneficial to the country’s economy, encouraging Athens to boost its preparation efforts.

Athens pursued another bid in 1997, and this time was granted the right to host the 2004 Summer Olympics. The country’s success was largely based on “its appeal to Olympic history and the emphasis that is placed on the pivotal role that Greece and Athens could play in promoting the Olympic movement.” The preparation for the Games met numerous financial and organizational difficulties caused by the poor state of the country’s infrastructure, air pollution, the ongoing financial crisis, and the politicization of Games preparation. The costs turned to be nine times larger than expected, and the construction of the venues was constantly behind schedule. However, the Games were a success in terms of security, organization, and audience appeal, and were attended by 10,625 athletes from 201 countries.

The organization of the 2004 Olympics made a huge impact on Athens’ economy and overall development. The construction of new hotels and the restoration of cultural sites boosted the tourism industry. The Games helped to accelerate key infrastructure programs, including the expansion of the Athens transport system. The city also “used the momentum created by the Olympic Games to take steps towards environmental protection, including efficient waste management, revitalization of destroyed habitats, streams, and water quality control, and the expansion of vegetation.” Although Athens has not been able to maintain its international profile later on, the 2004 Olympics nevertheless became a turning point in the modern history of the city.

The organization of the Olympics also had a huge symbolic meaning for Greece. Being internationally considered the birthplace of the Games, it made considerable efforts to carry out the mission of the Olympics revival. As Sklaventis notes, the whole world saw Greece as “the guardian through the ages of the Olympic spirit and as the source producing Olympic ideology.” One of the primary aims of the Games was to renew the institution of the Games of the ideological level. The 2004 Games are believed to have reconnected the Olympic ideal with its classical past, minimizing commercialization, marketing, and doping, which have played a significant role in the Olympics. They contributed to the designation of the Greek cultural legacy and carried a hugely symbolic and social value.


The history of Athens is complex and vibrant, with the city constantly struggling to find its place on the brink between the ancient and modern culture, and the Eastern and Western civilizations. Greece is a young state that gained its independence at the beginning of the 19th century, and Athens grew from a small provincial town to the world’s capital within half a century. During the last two centuries, the city has experienced several recessions and revivals influenced by military, financial, social, and cultural crises. One of the main symbols of the country’s identity and spirit is the Olympic Games that were revived in Athens at the end of the 19th century. In 1896, it established the city’s role as the world capital and the prominent center of culture and sports. Athens held the Games once again in 2004 during a significant financial, political, and environmental crisis. Although accompanied by several difficulties, the organization of the Games became a turning point in the modern history of the city, reconnecting it to its past and establishing a course for future development.


Beaton, Roderick. Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation. London: Penguin, 2019.

Brewer, David. The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom and the Birth of Modern Greece. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2011.

Gold, R. John, and Margaret M. Gold. Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s Games, 1896–2020. Abington-on-Thames: Routledge, 2016.

Goldblatt, David. The Games: A Global History of the Olympics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Gropas, Ruby, and Anna Triandafyllidou. “Greek Modernity and Europe: An Ambivalent Relationship,” in Europe, Nations and Modernity. Identities and Modernities in Europe, edited by A. Ichijo, 110–131. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Sklaventis, Dimitris. “The Olympic Games of 1896 and 2004 in Athens: Their Undertaking, Organization and Impact.” Doctoral diss., Cardiff University, 2006. Web.

The International Olympic Committee. “Athens 2004: Olympic Legacies in the Greek Capital.” Web.

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