The Panathenaic Stadium or Kallimarmaro is a multi-purpose stadium in Athens, Greece. One of the main historic attractions of Athens, it is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. A stadium was built on the site of a simple racecourse by the Athenian statesman Lykourgos (Lycurgus) c. 330 BC, primarily for the Panathenaic Games. It was rebuilt in marble by Herodes Atticus, an Athenian Roman senator, by 144 AD and had a capacity of 50,000 seats. After the rise of Christianity in the 4th century it was largely abandoned. The stadium was excavated in 1869 and hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. After being refurbished, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was the venue for 4 of the 9 contested sports.
Ruins of the Panathenaic Stadium, 1835 (from Wikimedia Commons
A few centuries later and after the site lay buried in soil and stripped of its valuable marble, the Panathenaic Stadium was set to start a new life as the idea of hosting the first modern Olympics in Athens took hold from the mid 1800’s.
When the French gathered a world congress in 1894 to discuss the concept of a modern Olympic Games, it was agreed that Paris would host it in 1900 to coincide with their World Fair of the same year. The Greek representative Dimitrios Vikelas saw an opportunity and suggested that Athens host the Olympics in 1896, but did so without the consent of the Greek government. The world congress agreed but the problem for Vikelas was that Greece had declared bankruptcy a year earlier and the government could not fund an Olympic Games on Greek soil. Vikelas however was adamant that holding the first Olympic Games in Athens was an honour and something that Greece deserved. He gained support from Crown Prince Constantine and they devised a plan to privately fund the games by lobbying George Averoff, the wealthy merchant from Egypt and one of Greece’s largest benefactors. Averoff obliged and financed the construction of the Panathenaic Stadium, insisting it be built entirely of marble from Mt Penteli, as was used to construct the Acropolis.
The project moved ahead at a furious pace and although not without complication (bad weather delayed the excavation of all the marble required to complete the stadium) the new stadium was ready in time to host the first modern Olympic Games in March 1896. Greek athlete Spyridon Louis won the Marathon race, bringing a whole new level of joy to the country. Whilst Greece of the 1890’s was still trying to evolve following the aftermath of 400 years of Turkish occupation, Athens had taken a major step forward, re-introducing Greece back into the fold of Europe.