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Friday, 24 February 2012

"I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people." Or: The 1896 Olympics – Part One:

This is a big year for sport in the UK, with the Olympics and Paralympics set to descend upon us in the summer after a seven year wait, and make London the first city to stage the event three times, after previously hosting in 1908 and 1948.

Naturally, I was interested to see how the Victorians got on with the Olympics (the games having been revived for the modern age five years before Victoria’s death after a 1,500 year Hiatus) and so I set about looking at details of the 1896 and 1900 games.
The Olympics were – and still are – associated with Greece. The oldest Olympics for which records still exist are the games of 776 B.C, and during this era the sporting event was held every four years in Olympia, Greece, in honour of the God Zeus. This carried on until the Olympics were abolished in 393 A.D by the Roman Emperor Theodosius.

1,503 years later, the Olympics returned; but why?

It all began with a young Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who, in 1870, experienced his country being overrun by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war when he was only seven years old. This event, and what Coubertin saw as the weakness of his country, would play a major role in the birth of the modern Olympics. So who was this Coubertin?

He was born into an aristocratic family, and so, when he became an adult, had the typical choices ahead of him, such as a military career, or one in politics. Coubertin, though, chose a different path, and became an intellectual. He studied a wide range of topics, from history to sociology, but the one that caught his imagination the most was education.

Coubertin’s studies in education soon led him to focus on physical education, and the significance of schools teaching competitive sports to their pupils. He came to England in 1883, when he was twenty, and studied the physical education system in English schools, (in particular, Rugby School in Warwickshire, where the great educator, Thomas Arnold put physical education systems in place in the late 1820’s) Coubertin saw a direct link between the standard of physical education in schools and the expansion of the British Empire, stating that “Organised sport can create moral and social strength.” In short, he believed that men who were well-practiced at sport would be better prepared mentally as well as physically, to fight in wars. Coubertin was thinking of the ease with which France – a country which practiced very little physical education in schools – was subjected to a humiliating defeat in 1870.

Being an intellectual historian, also, Coubertin knew of the Olympics of ancient Greece, and decided that an event such as the Olympics, if revived, could be key in stimulating not only physical, but intellectual improvements in men. In 1890 he founded Union des Sociétés Francaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA) a sports organization which he hoped would be able to drum up support for physical education in schools. His ideas were met with apathy. In 1892, he decided to make public his ideas for reviving the Olympics. In Paris, speaking at a meeting of the Union des Sports Athlétiques, he said:

“Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally. It inspires me to touch upon another step I now propose and in it I shall ask that the help you have given me hitherto you will extend again, so that together we may attempt to realise, upon a basis suitable to the conditions of our modern life, the splendid and beneficent task of reviving the Olympic Games…”

Again, he was met with inaction and apathy. However, he persisted, and a further two years later he managed to organize a meeting made up of delegates of nine different countries at the Sorbonne Congress of 1894. At this meeting he made further passionate pleas and reasons why, in his mind, the Olympic Games should be revived for the benefit of the whole of Europe. This time, he garnered some interest, and the delegates present voted for a return of the ancient Olympic Games. Coubertin formed the international Olympic Committee (IOC) and set about organizing the first Olympics in over 1,500 years.

The obvious and most romantic choice for the first modern Olympics was, of course, Greece.
 The 1896 Olympics were awarded to Athens, and the city enthusiastically welcomed the impending festival of sport, but the Greek politicians were not so keen, and, according to some reports, asked to be relieved of their duty to host the games. Coubertin, along with the President of the newly formed IOC, Demetrios Vikelas, managed to convince the Athenian politicians to accept the games, and after much consideration, and the backing of the Crown Prince Constantine, who threw his weight behind the return of the games, the minds of the politicians were changed, and the organizing began.

The man charged with organizing the 1896 Olympics was the aforementioned president of the IOC, Demetrios Vikelas. The problem that faced him most immediately was, funnily enough, the fact that Greece was in a financially poor state, and politically very unstable (The country actually had two Prime Ministers at the time, who alternated the job of running the country between them) so the first thing Vikelas had to do was raise funds – and the Royal seal of approval from the enthusiastic Prince certainly helped his cause. Perhaps his biggest contribution was to persuade businessman George Averoff to fund a restoration of the Panathinaiko stadium, which had been built around 500BC to host athletics during the Panathenaic games in ancient Greece. Averoff donated 920,000 Drachma’s to the project, which saw the stadium rebuilt using marble from Mount Penteli. The stadium is – perhaps unsurprisingly – the only one in the world made of marble. A statue of Averoff still stands outside the stadium today.
The Greek public, having caught the wave of enthusiasm from the Prince, donated generously, raising 330,000 Drachma’s, the sale of commemorative stamps raised an impressive 400,000 Drachma’s, and along with successful ticket sales, these funds allowed everything to be put into place, and the first modern Olympic Games could begin.

The opening ceremony took place on 6th April 1896 (Unless you were Greek, and were using the Julian Calendar, in which case the opening ceremony was on 25th March) and the final address was made by Prince Constantine’s father, King George I, who proclaimed:

"I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people."

Next week…Part Two: In which we will explore the events that took place at the 1896 Olympics, the successful countries, the star athletes and the aftermath of the games.


  1. Thank you for this post. I love the Olympic Games and cannot wait for July.

    "Coubertin saw a direct link between the standard of physical education in schools and the expansion of the British Empire". Now I am all in favour of very fit adolescents and physically active adults, but I wonder if Coubertin didn't over-simply the facts.

    Olympics, if revived, would be the key in stimulating physical and intellectual improvements in men (and in women?). I don't think it turned out that way because only the most elite athletes go to the Games; the other 99.99% of every nation's citizens do not go.

    That is not to say that the Games aren't hugely important. Even now, 116 years later!

  2. Thanks Hels,
    Of course you're right about the professional Olympians - in recent memory, anyway. But as I will explore next week, not all the athletes were professional when the Olympics made its return...

  3. Google celebrates the 120th anniversary of the modern olympic games. Here a Video with all images of the doodle (usually the users see only one):
    Best wishes, Martin