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Monday, 5 March 2012

“Give Life and Animation to Those Noble Games!” Or: The 1896 Olympics – Part Two:

Last week we looked at the origins of the modern Olympics, and learned that we owe their return to the sporting calendar in 1896 after a 1,500 year hiatus to Pierre de Coubertin. This week, we shall explore the actual games. What happened? Who won what? And what were the Olympics like then, as opposed to now?

First of all, we all know that the Olympics begin with an opening ceremony. Who can forget the archer in the wheelchair at Barcelona in 1992, or the drummers at Beijing in 2008? So, what did Athens in 1896 do to herald this new era of international sport?

Well, an estimated eighty thousand people made their way into the Panathinaiko Stadium, (to put that in a little context, that’s five thousand more people than it takes to fill Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium) including the Greek Royal Family, one member of which, Prince Constantine, had been instrumental in drumming up enthusiasm and funds for the games. As president of the IOC, he made a speech, after which his father, King George I declared the games officially open. The ceremony itself consisted mostly of music. There was no Olympic Flame here, that didn’t appear until 1928 (Neither were the famous Olympic rings present, they were not designed until 1912). So instead, there were nine bands and a hundred and fifty choir singers, who performed Spyridon Samaras and Kostis Palamas’s Olympic Hymn;

Immortal spirit of antiquity,
Father of the true, beautiful and good,
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.
Give life and animation to those noble games!
Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors
In the race and in strife!
Create in our breasts, hearts of steel!
Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple
To which all nations throng to adore thee.
Opening Ceremony in the Panathinaiko Stadium

In 1957, the IOC declared this hymn the official Olympic anthem. The Pall Mall Gazette covered the Olympics quite extensively, and printed results of the events. They also did a short write-up about on opening ceremony:

The spectators of yesterday's events were calculated to number eighty thousand. The Royal party arrived at three o'clock. They were met in the centre of the arena by the Crown Prince, surrounded by the members of the organizing committee. His Highness in a short speech then formally begged the King to take over the Stadion, the restoration of which had been rendered possible by the generosity of a wealthy Greek. His Majesty, in reply, expressed his admiration for the incomparable beauty of the structure. He also cordially welcomed the athletic youth who had come from all parts of the world to lend additional brilliance to the festival. His Majesty finally took formal possession of the Stadion in the name of Greece. The King and the other members of the Royal party then proceeded to their allotted seats. The united bands then performed the special Olympic anthem, composed by M. Samara, which was conducted by the composer himself. The games commenced immediately afterwards.
            - Pall Mall Gazette, April 7th 1896

So what exactly were the events in which the athletes took part? There were nine sports at the Olympics back then (in contrast with the 28 at the 2008 games in Beijing) They were:


The first event to take place was the hundred metres, which was won by Francis Lane of USA, and his victory, and the subsequent impressive medal-haul of the USA team would become a stalwart of all future Olympics.

The greatest joy for the home support was to see one of their athletes, Spyridion Louis, win the marathon by a huge seven minutes. The marathon is an event of great historical importance to Greece, as – so the legend goes – the first marathon ever to take place was in 490 BC, when Pheidippides, a soldier from Athens, ran 26 miles from battle in Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated their Persian invaders, in order to tell his fellow Athenians that they had been victorious. After relaying his message, he died from exhaustion.
Spyridion Louis (Left) being cheered as he nears the marathon finish line in the stadium

The Greeks then, were overjoyed when messengers outside the Panathinaiko stadium (where the marathon finishing line was situated) relayed the chant of ‘Hellene! Hellene!’ (A Greek! A Greek!) as Louis approached well-clear of his rivals to become a national hero and emulate the success of Pheidippides over two thousand years before him on Athenian soil. Even more satisfying was that Louis was not a professional athlete, and turned down riches and fame to go back to his simple as a shepherd in a small village after his success at the games.

The swimming sounds like a rather more dangerous event than we know today. Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajos won both the 100 metre and 1,200 metre races, the second of which involved the athletes being ferried out 1,200 metres to sea on a boat before jumping into the water and swimming back to land. Hajos went on to say that his; “…will to live completely overcame the desire to win”. Which is not a surprise.
Alfred Hajos

My favourite story of the Olympics, though, concerns Tennis and the MP John Boland. Boland was in Athens during the Olympics to visit his friend, Thrasyvoulos Manos. Manos was a member of the Athens Lawn Tennis sub-committee of the IOC, and had struggled to attract athletes to compete in the tennis. With the numbers a little short, Manos entered Boland, and the MP went on to win the singles tournament, defeating the Egyptian Dionysios Kasdaglis in the final. Even more impressive, Boland was also entered into the doubles competition, pairing up with Friedrich Traun (whom Boland had defeated in the first round of the singles competition) and the pair went on to win the event, giving Boland his second gold medal and making him the most successful Brit at the games, despite travelling to Athens with no intention of even competing in them. After the Olympics, the Pall Mall Gazette gave a rather waspish account of the inadequacy of the Greeks, and poked a bit of fun at their famous historical figures:

John Boland
The Olympic Games are over. It is to be hoped that the resurgent glory of Greece is not overshadowed by the victory of Mr. Boland (Dublin) over Mr. Themistocles (Athens) at the gentle game lawn tennis, and by the swimming performance of Mr. Hajos (Hungary), who easily defeated Mr. Nicias, Mr. Eschylus, Mr. AlcIbiades, and other members of the best-known Greek families…
               - Pall Mall Gazette 16th April 1896

The closing ceremony took place on 15th April, with, once again, the Royal Family present. The Greek national anthem opened the ceremony before the King distributed the prizes to the winners. In 1896, first placed athletes received a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma, and second placed athletes received a copper medal, olive branch and diploma, whilst third placed athletes received nothing.

After this, marathon winner and new Greek hero Spyridion Louis lead the athletes on a lap of honour around the stadium whilst the Olympic hymn was played, before King George pronounced the games officially at an end
Awarding the Prizes

So what was the final result of the 1896 games? Medal-wise, host nation Greece fittingly won the most medals overall, with a total of 46, but the USA were not far behind.

When the Olympics came to an end, the officials were full of praise for Athens, and suggested the games should be held there every four years. The American team even sent a letter to King George I to suggest as much, but Coubertin preferred the idea of the Olympics being an international event, and that the host city could be changed every year in order to bring the joy of sport to as many different parts of the world as possible. Athens would have to wait another 108 years until the Olympics returned in 2004.

The Olympics that followed the Athenian games were held in Paris in 1900, but were a bit of an anti-climax since the Parisians decided to incorporate the games in the World’s Fair they were hosting, meaning that the sporting events took a back seat to the technological exhibits, such as the first escalators, Rudolf Diesel’s engine, and the star attraction, the Great Exposition refractor – the largest refracting telescope ever seen. The shame about the lack of interest in the Paris Olympics is that Paris was Coubertin’s home town, and I imagine that he would have been overjoyed had the Olympics been a success there. He would go on to see eight more Olympic games take place before his death in 1937, however – and happily – the 1924 Olympics returned to Paris, beating competition from Los Angeles, Rio and Rome. This time around the city got it right, and Coubertin, at the age of 61, got to see his Olympic dream take place in his home town.

The London Olympics has had its naysayers and doom-mongers, and some of their objections I agree with, but there can be little doubt that the Olympics is an event of global and historical significance, as well as, of course, a great showcase for the world’s greatest athletes, and London should be proud to be hosting for the third time.

I just hope the swimmers a grateful they’re not being ferried out to the English Channel and dropped overboard for their event...

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