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How Olympia 776 BC became Athens 2004: Origin and the Authenticity of the Modern Games.
Next year the Olympics are coming home to Greece. Imagine that! Olympic Games in Greece! Well, it’s not too hard to imagine. The first edition was there, in ancient Olympia, 776 BC. Even before the Golden Age of Classical Athens, these Games had grown to where they already exemplified the pinnacle of excellence and prestige, a focal point for all of Greek culture. The Olympic Games kept that top rank, a symbol of excellence, throughout all of Greco-Roman antiquity. The modern Olympics, too, represent the pinnacle of excellence and prestige, but they dwarf their ancient ancestor in size.
At Sydney 2000, more than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries competed in three hundred events. That’s big, and Athens 2004 may be bigger. In the heyday of the ancient Olympics, say the fifth century BC, there were only fourteen events and perhaps up to three hundred or so competitors, where we have 10,000. And after an Odyssey of about a century, the Games are finally coming home yet again. And the whole world will be watching, because the Olympics have become the greatest show on earth. Much of the world thinks Greece should be grateful to be awarded its own Games. That is partly because most people still think that the modern Games are the brainchild of a Frenchman, baron Pierre de Coubertin, who, we’ve been told for a century, was the first to have this happy idea. Then he almost single-handedly implemented it, holding the first Modern Olympics in Athens, 1896. The IOC and the media still generally maintain this illusion, and most people, even most Greeks, I’ve found out, follow it like a flock of sheep. But it is all wrong. Our modern Games are, in fact, the brainchild of a Greek, and modern Greece had a series of Olympic Games before Coubertin was even born. Coubertin was important, and deserves a great deal of credit. But so do some other Olympic fathers, without whom Coubertin never would have begun And the Games’ true origin has especial importance for the 2004 Games. We can’t really understand what will happen in Athens in less than two years without a rather heavy dose of history. Historical detail is not a crowd-pleaser, but I must get historical today. The Games in Athens 2004 are not so much a revival of the ancient Greek Games as an authentic continuation of them. The modern Olympics are not Olympics in name only. Despite great differences, they have the same spirit, the same dedication to the pursuit of excellence, and the same goal to bring out the best in people.
And most importantly, there is a legitimate line of Greek descent which leads directly from the simple stadium in ancient Olympia, through all the modern Games right up to the 2004 Olympic stadium in Athens. The seed of the modern Olympic revival was first planted on Attic soil by a modern Greek poet, but it was a seed that that he took from the ancient olive at Olympia. Here he is. #1 Like many Greek intellectuals of the early nineteenth century Panagiotis Soutsos expatriated while very young, When the Greeks won most of southern Greece back from the Ottomans, it become an autonomous nation, after centuries of foreign control. In 1832 the Greeks’ allies imposed on them, as their king, a teenage prince from Bavaria. He became Otto I, King of the Hellenes. When Otto went to Nafplio, the first capital of the new nation, the young poet Soutsos moved there, too. He founded a newspaper there, naming it The Sun.
Here he published some poems which he wrote to celebrate the birth of the new Greek nation. The years under Turkish rule had left Greece well behind modern, nineteenth century Europe. Greece hadn’t shared in Western Europe’s Renaissance period, nor its Enlightenment.. The infrastructure of Greece, its institutions, its government were in a miserable condition. Like many Greeks after him, Soutsos felt the heavy burden of ancient Greek glory on his new nation. His poetry pointedly asks how it can gain the respect of the modern world, live up to its ancient reputation, how it might re-establish the culture that made ancient Greece great in the eyes of western man for centuries. Some Greeks wanted to emulate successful modern nations such as France, but Soutsos clearly saw that Greece could not suddenly catch up and jump to the top of the new world order. He decided that Greece should seek to restore its ancient glory. In an 1833 Soutsos poem, the ghost of Plato gazes up from the underworld, and surveys his tattered native land. He wonders aloud if he is really looking at Greece, and addresses the new nation : “Where are all your great theaters and marble statues?” “Where are your Olympic Games?”#2 As I mentioned earlier, in antiquity the Olympic Games symbolized excellence and prestige, a focal point for all of Greek culture. Soutsos chose the Olympics here to stand for all the best features of ancient Greece. That includes the theaters and the art. Soutsos had the broad cultural view of what the Games represent. 
Soutsos liked ghosts. In his next poem, the ghost of the ancient military hero, Leonidas explicitly advises Greece to revive its Olympic Games. This idea of restoring antiquity by restoring the Olympics began to appeal to Soutsos so much that he took the bold next step: he converted his ghosts’ poetic idea into a real-life proposal. In 1835 he sent Otto a long memo, proposing that Greece revive the ancient Olympic Games. Otto agreed to a great national festival with contests in industry, agriculture, and ancient Greek athletic games, but he did nothing about it. In 1842 Soutsos put his proposal in print and in public, pleading to his king, “Let the ancient Olympic Games be revived in Athens.” I want to emphasize what the young poet’s idea really was. It was not just an antiquarian idea, where some modern Games would bear the ancient name. Soutsos wanted to revive the Games as a step in restoring all of ancient Greece; he wanted to resurrect a dead civilization; he actually sought to revivify time. He kept at it for decades. But it was a lonely campaign, which he carried on all by himself. Nobody else seemed to care about reviving the Olympics. Yet after twenty years, Soutsos still would not give up; he just kept pushing his revival idea. And finally, in 1856, someone else did care.
#3 His name is Evangelis Zappas, a veteran of the Greek war of Independence . He is a fascinating subject in himself, but here I’ll have to limit what I say about him to just the essentials for my larger story. Born to Greek parents in southern Albania, Zappas lived in Romania, where he had become one of the richest men in eastern Europe, with vast land holdings and other enterprises. He learned of Soutsos’ Olympic idea and he liked it. He liked it so much that in 1856 he too asked Otto to revive the Olympics in Athens. But this time Zappas said that he, Zappas, would pay for it all. 
The King gave Zappas’ Olympic proposal to his foreign minister, Alexandros Rangavis, who thought athletics would be a throwback to primitive bygone times, and, as he rightly observed, they simply were not done in the modern world. We tend to forget that athletics, as we know them, are mainly the invention of the later nineteenth century. When Zappas proposed an Olympic revival in 1856, there were no such athletics anywhere, unless one counts some cricket and rowing contests in England. So Rangavis suggested to Zappas that agricultural and industrial contests be held instead. #4 The two men reached a compromise, and in 1858 the first modern Olympiad was announced for Athens, 1859. There would be industrial Olympics, and agricultural Olympics; but Zappas would also have his athletic Olympics, a revival of the games of ancient Greece. On that he insisted. He promised cash prizes for the winners.
Then suddenly Olympic history took a wonderful, fateful turn. Without this almost incredible turn of events, I doubt I would be speaking to you here today. It’s just a little newspaper clipping -- but the key, I think, that unlocks the mystery how Soutsos’ original 1833 idea could lead, by direct descent, to Athens 2004. The missing link between Soutsos and Coubertin, between the Zappas Games and Athens 1896, and even Athens 2004, is an English doctor named W.P. Brookes (#5),who lived in a rural village called Wenlock.
In the fall of 1858, Dr. Brookes was reading his local newspaper when a small item caught his eye. This brief article was about the new Greek Olympics that were to take place in 1859 It interested him so much that he clipped it out and pasted it in his six large scrapbooks, where it remains to this day. Brookes kept meticulous records of all his activities, and from his scrapbooks comes the proof that our Olympic movement is a single, continuous movement—just as Soutsos inspired Zappas, so Zappas inspired Brookes, and Brookes, in turn, inspired Coubertin
Himself fond of the ancient Olympics, Brookes decided Zappas’ revival idea was so good he imitated it. In July 1859, more than two months before those first 1859 Athens Olympics themselves took place, Brookes sponsored the first of his “Annual Wenlock Olympic Games.” There was a varied program and explicitly Hellenic trappings. Brookes also wrote the British consul in Athens, to find out more about the coming Athens Olympics. He sent the Greeks ten pounds British sterling to be a prize for one of the victors. Before the 1859 Olympiad then, the Athens committee announced that there would be an extra prize from “the Wenlock Olympic Committee of England.”
Zappas gave money to excavate the ancient Panathenaic stadium; but the 1859 Olympics took place instead at the flat city square now called “Koumoundourou,” on Pireus Street . It was then just outside the main city. #7 If you’ve never seen a ticket to the 1859 Olympics, now you have. Zappas’ and Brookes’ cash prizes were indeed awarded. But the games themselves were no great success. The program was small, and the athletes barely trained. #8 Only the front row of the standing spectators could see the events, and the scene was somewhat chaotic. In the featured distance race, the leading runner collapsed and died. Petros Velissariou of Smyrna then passed him and won the race, along with Brookes’ British pounds. The newspapers hoped the next Olympiad would be better. But the next Olympiad was slow to come.
Otto was driven out of Greece in 1862, replaced by another unemployed royal teenager, a Dane who became George the First. In 1865 Zappas died. He left his fortune to Greece for the Olympics. He also left a strange will; his body was to be buried first at his estate in Romania. But after one Olympiad, four years, it was to be removed from the grave, and severed at the neck. The bones below the neck, were to be reburied in his native village in Albania. But the head was to be sent to Athens and encased in the new Olympic building there. Zappas gave money for this building. But it was not built then, and the entire Soutsos-Zappas Olympic movement in Greece fell into a long hiatus.
Now it was Brookes’ turn. In the 1860’s Brookes carried on this Olympic movement in his country. When he learned the results of the 1859 Athens Olympiad, he immediately sent a letter to Velissariou, winner of the Wenlock prize. In it he informed Velissariou he had been elected the first honorary member of the Wenlock Olympic Society. #9 Pierre de Coubertin was elected last, 30 years later. Brookes also sent his greetings to N. Theocharis, head of the Greek Olympic Committee. Velissariou and the Committee president both responded.#10 Velissariou warmly thanked Brookes for the honorary Olympic membership. #11 In his letter Theocharis calls Brookes’ Olympic committee and his own Committee in Greece “sister committees united by the same name and a common goal.” So we could even speak of an international Olympic movement here, in 1860. 
This contact with Greece again spurred Brookes on, first to expand his local project to county-wide Olympics, and soon to think in even grander terms: National Olympic Games, that would draw athletes and spectators from all of Britain. The First British National Olympic Games actually took place in London in 1866. They were a great success, with many good athletes and 10,000 spectators in London’s large indoor arena, the Crystal Palace. But not everyone wished the Olympic movement success. In class-conscious England, it offended some men of the upper class that Brookes’ Olympics allowed everyone to compete, even those from the working class. These self-styled aristocrats started a counter-Olympic group called the Amateur Athletic Club, or AAC; and published the world’s first definition of an amateur athlete. It declared that men who were “mechanics, artisans, or laborers” were de facto “pros,” barred from all amateur contests, which were reserved for “gentlemen,” that is, people who did no labor for a living.
Members of this AAC generally boycotted Brookes’ Olympics. A few competed in the London 1866 Games; but in later National Olympics, they abstained. They even established a rule that men who competed in contests with professionals--that is, with working class men in Brookes’ Olympics--that such men could not compete in any contest recognized by the AAC. Since these men were the power structure in Victorian England, they soon ran Brookes Olympic movement aground. By 1869 he had to give it up; because athletes wanting to compete elsewhere in England could not enter the Olympic Games.
Yet then the Olympic ball just bounced back into the Greeks’ court. King George announced an end to the long hiatus, a renewed Zappas Olympic series to start in 1870. Now Greece preserved the Olympic revival movement. For the 1870 games the committee acquired and excavated the ancient Athens stadium. The marble seats Zappas had paid for were not installed, but wooden bleachers let 15,000 people watch a successful Olympiad. There were more events than in 1859, and all was much better organized. Athletes from all points of the Greek world came to compete, from Crete to Constantinople. If they could not afford the trip, the committee met the cost. Several victors were, in fact, working class. The wrestling victor was a manual laborer from Crete. The 200 meter winner was a butcher from Athens. Everyone except a few University professors thought the Games a big success. These professors objected to the working class victories. Wanting to imitate England’s elite upper class; they got control of the Olympic committee; and for the next Olympiad, 1875, they simply excluded the working class. No one was eligible except university students. The 1875 Games were far inferior to the 1870 edition in every way. This time the newspapers censured both the committee and the athletes. No more Athens Olympics would even be announced until 1888.
In early1888 the grand Olympic Building, now called the “Zappeion,” was completed, and the Olympic Committee announced an Olympiad for Autumn of that year to celebrate its opening. Zappas’ head was sent down from Romania and encased in the new building. At this time it seems Zappas’ body was divided, like Gaul, into three parts. His flesh stayed in Romania.#12 This is his tombstone near Bucharest, and there is the trapdoor#13 through which they retreived the skeleton., most of which was then reburied in Albania.#14 Here is the Albanian tombstone. And in Athens, his head still lies behind this plaque in the courtyard of the Zappeio.#15 The 1888 Olympics focussed on the agro-industrial contests. The athletic contests of the 1888 games were silently cancelled.  It appeared that the now anti-athletic Olympic Committee had killed the real Olympic revival.
But now Brookes could keep it alive again. It just would not die. In the 1870’s he had kept trying to hold British National Olympic games, but apathy and opposition stymied him. In the 1880’s, as Greece built the Zappeio, Brookes began a new tack. He proposed that international Olympic Games be held in--yes-- Athens. Although his international revival idea was published in both Greek and English newspapers, it went nowhere. #16 His pleas to the Greek ambassador in London, John Gennadius, repeatedly fell on deaf ears. So Brookes turned to his other obsession, placing physical education, PE, in his country’s schools. At the same time, a young French Anglophile, baron Pierre de Coubertin, became obsessed with the very same project in France. #17 He began to read Brookes’ writings and quote them in his own Paris speeches. Then he wrote Brookes and accepted his invitation to come visit him in England and discuss PE.#18
Coubertin arrived in Wenlock in October, 1890. Brookes held a special edition of his Wenlock Olympic Games in his honor. Then Brookes asked Coubertin to join him in planting a tree to commemorate their meeting—it is now huge, as are the Olympics. Then he invited him into his trophy room. There, in the trophy room, Coubertin himself wrote, Brookes showed him the victors’ list from the 1859 Zappas Olympics; and accounts of the 1866 London Olympics. He showed him 1881 newspapers reporting his own proposals for international Olympic Games to start in Athens. In short, he passed the Olympic torch to the baron. Yet years later Coubertin actually stated in print that there had never been any Zappas Olympics at all, and pretended he knew nothing of Brookes’ own Olympic efforts. I have no wish to malign a great man who is also idolized; but it’s true and relevant.
Coubertin had already ridiculed the idea of modern Olympic Games when it was proposed by another Frenchman, the year before. And when he returned to Paris from Wenlock in 1890, he belittled Brookes’ idea of reviving the Olympic Games, writing “there was no need to invoke memories of Greece.” Yet by 1892 he had somehow wholly changed his mind. He himself suddenly made the same proposal for an Olympic revival public, maintaining that it was a wholly novel idea, and all his own. There was action on other Olympic fronts. Greece saw an attempt to revive the Zappas series in1892. But financial and political problems prevented it. Brookes kept writing in vain to Gennadius, because he knew nothing of Coubertin’s revival proposal in Paris. In fact the baron didn’t even answer Brookes’ letters any more.
What Coubertin did do was to plan for an International Athletic Congress in Paris in June 1894. He was slow in sending out invitations, so that Europeans received no invitation until the month before the Congress, when Brookes received one--a mere form letter. He wrote to Coubertin wishing him success in his Olympic enterprise. He also sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Greece, Charilaos Trikoupis.: “My friend Pierre de Coubertin, myself, and others are endeavoring to promote international Olympic festivals.” Thus Brookes saw himself and Coubertin linked together as Olympic advocates.
By the time the delegates arrived at the Sorbonne to attend Coubertin’s Conference, which was originally named a “Congress of Amateurs,” it had been renamed a “Congress for the Revival of the Olympic Games.” This 1894 Paris congress lasted several days. The delegates were wined, dined and entertained in grand style. The baron soon held the delegates in his hands. No one opposed his moves to revive the ancient games. He planned to have the first games in Paris, 1900. Somehow the date got accelerated by four years, to 1896 .. The majority of the delegates wanted London for the 1896 site. Strangely, the Anglophile Coubertin nominated Athens instead, and insisted on it. When it was clear the London motion would pass anyway, Coubertin had the whole question postponed, “tabled” (in the June 19 minutes). #18
The choice of Athens for 1896 remains mostly a mystery. Coubertin was unquestionably the first to nominate Athens. At that same June 19 meeting, Demetrios Vikelas was elected President of the Congress Olympic committee, to his great surprise. Vikelas was a Greek intellectual who lived in Paris. #19 He was a fascinating man of diverse talents; novelist, historian -- he even translated Shakespeare into Greek. But he had never before had a thing to do with athletics. At first Vikelas did not himself support the baron’s nomination of Greece, but he changed his mind; and four days later, at a general session, Vikelas himself made a second, more successful proposal for Athens. In the meantime, he had communicated with people in Athens. Vikelas’ Athens proposal was approved by acclamation. Vikelas was chosen the first President of the IOC, preceding Coubertin and all the rest, such as Brundage, Samaranch, and now Rogge.
Despite his lack of athletic experience, Vikelas was the right man for the job. Coubertin suddenly got engaged to be married and started to write a history book. He lost much of his interest in the 1896 Games. In the Fall of 1894 Coubertin and Vikelas each met opposition from the Greek government and from the Zappas Olympic committee. To hold Olympic Games were impossible, they said. There was no money, no way.
When Stephanos Dragoumis, Chair of the Zappas Olympic committee, emphatically told Vikelas “No,” Prince Constantine offered to chair the organizing committee. In early 1895 Vikelas and Constantine rallied other Greeks behind their efforts. Vikelas gave speeches to labor union assemblies, and Constantine formed special committees for each sport. In parliament pro-Olympic Greeks invoked the tradition of the Zappas Games, and said that these international Olympics would fulfill Zappas’ dream. That argument won, the government changed, the Zappas committee stepped aside, and Athens began preparing feverishly for 1896. Vikelas and the other Greeks did the bulk of the work. Coubertin did very little. The Athens organizing committee somehow achieved amazing success, even though there were no precedents, no models. There was a great influx of good will and donations for the cause from Greeks both in Greece and abroad. Even peasants in the villages sent money to Athens. #20 And Giorgos Avéroff, an Egyptian Greek, paid to restore the ancient Panathenaic stadium, with these magnificent marble seats. Unfortunately, Brookes did not live to see his own Olympic dream fulfilled. #21 He died just a three months before those 1896 Games, to join Soutsos and Zappas in Olympic oblivion, as Coubertin and history forgot all about them. 
The 1896 Games themselves, against all odds, despite truly miserable weather, were an astonishing success. #22 The large stadium, first in the modern world, overflowed, the largest crowd ever to witness a sporting event. Everyone observed virtually perfect decorum. Americans won most events in the stadium, and the Greeks applauded strongly, as they did for every winning athlete. But they were burning to win an event themselves, in front of the stadium crowd. Greece was favored to win the discus and the shot put, but lost both events to the American, Garrett. Greatly disappointed, the Greeks still applauded him. But it seemed almost as if the gods of Olympus had betrayed them. All thoughts, all Greek hopes now rested with the Marathon, a wholly new event to be held for the first time. The hype the day before the race was immense. Businessmen promised great rewards to the winner if he was Greek. And even unbelievers prayed that the Marathon victory go to Greece. As the afternoon of the race wore on all other events were finished except the pole vault, which was suddenly interrupted. It seemed the stadium had gone mad. “It’s a Greek, it’s a Greek,” the crowd shouted in one voice. It was indeed a Greek, Spyros Loúis, who entered the stadium first. #23 The joy that filled the air, they say, was indescribable. Almost all eye-witnesses, even years later, state it was one of the most memorable sights of their entire lives, truly unforgettable. In short, it seems as if Greece had been born again through the victory of this one young man. 
These 1896 Olympic Games were so successful that almost everyone except Coubertin wanted Greece to be the permanent seat of all future Olympiads. But Greece itself fell into very hard times -- the euphoria of the games punctured by financial losses and military disasters. The Greeks could not oppose Coubertin’s plans for 1900 in Paris. But the Paris 1900 Olympiad was a big flop. The French government would not co-operate, nor let the Games be called Olympics. Athletes from around the world did compete sporadically on the outskirts of Paris. But there were no crowds of spectators, and it seems most athletes didn’t even know they were in Olympics. It was a total failure. The next Olympiad was given to America, and ended up as an appendage to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The games were not truly international, Coubertin stayed away. Attendance was small, organization, abysmal, and sometimes even perverse.
After two such fiascoes the Olympics might well have died in the cradle, if Greece had not come to the aid of the faltering institution. There had been an agreement, against Coubertin’s wishes, that Athens would hold international Olympics in between the games that moved around the world. In 1902, Greece was in no position to hold these in-between games; but in 1906 Athens hosted its second IOC Olympiad. Like the first, it was a total success, but even bigger and better. Many more nations participated, and there was general good will and satisfaction among all. Most Olympic historians agree that in 1906 Greece probably saved Coubertin’s revival movement from early extinction.
So the impressive games of 1906, the Games that rescued the Olympics, were the last Olympics held in Greece before this coming Olympiad in 2004. While the rest of the IOC at the time called 1906 an official IOC Olympiad, Coubertin declared it an unofficial event, and all the record books still call it the “unofficial Olympiad.” But a change of status is now a real possibility. The president of the IOC has on his desk a strong international petition asking him to reinstate the 1906 Olympiad to its original official status.
That is only right, that Greece receive more credit for the modern revival of its ancient past. When we know the motive behind Soutsos’ original proposal and the chain of events it set in motion, it is clear that our modern Olympics are an authentic continuation of their ancient namesake. And the modern games have not just one founder, but many, of whom I think at least five were indispensable. They are Soutsos, Zappas, Brookes, Coubertin and Vikelas --each crucial to the Games’ success: As I look at this small group of modern Olympic revival heroes, I note that only two are barbarians; that Greece scores a majority, three of the five. Thus when the Games finally return to Greece in 2004, they will be coming home not only to the point of their ancient origin, but to their modern birthplace as well. Greece has always been an Olympic nation
* David C. Young is a professor of classics at the University of Florida. He has
had a lifelong interest in sports and is a specialist on the ancient Greek poet
Pindar, who often included athletes among his topics. Young is one of a small
group of Olympic historians whose work has changed our understanding of
the history of the modern Olympic movement. He is the author of The Modern
Olympics: A Struggle for Revival and The Modern Olympics and Their Origins.
He received the Olympic Book of the Year Award in 1989 for The Olympic
Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics .
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