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The first Olympic Games (Athens, 1896)

  • Sports, pastimesGreekPhilhellenic
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    Maufroy, Sandrine
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    The run-up to the first modern Olympic Games (Athens, 1896) was avowedly apolitical but with an implicit political agenda involving pacifist internationalism, nationalisms and Philhellenism. Pierre de Coubertin’s initiative was the culmination of a series of attempts within and outside Greece to reconnect with a more or less vague idea of the sport competitions held in Olympia in classical antiquity – besides three other Panhellenic competitions (Delphi, Nemea, Corinth). Although Olympia and its games had been mentioned in scholarly works since the Renaissance, the ancient site was rediscovered only in 1766. The first excavations were undertaken in 1829 within the framework of the Expédition française de Morée, but the decisive impetus was given by the first German excavations of 1875-81. Even before that time, the prestigious name “Olympic Games” had been given to several undertakings.

    “Olimpick Games”, founded in 1612, were regularly held between 1626 and 1852 in Chipping Campden (Gloucestershire), a festival with sports competitions for every category of the population. In the wake of the French Revolution, “Olympic Games” and festivals inspired by Greek models were organized in several places in France. One of the champions of the “Olympic Games” held on each leap day at the Catholic school of Rondeau (near Grenoble) from 1832 was later to coin the motto of Coubertin’s Games: citius, altius, fortius. Coubertin himself took inspiration from the annual “Olympian Games” instigated by Dr William Penny Brookes (1809–1895) in Much Wenlock (1850-95), which comprised various athletic and non-athletic competitions. Brookes, who took an interest in ancient and contemporary Greece, supported the development of an Olympic movement there. Although the 1880 proposal by the Wenlock Olympian Society to hold an International Olympic Festival in Athens remained unrealized, it was well received by the Greek government.

    By that time there had been several such proposals from within Greece. Panagiōtīs Soutsos’s 1835 memorandum (written for the Minister of Interior Iōannīs Kōlettīs) “On the institution of national solemnities like those of antiquity” (Sur l’institution des solennités nationales et des jeux publics à l’instar de ceux de l’antiquité) had remained a dead letter; but local sports competitions with references to ancient Olympia took place in Letrinoi (1838) and in Piraeus (1856), and five great exhibitions of national industry, agriculture and cattle breeding had used the Panhellenic appellation “Olympics”, including competitions in several athletic disciplines.

    The modern Olympic Games were initiated at an international congress held in 1894 at the Sorbonne to define a common basis for the rules of amateurism. Coubertin, aided by his status as a nobleman, had been able to gather a large and diverse support network for the idea of an internationalist revival of the ancient Olympic Games, including educationalists, scholars and several active members of the international liberal pacifist movement and later winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although one explicit goal was to contribute to understanding among nations, the Philhellenic idea of the rebirth of ancient Greek customs also played a role, as well as French rivalry with Germany: after a speech held by the French archeologist Théodore Reinach, a hymn to Apollo recently found by French archeologists in Delphi was recited, set to music by Gabriel Fauré, linking ancient and modern times and counterbalancing the prestige of German excavations in Olympia.

    French-German relations of the post-1871 period dominated these developments. Since the French organization had been reluctant to invite German representatives, the three main athletic associations of Germany, scions of the nationally-minded Turnvereine, remained uninvolved in the Athens Olympics of 1896 from motives of offended national honour and dignity, and German participation was small-scale and diplomatically fraught.

    Coubertin’s idea was bolstered by Dīmītrios Vikelas, who had no sporting connections but was recognized as a Greek national writer and had close relationships with French Hellenists. Arguing that the Olympic Games were rooted in ancient Greece, and that ancient Greece was the common cradle of all of Europe and the direct ancestor of modern Greece, Vikelas’s proposal of Athens as the first venue for a revived Olympics was accepted enthusiastically; it also meant that a problematic choice between Paris and London could be avoided.

    Within Greece, the question became a political point of contention. Whereas the government felt that the state’s finances did not allow financial support for the scheme, the opposition claimed that a Greek organizing role was necessary (given the country’s cultural heritage) and valuable (in order to gain international recognition). Upon the Prime Minister’s resignation, a large funding campaign was held inviting “Greeks in the whole world” to give “a Panhellenic character” to this feast. This financed the reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium from its ancient remains.

    During the Olympic Games themselves, the Panathenaic Stadium represented a bridge between ancient and modern times, and the significance of the Games for Greece as a nation was expressed in the words of Crown Prince Constantine opening the Games: “God save the nation! God save the Greek people!” The exultation of the audience when a Greek peasant won the marathon (a completely new sort of competition, invented by the French philologist Michel Bréal) and the reactions of Greek and foreigner observers are illustrative of the multiple ideological implications of the Olympic Games: Greece’s national unity and international recognition were at stake. As a contemporary French observer wrote, the Greeks had justified Philhellenic hopes.

    From the beginning, there was a gap between Coubertin’s transnationalism and the predominance of national chauvinisms. Coubertin himself insisted both on the peaceful internationalism the Olympic Games were supposed to promote and on his aim of revitalizing his own nation and celebrating its achievements. After the first Olympic Games, aggressive nationalisms and racial tensions prevailed at least up to 1914; and after that date, national considerations and international political stakes have continued to play a prominent role in these sports competitions, in which athletes are always seen, primarily, as champions of their country.

    Word Count: 982

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  • Decker, Wolfgang; Die Wiederbelebung der Olympischen Spiele (Ruhpolding: Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2008).

    Llewellyn Smith, Michael; Olympics in Athens 1896 : The invention of the modern Olympic Games (London: Profile, 2004).

    MacAloon, John J.; This great symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the origins of the modern Olympic Games (London: Cass, 2006).

    Milza, Pierre; Jequier, François; Tétart, Philippe (eds.); Le pouvoir des anneaux: Les Jeux Olympiques à la lumière de la politique 1896-2004 (Paris: Vuibert, 2004).

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2022. "The first Olympic Games (Athens, 1896)", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 12-08-2022.