Who Founded the Modern Olympics?

by Robert Hamilton

Marketing campaigns, and historians, appreciate having a distinctive character to endorse, as the progenitor (Chatziefstathiou, 2007b: 55). Narrative discourses, invariably, feature a protagonist on whom the reader depends for dramatic impact. The Olympic Games is a victory stage; and Baron Pierre de Coubertin has, in the Western view, been rewarded as the recognised founder of the Modern Olympics (MO) (Brownell, 2005: 209). This essay will examine the recent reappraisal into the founding of the MO and critically analyse the sources of information pertaining to the nineteenth century.

The first officially recognised MO was held in Athens in 1896, where Demetrios Vikelas was President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Baron de Coubertin was its Secretary General. The location is important when attempting to understand the conflicting views now being raised as to who, or what, founded the revived Olympic Games. Athens, the capital of modern Greece, was chosen by the IOC as the host city for the inaugural event at their 1894 Paris Congress; and it is the Greek viewpoint which now seeks to rewrite history (Young, 1996: 98).

Who Founded the Modern Olympics?

Anthropologist, Susan Brownell, in her article, “The View from Greece”, draws attention to the recent publication of three Greek books about the revival of the Olympic Games: Konstantinos Georgiadis’s Olympic Revival; Christina Koulouri’s Athens, Olympic City, 1896-1906; and Alexander Kitroeff’s Wrestling with the Ancients. These Greek scholars see a more Greco-centric foundation for the revival of the MO. Modern Greece was, and still is, a small and relatively poor nation, and up until the publication of these books in 2004, Western scholarship has been largely silent on the contribution of modern Greece to the revivification of the MO. Brownell conveys how substantial is the task for modern Greek scholarship, to impact a hundred years of Western cultural assumptions and academic traditions in regard to the MO (2005: 205-207, 210).

The first book in English on the revival of the MO was Richard Mandell’s The First Modern Olympics, and this devoted just one chapter to what happened within Greece in preparation for the 1896 Athens Games (Brownell, 2005: 207). The West has focused very much on the actions, and writings, of Baron de Coubertin, and modern Greece has, largely been, forgotten (Chatziefstathiou, 2007b:61). Writers like John MacAloon, in his book, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympics, states:

“…this is very much a story with a ‘someone’. No modern institution so important as the Olympics owes its existence so fully to the actions of a single person”.
(MacAloon, 1976: 11-12)

Published in 1976, MacAloon’s book emphasises the Baron’s importance to the revival of the MO. Not until the publication of David Young’s book, The Modern Olympics – A Struggle for Revival, in 1996, was the important groundwork, which happened largely in Greece, fully mapped out, through access to Vikelas’s letters (1996: xii). Young’s book attracted controversy and was classified in the anti-Coubertin category of books on the revival of the MO (Brownell, 2005: 208).

Young, a Pindar scholar, begins his book with another Greek poet, a nineteenth century one, Panagiotis Soutsos. Young credits Soutsos with capturing the ‘Olympic Idea’ and employing it with patriotic fervour to inspire the newly independent Greek nation (Young, 1996: 2-3).

“…Rome fell; but it was not resurrected.
Greece, O’ Glory! Greece alone died and was reborn.” (qtd Young, 1996: 3)

The above quotation is from Soutsos’s “Dialogue of the Dead”. Soutsos’s proposal for the revival of the Olympic Games, although taken up by Kolletis, the Greek Mister of the Interior in 1835-36, was not acted upon (Young, 1996: 4-5). In 1838 the denizens of Letrini, a town near the ancient site of Olympia proposed another revival, which also has no record of ever taking place (Koulouri, Solomou-Prokopiou & Vogiatzi, 2004: 23). Soutsos’s campaign for the revival of the Olympic Games did eventually come to fruition when Evangelis Zappas, a successful transnational Greek businessman based in Romania, approached King Otto, the head of the Greek Government in 1856. Zappas informed the government that he would pay for the regular restaging of the Olympic Games every four years. The proposal passed to Foreign Minister, Rangavis, who, opposed athletics and ignored it for many months, before finally agreeing to an ”Industrial Olympic Games” (Young, 1996: 15). These exhibition events would focus on modern industrial achievements, and less on athletics. Although the Zappas Olympics were staged from 1859 to 1889, it is important to note the anti-Olympic camp in Greece, especially within the government, as this would be an ongoing hindrance to the Olympic movement in Greece, right up until Athens 1896. The “political manoeuvring of the Greek government” would later adversely impact on their relationship with Coubertin (Chatziefstathiou, 2007a: 36). Opponents of a revival of the Olympics were concerned that it may be construed by the outside world as ridiculous and backward looking (Koulouri et al, 2004: 32). After the success of the 1870 Zappas Olympic Games the Greek press would call Zappas “the founder of the Olympics” (Young, 1996: 45).

Zappas was not the only diasporic Greek to contribute sponsorship to the Olympic Games held in Athens during the nineteenth century. Georgiadis and Kitroeff both mention the substantial part played by the transnational network of Greeks living outside of Greece in providing sponsorship and spectators to these Olympic Games. Georgios Averoff, an Egyptian Greek, provided the funds to renovate the Panathenaic stadium for the inaugural 1896 MO (Brownell, 2005: 211-212). The success of these Games was, in large part, a result of the Athens organising committee and the network of diasporic Greeks. This, in combination, with what Kitroeff named, the “spirit of place”, ensured a MO, which was considered “unsurpassable” in 1896 (qtd Brownell, 2005: 212) (qtd Young, 1996: 161). Coubertin did not value Averoff’s contribution so highly, and in a letter to The Times newspaper, dated 9 July 1908, stated:

“It was that same Paris Congress that chose Athens as the seat of the first Olympiad of 1896; a marble stadium did not seem at all necessary to make the games a success”.
(qtd Chatziefstathiou, 2007a: 37)

There are two complementary influences at work in the fermentation, which resulted in the revival of the MO. One is the philhellenism of ‘ruling class’ classical scholars, and writers, like Soutsos and Vikelas, who wanted the spirit of the Olympics to inspire modern Greeks, in their case, and more broadly, “cosmopolitans”, in Coubertin’s case (Chatziefstathiou, 2007b: 72) (Chatziefstathiou, 2007a: 28). The other, is the post-Enlightenment, ‘muscular Christian’, push for physical education in schools. Christina Koulouri writes of two Greek physicians who promoted bodily exercise: Grigorios Kallirrhois in Orders on Health in 1829; and G.A. Makkas at the University of Athens gave a “Speech on Gymnastics” in 1855. According to Koulouri, they represented a wave of interest in sport and exercise, which was spreading through Europe. German gymnastics, Turner, was making a substantial impact; the first Greek treatise on gymnastics was by Georgios Pagon (2004: 19). Dr W.P. Brookes, in England, had also found inspiration in the ancient Olympic idea and promoted physical exercise. Brookes championed the introduction of physical education into schools throughout England, and this would, eventually, lead to correspondence with the younger Coubertin (Young, 1996: 31). Coubertin was an admirer of Frederic Le Play, the social philosopher, in France, and Thomas Arnold, Principal of Rugby school in England, who both endorsed physical education (Chatziefstathiou, 2007b: 64, 67).

Brookes was inspired by the Zappas Olympics in 1859, and also sought to influence it, as evidenced by his correspondence with the British ambassador in Athens, Sir Thomas Wyse. Brookes would be the prime mover in the staging of the Shropshire Olympics 1860-1862, 1864, and be involved with the staging of the Liverpool Olympic Games 1862-1867 and the forming of the British National Olympian Association. The Liverpool Olympics differed, however, in its exclusion of all those athletes who were not ‘Gentleman Amateurs’ (Young, 1996: 29-31). The divisive issue of ‘amateurism’ would be a constant in the international athletic and Olympic movement for decades to come, spurring arguments over whether the ancient Games of Olympia were also defined by similar social class exclusivity.

Archaeology also played an important part in the establishment of an Olympic revival zeitgeist in the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Benedictine monk Montfaulcon, and later Englishman Richard Chandler, are credited with the re-discovery of the site of Olympia. According to Ingomar Weiler’s article, “The Predecessors of the Olympic Movement”, the French toward the end of the first Greco-Turkish War 1821-1830:

”had begun to excavate the temple of Zeus and other structures – despite Greek protest… and had transported sculptures…to France”.
(2004: 428-431)

Ongoing archaeological excavations through the nineteenth century excited and inspired classical scholars around the world; philhellenism was spreading. Weiler identifies in the writings of nineteenth century thinkers like F. Nietzsche, J. Burckhardt and E. Curtius the influence of the Olympic idea. Weiler sees a surprising omission of these names from Coubertin’s writings, and in Burckhardt’s case in particular, the concept of ‘agon’, competition in ancient Greek life, which Coubertin espoused, goes uncredited (2004: 431-432). Is this, perhaps, an example of Coubertin’s intellectual arrogance or shallowness?

Who Founded the Modern Olympics?

Coubertin was classically educated at the Jesuit l’Ecole libre Saint-Ignace in Paris (Koulouris et all, 2004: 38). Young, however, states, “his knowledge of ancient Greek history, culture, and literature was superficial, at best” (qtd Weiler, 2004: 434). Coubertin borrowed freely, again, without acknowledgement, from another Olympic pioneer, W.P. Brookes. Brookes the founder of the Wenlock Olympic Games in England, corresponded with Coubertin from 1889 up until his death in 1896. Young provides evidence that Coubertin first encountered the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, when he attended the Wenlock Olympic Games in 1890 (1996: 78-79). Coubertin later took possession of the concept, “Olympism”, without reference to Brookes in his writings, or recorded speeches (Parry, 1998:2). Young makes a substantial case for Brookes to be considered one of the founders of the MO. Young informs the reader that Brookes proposed international Olympic Games to be held in Athens in his correspondence with Gennadius, the Greek charge d’affaire in London, from 1880 to 1893 (1996: 56). Koulouri, however, points to an issue of ethnocentricity in the aim of Young’s book to identify founders of the MO (Brownell, 2005: 209-210). Divisions based on nationality are evident when these scholars are attempting to identify the founder of the MO. There is cultural indignation on the part of the Greek scholars, when the MO, an event inspired by the ancient games of Olympia, and begun in modern Greece, are attributed solely to the efforts of a French Baron (Brownell, 2005: 209).

Coubertin expressed his own outrage at the lack of acknowledgement directed to him for the revival of the MO in Athens in 1896:

“When it comes to ingratitude, Greece easily wins first prize.”
(qtd Young, 1996: 164)

Coubertin felt snubbed by King George I, at the banquet for foreign athletes and dignitaries, and again, by Mr Papamikhalopoulos at the assemblage at the offices of the organising committee. Coubertin, according to Young, castigated Vikelas for not directing the crowd to go over to his hotel “to congratulate the Baron” (1996: 156, 159). The king’s public attempt to coral the MO, by having it permanently staged in Athens, was another “famous dilemma” for Coubertin (qtd Chatziefstathiou, 2007a:37). It is interesting to consider whether Coubertin’s later denigration of Greece’s role in the revival of the MO was born out of these, and earlier, incidents in Athens.

However, Young tells the reader of President Vikelas’s exasperation with Coubertin, who absents himself during the crucial lead up to the 1896 Games, and infers from their correspondence that the Baron attempted to resign from his position with the IOC (1996: 126). Newly married and writing a book on French history, Coubertin, inexplicably failed to do the expected work demanded of an IOC Secretary General in the lead up to the inaugural MO. This may have impacted on the levels of gratitude publicly expressed by the Greeks in Athens.

In assessing the conflicting views regarding the founding of the MO, scholarship, both Western and Greek, has reappraised the role played by Baron de Coubertin in light of new evidence and a more vocal Greco-centric viewpoint in the twenty first century. The importance of modern Greece, and diasporic Greeks, to the successful revival of the MO is being positively re-evaluated. Resistance to the revival of the Olympic Games existed within Greek governments in the nineteenth century. The influence of the post-Enlightenment movement, which saw a push for physical education in schools right across Europe, brought advocates like W.P. Brookes and Baron Coubertin together. Archaeological excavations in Greece in the nineteenth century stimulated philhellenic fervour among classical scholars around the world; and the ancient Olympic Games became a lodestone for that zeitgeist. Finally, it is apparent, that Coubertin’s later actions in claiming sole credit for ‘Olympism’ which, in truth, belonged to a shift in the collective consciousness, and his denigration of the role played by modern Greece in the revival of the MO, have fed a culturally ‘hardwired’ narrative appetite, which focuses exclusively on the main protagonist; and so the West has, traditionally, but short sightedly, lauded the Baron.

©Robert Hamilton




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