The Modern Day Olympics – 2800 Years in the Making Part 3: The Zappas Olympics in Greece

Panagiotis Soutsos
Panagiotis Soutsos

He imagined the ghost of Plato, wandering the deplorable state of his home country of Greece, wondering where the proud, heroic Greece that he knew had gone?

Where are all your theaters and marble statues?

Where are your Olympic Games?

Panagiotis Soutsos was a journalist and editor for a newspaper in Greece, and in the afterglow of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, wrote the poem Dialogue of the Dead, in which the ghost of Plato emerges. Soutsos was a patriot, who saw the revival of the Olympic Games as a way to restore national pride. A Greek industrialist named Evangelos Zappas, who fought in the Greek war for independence, became wealthy enough to indulge Soutsos’ dream.

As David Goldblatt said in his book The Games; A Global History of the Olympics, Zappas wrote a letter to King Otto proposing to renovate the Panathenaic Stadium, a structure that had fallen into ruin, with his own funds, and re-launch the Olympic Games there.

Evangelos Zappas
Evangelos Zappas

Zappas would end up working with foreign minister Alexander Rangavis, who was less interested in a sports event, and more in a one-month exposition, one that focused on Greek agriculture, industry and education. Rangavis did not respond to Zappas’ idea, so Soutsos stepped up with an article publicizing Zappas’ Olympic dream, which got the ball rolling again. In the end, King Otto agreed to the organization of athletic competitions every four years to run parallel to expo. Though the Panathenaic Stadium was not ready, the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, commenced on November 15, 1859. Here’s how Goldblatt described it:

Held in a cobbled city square in Athens over three Sundays, there was running, horse and chariot races, discus and javelin competitions modelled on the ancient sources, as well as the climbing of a greasy pole. The games were opened by the king and queen, medals bearing the words “First Olympic Crown” were issued and prizes were plentiful. The crowds appear to have been large, and athletes came from across the Greek-speaking world to attend, but the organization was poor. Few spectators could actually see much of the events and, when the crowd pushed towards the front, the local press reported that one policeman who was supposed to keep order showed so much incompetence that his horse ran every which way and hit men and women.

Only 6 years later, Zappas passed away.