I won 2nd place at a chess tournament, which took place at the famous Manhattan Chess Club, when I was 13 years old. I still have my trophy. And trust me, if there were more than 3 competitors in that tournament, I’m sure I would have done equally well!

Ioannis Malokinis
Ioannis Malokinis

Perhaps that’s what Ioannis Malokinis, Spiridon Chasapis and Dimitrios Drivas told themselves as they swept the medals in their swimming event – the 100-meter Freestyle for Greek Sailors. Yes, this was an event at the revival of the Olympic Games, held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Yes, this was an event only Greek Sailors could compete in. And yes, only three sailors jumped into the Bay of Zea for this competition.

Eleven Greek sailors had signed up for this unique and partisan event, but the water was said to be so cold that others likely begged out. According to The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 Edition, the gold medalist from the 100-meter freestyle event (the one open to all nationalities and occupations), a Hungarian swimmer named Alfréd Hajós said, “the icy water almost cut into our stomachs.”

Alfred Hajos
Alfréd Hajós

Hajós also competed and won the 1,200-meter swim. He had smeared a thick layer of grease in an attempt to ward off the effects of the icy waters, and still barely completed the race. The very quotable Hajós had said, “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”

So while Hajós won silver in the 100-meter freestyle swimming event, only one other person may have completed the event – Otto Herschmann of Austria. The other 8 competitors who reportedly entered this competition were not awarded medals. It simply may have been too darn cold to bother.

The 100-meter freestyle event has become one of the must-see events at the Summer Olympics. However, needless to say, the 100-meter freestyle for Greek Sailors did not make its way beyond those 1896 Olympics.

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Carlo Airoldi
Carlo Airoldi

He wasn’t high born. He was a farmer from Origgio, Italy. And he could run, and run, and run – Forrest Gump-style. In the 1890’s, Carlo Airoldi was one of the best long-distance runners in Europe. In 1895, the year before the inaugural Olympics in Athens, Airoldi won the Milano-Barcelona footrace, a 12-leg competition of 1,050 kilometers!

So when Airoldi heard about the Athens Olympics, he likely thought a 42-kilometer marathon would not be a problem at all. Unfortunately, there was another problem. He was not a man of means like the majority of athletes attending the Athens Olympics. He could not afford to take trains or ships from Italy to Greece.

So he decided to walk. Two thousand kilometers. So that he could run 42.

He convinced an Italian magazine, La Bicicletta, to sponsor his expenses in exchange for his story. He figured if he walked and jogged some 70 kilometers a day, he could make it to Athens in a month. So, according to this article in Italian, he departed Milan on February 28, 1896, taking his first steps in the cold and windy winter weather. The book, The Olympics: A Very Peculiar History, explains that after making it 700 kilometers to Ragusa, Yugosloavia, Airoldi bought a ticket for a boat to Pattras in Western Greece, before walking another 200 kilometers to Athens.

It took Airoldi a little over a month, but he made it!

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Not quite the build you’d expect of a marathon runner….

Airoldi arrived in the Greek capital in early April, just in time for the start of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for him, these weren’t the Games of the ancient Greeks. These were the Games of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in the purity of amateur athletics, that only those who were not tainted by victory prizes were allowed to compete.

When asked by members of the organizing committee whether he have ever received money in a competition, Airoldi replied sincerely that he indeed had, the previous year, after winning the Milan-Barcelona race a year before. Perhaps, as the Italian article explains, there was also concern that this renown distance runner from Italy was a threat to the favored Greeks in the marathon. Whatever the reason, a shocked Airoldi was declined eligibility to run in the marathon.

“If only they could walk a mile in my shoes…,” he may have thought.

marathon to athens map
Marathon to Athens

Albin Lermusiaux of France, jumped out to the lead, but eventually relented to the Greek heat, and quit the footrace at the 32 kilometer mark, carried the rest of the way by horse-drawn cart. Then the Australian, Edwin Flack, jumped to the lead, only to fall at the 37 kilometer mark.

At these first modern Olympic Games in Athens, on April 10, 1896, 80,000 people sat in the Panathenaic Stadium waiting, listening to updates brought in by messengers on bicycles or horses. This was the scene of the very first marathon, an event created for the first Olympic Games. A colleague of Pierre de Coubertin, Michel Bréal, transformed a legendary story of a man named Pheidippides into an Olympic event. In 492 BC, Pheidippides ran from a place called Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 42 kilometers, to deliver new of a Greek victory over Persia, in what is called the Battle of Marathon.

So when the spectators in Panathenaic Stadium saw who was first to enter the stadium, an explosive cheer split the sky. A Greek named Spyridon Louis was to win the final event of the first modern Olympic Games in the spiritual home of the Olympics. Here is how David Goldblatt, author of the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, described the significance of that moment:

It proved to be the most important event of the games, generating the kind of modern mythological hero and collective stadium spectacle that raised the 1896 Olympics above the level of a country-house games weekend or a mere historical recreation…. The man who entered the stadium first was the Greek, Spyridon Louis. The crowd went wild. The king and the crown prince descended to the track to run alongside him and, when the had finished the race, members of the royal entourage and the organizing committee embraced and kissed him.

Coubertin was also impressed, according to Goldblatt. “Egad! The excitement and the enthusiasm were simply indescribably. One of the most extraordinary sights that I can remember. Its imprint stays with me.”

Spyridon Louis

Louis was not a man of wealth. He made his wages by transporting mineral water his father mined to buyers in Athens. After his victory, Louis was showered with gifts, but continued to live a simple life of a farmer and later as a police officer.

Four years prior to his death in 1940, forty years after his momentous victory in the marathon, he could still remember that moment of glory with happiness.

That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream … Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air …

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Sakura-machi Park, Koganei_April 2004

Spring is here.

In Tokyo, you know because wherever you go, you are blessed by the blossom.

Unfortunately, the IOC does not entertain the idea of the Spring Olympics, so the image of youthful athletes running through a flurry of falling blossom petals will have to await a fictionalized Hollywood vision.

 

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Naka-Meguro Station_March, 2014

 

The Summer Games are almost always held in July or August, probably because by now that is a period most other major sporting organizations would avoid for a meet or a championship. Summer Games have been held in October to avoid typhoons (Tokyo) and the heat (Mexico City), and they have been held in November and December (Melbourne) because it is summer down under in those months.

But the very first modern Olympic Games, in Athens Greece, were held in the Spring. The first re-boot of the Games were played from April 6 to 15, 1896. So today is the 121st anniversary of the start of the first Olympic Games.

Sakura Kinshicho Park
Kinshicho Park_April 2017

And just as Spring is the best time to visit Greece, you can say the same for Japan. Not only for the incredible food. But also for the eye candy that is the cherry blossom tree. I’ve been in Japan for over 18 years – I never get tired of staring out into a sea of pale pink, or strolling by a lone cherry tree. Even the very first budding of flower on a cool March morning brings delight and warmth.

The cherry blossom, and its representations of youth and beauty, accentuated by its relatively fleeting existence, is an icon of Japan, so much so that it was a powerful emblem in Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.

So if you want to see Japan at its best, come during the cherry blossom season.

sakura blossom

Sakura 2017: The best places to see cherry blossoms in Japan

20 Of The Best Pictures Of 2014’s Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Japanese hanami lovers reveal the top ten things to bring on a cherry blossom viewing picnic

Cartoon Charilaos Trikoupis
Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis and the tough economic seas he had to navigate

After all that trouble Baron Pierre de Coubertin went through to get an international congress to re-boot the Olympic Games, the Games were quickly in peril in the early days of the planning process.

From the beginning, the prime minister of Greece, Charilaos Trikoupis, was not interested in hosting the Olympic Games in Athens. In 1892, Greece’s Treasury was bankrupt due to high-priced government programs. Thus, the prime minister was not in the mood for another expensive boondoggle like the Olympics. He thought that if anything, the government should sponsor an event devoted to promoting the agro-industry of Greece.

Equally consequential, the Greeks Coubertin left behind to help organize the Games, quickly agreed that the expense of the Games would outweigh the potential glory, and disbanded.

That’s when the nemesis of the prime minister stepped in. Tripkoupis was at odds with the King of Greece and the royalty in general as the prime minister felt the King’s hand meddled too much in Greek politics. Perhaps royal intrigue was part of the reason why Trikoupis was prime minister 7 times from 1875 to 1895. But despite the prime minister’s influence in keeping the Olympics off the calendar.

Crown Prince Constantine stepped up and declared the re-establishment of the Olympics in Greece as a priority. The crown prince, who was already an honorary president of the committee, took control, establishing a new working committee, and solicited the generous funds of a rich businessman named George Averoff, had new sports facilities built, like the Panathenaic Stadium, and a velodrome.

Crown Prince Constantine
Crown Prince Constantine

Reluctantly, Trikoupis agreed that the Olympics should be hosted in Athens. And unfortunately, the pressure on the Greek government to pay back the country’s debt as it fought its way out of bankruptcy was too immense. The prime minister recommended higher taxes to pay its debt, but that’s not a great platform for a politician to run on. With little support, Trikoupis resigned and eventually lost his seat in the general election.

With the uncooperative prime minister out of the way, the Greek Royalty and Coubertin was able to move forward in the restoration of the Athens Olympic Games in 1896.

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Officials of the 1st Olympic Committee in 1896, Coubertin seated left

Beyond expectations, the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896 was a success. It was said that 80,000 people cheered the last event – the marathon – with an enthusiasm bordering on hysteria.

Even overseas, the Athens Olympics was praised for its “triumph of sentiment, of association, of distinction, of unique splendour,” and that “the flavour of the Athenian soil, the indefinable poetic charm of knowing one’s self thus linked with the past, a successor to the great heroic figures of olden times – the splendid sportsmanship of the whole affair.”

But Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who today is seen as the father of the modern-day Olympics, did not hear the cheers. He was not given credit for the establishment of these Games by dignitaries or the press, let alone mentioned. As David Goldblatt wrote in his history, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, “he was equally piqued by the failure of the royal house of the post-stadium crowd to acknowledge his role in inviting and animating the games, writing ‘I don’t care what the Greek newspapers say about me. When it comes to ingratitude, Greece easily wins first prize…You all got your branches…in a full stadium from the hands of the King. I am the only one whose name, if ever mentioned, was spoken only in secret.”

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Father of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, baron de Coubertin

But indeed, Coubertin was the animating force behind the modern Olympics. His was a particular vision in sports. As Goldblatt describes, Coubertin was a man of the aristocracy and well connected. After visiting England and meeting Dr Penny Brookes and seeing his Much Wenlock Games, Coubertin realized that sport had a way of unifying people. From that point on, Coubertin had a vision for unifying the world, as he knew then, in a vision of sport and sportsmanship.

The late 19th century was a time of optimism. Technology was making the world smaller. And the more people knew the people of other lands, the more they traded with people of other lands, the more they visited other lands, the less likely, some thought, that they would go to war with other lands. For Coubertin, sports was a mechanism for peace.

It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more…Let us export rowers, runners and fencers: there is the free trade of the future, and on the day it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new and might stay. This is enough to encourage your servant to dream now…to continue and complete, on a basis suited to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and salutary task, namely the restoration of the Olympic Games.

Coubertin spoke those words in a conference he organized in November 1882. Goldblatt wrote that the audience was indifferent to his ideas. But he was not discouraged. His next goal was to arrange another conference, in May 1894. He continued to write and meet people from other lands, associates and friends, royalty and heads of states, explaining his vision of a new Olympics, one based on the principles of peace and internationalism. He got 78 delegates from sports organizations from 12 nations to attend his Paris