Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

The International Olympic Committee announced on Monday, July 31, 2017, that Los Angeles, California will be the host to the 2028 Summer Olympics. They are also the second city to be awarded the Olympics three times. London, which last hosted in 2012, also held the Olympics in 1908 and 1948. When Paris is given the official nod for 2020, the City of Lights will be the third city with the right to host three Olympiads.

The announcement on Monday was no surprise as the IOC has been quite public about its attempt to get Paris and LA to agree to hosting either 2024 and 2028. This allows the IOC to skip a (potentially painful) selection cycle that would have started in 2021. This deal buys the IOC time to persuade candidate cities in the future that the Olympics doesn’t have to be such a tremendous burden on the host nation.

What’s interesting about Los Angeles is that in all three cases – 1932, 1984, 2028 – they won the bid without competition.

Paris insisted on 2024, and explained that the land reserved for the new Olympic Village would not be available if they had to wait for 2028. LA would have 2028 if they wanted it. The IOC sweetened the pot financially, and LA willingly sunk their hands in it.

In 1978, two years removed from the financial debacle that was the Montreal Olympics, and only six years after the terror of the Munich Olympics, only two cities were in the hunt for 1984 – LA and Tehran. Tehran was likely feeling the rumbles of the Iranian Revolution, which exploded a year later, so pulled out of its bid, leaving Los Angeles as the only choice.

 

Iranian Revolution
The Iranian Revolution

 

In 1932, it is said, that newly appointed IOC member representing the United States, William May Garland, attended the IOC’s twenty first session in Rome in 1923, and swept the committee off its feet. Garland was a wealthy Californian real estate magnate who saw the Olympics in Los Angeles as drama worthy of Hollywood. According to the book The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt, Garland “pitched” the Olympics like a movie script. Goldberg cites the Official Report to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as the kind of rhetoric that Garland may have used:

An excited whisper runs like a flash across the stadium.

And then hush.

A voice that fills every corner of the vast bowl breaks forth from the huge electoral announcer.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Vice-President of the United States is arriving to officially open the Games.’

The Vic-President arrives at his box and for the first time is clearly identified to the audience. He waves his hand to acknowledge a renewed outburst of cheers.

His gesture brings a hush to the babble of noises.

The time-table on the daily programme is hastily consulted. What comes next?

Garland sat at the intersection of realtors, oil companies and movie magnates, who, as Goldblatt writes, “in the early twentieth century, as the region’s great historian, Carey McWilliams, put it, ‘began to organize Southern California as one of the greatest promotions the world has ever known’, selling the California good life, the new Mediterranean, paradise on the Pacific. In his letters and interviews with the press, Garland often referred to the athletes as actors and the Olympics as a celebration or a show, the sport itself seemingly ancillary.”

Apparently Garland’s vision was so compelling that, according to the book, The Olympics – A History of the Modern Games, by Allen Guttman, “the members accepted the bid by acclamation.”

william may garland
William May Garland
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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 …

first olympic committee 1896
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.”

pierre-de-coubertin
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

Cotswold Games

Robbie Brightwell was a 16-year old student in Shropshire, England, and was straining to keep his eyes open while doing research in his local library when he came upon an old magazine and was struck by a picture of runners in a competition sometime in the late 19th century. As he related in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, he was surprised to see that in an area called Much Wenlock, not far from his own, there was a sporting event called “The Olympics”.

Intrigued, Brightwell, who went on to captain Britain’s track and field team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, began impromptu research into the Much Wenlock Games, and learned that Baron de Coubertin, at the age of 27, came to Much Wenlock and met an 81-year-old English physician, who planted the idea for what we now recognize as the Modern Olympics.

But as is true with any great endeavor, new ideas and initiatives are often built on earlier iterations. According to The Games: A Global History of the  Olympics by David Goldblatt, events held in both England and France could be considered precursors to Coubertin’s Olympics.

The Cotswold Games: In the early part of the 17th century, fairs and festivals were a common part of the English country lifestyle. One of the biggest in England was the Cotswold Games in Chipping Camden, a mixture of fun and sports, contests and gambling. As can be seen in the poster for the Cotswold Games, also known as the “Cotswold Olimpicks”, there was a mock castle created on a hill, in front of which was the main theater for the events. Developed by Robert Dover, a “charismatic and charming man”, the Cotswold Games featured “hare coursing and horse racing, wrestling and shin kicking, stick fighting and hammer throwing.” Dover established this country fair in 1612 and was able to organize the Cotswold Games for about 30 years. Unfortunately for Dover, and perhaps the community of Chipping Camden, the 1630s saw a shift from the hedonistic reign of King James I to a more conservative, puritanical approach of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the King in 1645. That put an end to the Cotswold Games.

The Republican Olympiad: When the French monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, leaders of the new republic were excited about change to come. One of the leaders of the revolution, Charles Gilbert Romme, devised a way to update the calendar for a new, enlightened France. With five days added to the year, with the inclusion of another day added to a Leap Year, which would take place every four years. According to Goldblatt, “Romme thought that the lead day might be a good occasion for staging public festivities and games: ‘we suggest calling it the French Olympiad and the final year the Olympics Year.” In 1796, the first Republican Olympiad was held in Paris, where hundreds of thousands came out for games, music, dancing, running and wrestling. Winners of competitions won wreaths of laurels, pistols, sabres, vases and watches. The Republican Olympiad continued for two more cycles, but died out before the start of the 19th century.

Benefit of Mr Kite and John Lennon
John Lennon in front of poster that inspired “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

Pablo Fanque’s Travelling Circus Royal: As Goldblatt noted, the Olympics were often more often associated with circuses in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. One of the most popular traveling circuses was called Pablo Fanque’s travelling Circus Royal, which offered an “unrivalled equestrian troupe” and ” new and novel features in the Olympian Games.” Pablo Fanque was said to be the most popular circus proprietor in a golden age of circuses in Victorian England, and was quite accomplished not only as an equestrian, but also as a master of the corde volante. But as you may be able to tell, Fanque’s association to the Olympics is peripheral at best. His association to The Beatles may be stronger. The album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featured a song called “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite“, the lyrics of which are primarily lifted from an 1843 poster marketing Fanque’s Circus Royal.

The Much Wenlock Olympian Games: Dr Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England, agreed with the thinking of the time, that it was important to promote “the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town…by the encouragement of outdoor recreations and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercises and industrial attainments.” The first Much Wenlock Olympic Games were held in 1850. While these Olympic Games were a rural fair, they also had a firm sporting focus. In addition to fun events like wheelbarrow and sack races, both amateurs and professionals competed in cricket, football, archery, hurdling, running, shooting, cycling and a pentathlon. Large cash prizes were awarded.

When Baron de Coubertin, was told about the Much Wenlock Olympic Games, he made it a point to visit and meet Dr Brookes, a seminal act in the origin story of the modern Olympic Games.

William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
William Penny Brookes in 1876 Photo WENLOCK OLYMPIAN SOCIETY
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.

 

Olympia ancient greece_artist's rendition
Artist’s rendition of the site of the ancient Olympia Games

 

Today, the modern-day Olympics are held over a two-week period, or 16 days because it covers three full weekends.

But back in the day, way way back in the day – say over 2500 years ago – The Olympia Games were a five-day affair, as is explained in the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt.

Opening Day: Today, an athlete a judge or official and a coach take an oath symbolically for all athletes, judges and coaches at the opening ceremonies of an Olympiad, promising to uphold the spirit of sportsmanship. Here is the athlete’s oath, for example: “In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

In the 5th century BC, athletes, trainers and their families took an oath “that they would be guilty of no foul play and that they would be fair and not accept bribes.” But as we find inconsistency at times between what athletes promise to do and what they actually do, we find human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia. According to Goldblatt, “there was plenty of cheating and plenty of bribery.” He went on to say that the many statues of Zeus that adorned the area of the sporting grounds were paid by with fined for rule breakers.

boxing in ancient greece
Greek boxer surrendering by raising of index finger

Day Two: According to Alan Carter’s book, The Olympic Glory That Was Greece, the second day was devoted to competitions for boys. The morning saw heats after heats of foot races as the qualifiers are shrunk down to the finalists. The victor receives a palm leaf, and his family and home town are honored by his grand accomplishment. The afternoon sees competitions in wrestling and boxing for the boys, as well as what could be considered a mixed-martial art called the pankration. Carter described it as “training for warriors who would be engaging in hand to hand confrontation with the enemy and Sparta was particularly associated with the sport.” In the pankration, you could bite or gouge eyes.

Day Three: On the third day, according to Carter, spectators enjoyed chariot races at the hippodrome. There were some six variants of chariot races – two and four-horse competitions, two mules, or foals as well – and they ran anywhere from 3,500 to 14,000 meters long. Below is a clip from the 1959 film Ben Hur, which is supposedly Rome in AD 26, over 680 years after the establishment of the four-horse chariot race. If the chariot races in Olympia were anything like this, I could see why this was a must-see event!

Day Four: Goldblatt wrote that day four was the day for generalists, when the pentathlon was held. The pentathlon then was made up of five events: the discus throw, the long jump, the javelin throw, a foot race and wrestling. According to Goldblatt, the competitors faced off in a footrace, the discus, the javelin and a jump that may have included weights. The winner was often determined after these four events. In the a winner could not be decided, wrestling was the tie breaker. The order and the way the winner was decided apparently is unclear and still debated.

Again, due to the sketchiness of the historical accounts, there is debate as to what happened on the fourth day. According to Carter, Day Four was a festive days, starting with the slaughter of 100 oxen in honor of Zeus. This was followed by the premier events, the stadion (200 yard foot race), the diaulos (400-yard foot race), followed by wrestling, boxing and pankration.

Day Five: Goldblatt wrote that day five is running, wrestling, boxing and “pankrating” (if I can turn that into a gerund). But Carter wrote that it is about pomp and circumstance, focusing on awarding the victors at the Temple of Zeus. The winners are announced with trumpets and declarations of their names and hometowns. They are given a palm leaf to hold and a wild olive branch to wear as a crown. After that, its feasting and partying into the night.