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.