Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The first modern Olympic Games ..


We all know when the first Olympic Games of the modern era took place, don’t we?
Of course. Athens, 1896.

Wrong. We are quarter of a century too late with the fact and forty years late with the idea.

I have in front of me a report on the Olympian Games, date line 27 November 1870. Warning ‘it is only lately that anything like a systematic course of training for competitive athletic exercises has been seriously entertained’, it goes on to describe how the bequest of a certain wealthy Peloponnesian, living in Jassy, by the name of Evangelos Zappas (d 1865), had left a sum of thirty thousand francs per annum ‘to assist in establishing an Exhibition of [Greek] National Industry and of Competitive Athletics sports under the title of the ‘Olympia’ … [to] recur at intervals of four years, as in ancient times’.

A ‘tasteful building’, the Zappeion, 50 metres by 25, was erected among the ruined columns of the temple of Jupiter Olympus, to house the exhibition, and the ‘Olympian Games’ took place ‘on a recent Sunday afternoon in the ancient stadion at Athens’. Gosh! Those were the days! The games all over in an afternoon.

The stadion had in recent years been ‘a grass grown hollow frequented by flocks of sheep’, so the King had to buy up the paddocks from the ‘owners’. Which meant he got to keep the marble Hermes that was dug up. The excavations also uncovered the ancient marble judges’ (?) chairs and the ring of the race track …

When the big afternoon arrived the place was packed. 20,000 spectators it was estimated. And ‘some thirty well-formed men, whose flesh-coloured tights were the nearest approximation to the oiled nakedness of their ancestors’ appeared to take part. There was jumping (with and without the pole), and wrestling and running – 2 lengths of the stadion, so circa 400 metres – rope climbing, climbing the 20 metre mast, rope-pulling, throwing the 25cm discus or quoit, javelin throwing not for distance but at a target… and at the end of each event the victor climbed to the King’s seat to receive an olive crown from the royal hands. Second place got an olive branch from the Queen. Third a sprig of bay leaves. Mr Zappas had asked for gold and silver medals, but the olive was regarded as more authentic. And probably less expensive.

‘On the whole’ reported our witness, the [feats] were of a higher order of merit than was generally expected at this, the first attempt to revive the Olympic Games on the spot where the ancient Greeks covered themselves with glory over twenty-two centuries ago’.

I wonder if there was a second Olympian Games in 1874. Or if Mr Zappas’s money got sidewound into something else. I wonder if the King stuck with the enterprise. Probably not, given the state of Greece in the late C19th. But I must say, give or take the flesh-coloured body-stockings, I would have so loved to have been there. When Games were Games, and synchronized swimming and ping-pong weren’t invented …

A little more history. Mr Zappas. I’m sorry he wasn’t around to see his games. He’d been trying so hard for so long. And he had even got the Queen-Regent of Greece to sign a decree as long ago as 1858, re-establishing the Olympic Games. Sponsor, of course, Mr Zappas. Well, he got the Exhibition off the ground in 1859, but the Games (in spite of what is written) had to wait a bit longer. Still, when, in 1896, the new proposal to mount the ‘international’ (alas, dread word) games was mooted ‘mainly due to France and America’ and ‘the sudden growth of a taste for athletics in France’ was begun Evangelos was not forgotten. The press remembered his efforts.

Do folk today? I wonder. Pierre de Coubertin, secretary of the original 1896 committee (the president was the Baron de Courcel) gets the credit nowadays of being the father of the bloated baby now known as ‘the Olympics’. I think that title belongs to Evangelos.

PS can we reintroduce the long-jump with pole?

PPS this story isn't new, Evangelos is even on Wikipedia, but it is new to me, and the description warmed me!

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