CULTURE

The Olympic revival, noted thoroughly

The coming of the Athens Games has stimulated new research on old themes of Olympic history. One such book, which will surely remain one of the more complete works of its genre, is «Olympic Revival: The Revival of the Olympic Games in Modern Times,» by Constantinos Georgiadis (Ekdotiki Athenon, October 2003). Few are better qualified to write it than Georgiadis, a board member of the 2004 organizing committee and dean of the International Olympic Academy (IOA) since 1992, who has mined the subject all his adult life as a prolific writer and lecturer, dating to his postgraduate studies in Germany. This tastefully illustrated, heavily documented and professionally written English translation (by Richard Witt), sporting an offbeat, lilac-hued cover, is the result of a years-long slog through previously untapped archival material, including the papers of Dimitris Vikelas, a Greek and the first International Olympic Committee president; official correspondence from the 1896 organizing committee; other handwritten letters and even accounts ledgers. The book has the textual heaviness of an archival tome (just one of its nine chapters has 581 endnotes) and the physical weight of a coffee-table-sized work. In his preface, IOA president Nikos Filaretos calls it «magisterial.» There is plenty of historical catchup to do, as much of the early published work came from Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the IOC and its second president, who guided early Olympics history in his own favor. By incorporating other influences, especially Greek ones, this is a mildly revisionist work by a thoroughly establishment figure. For all the classical references pervading the rebirth, the author also unearths little-known folkloric elements, notably kept alive by the Klephts and the Armatoloi, who (women as well as men) engaged in sports in order to keep fit and survive while roaming the countryside. We learn that the tradition of the triple jump (once called the hop, step, and jump), launched as an Olympic event at Athens, was one of the staple sports in their church festivals, along with running, stone-throwing, wrestling, and riding. The Olympic idea was made real at Greece’s Zappas Games, whose four installments he covers in detail, and those at Much Wenlock in Britain, started by William Penny Brookes, now recognized as a key revivalist figure. Hard work and tantrums The Athens Games of 1896 were a novelty, but the colorful invective uncovered here shows they were anything but child’s play. All had to be worked out from scratch, misunderstandings were legion, and the Greek State was out of money. Vikelas emerges as a genuinely pivotal figure, far from the out-of-touch intellectual he is sometimes portrayed as. He took on the IOC role in 1894 with minimal preparation, and was thrust headlong into the frustrating job of intervening on behalf of de Coubertin’s Parisian organization, while also having to mollify easily put-upon Greek organizers (many of whom actually opposed the Games and distrusted the French, especially de Coubertin). The head organizer, Greece’s Crown Prince Constantine, was another key player, but prone to playing the nationalist card. And Giorgos Melas, a committee secretary, wielded a caustic pen, calling de Coubertin «a charlatan who pushed us into this dance and left us in the lurch» and claiming he would have resigned except that he wanted to stay on and tell the baron what he really thought of him. De Coubertin’s role was both pivotal and tangential. It was largely thanks to him that the Olympic idea was launched, but he was absent during most of the preparations and involved with other matters at home. Despite this, the baron comes off as remarkably petty at times, more interested in ensuring that France, and himself, get a good shake from history than in ensuring a well-run Games, which he left to the Greeks to worry about. The well-known falling out between de Coubertin and the Greeks after the Games had plenty of precedent. Political sports For all the personality clashes, serious political issues were also involved, not least the charged question of Germany’s participation at Athens. And the Games stimulated such nationalist sentiment in Greece that war with Turkey broke out the very next year. Georgiadis believes, as do others, that the Games’ great success contributed to Greek conceit and thus to the war – an ironic twist on the old Olympic Truce notion. To the Greeks, he makes clear, the Games revival was a political and cultural, more than athletic, phenomenon, which both raised its significance and added to the pressures. A book purporting to be definitive opens itself up for scrutiny. Witt seems to be working from a workmanlike rather than sparkling original text. The first marathon race gets rather brief coverage, and some chapters could use conclusions. Errors sometimes creep in: The Letrinoi Games effort is given as 1838, at another point 1833; France’s Michel Breal is also called Briel; March 25, 1896 is first (correctly) given as a Monday, later as a Thursday; the index has two entries for «G. Melas.» Such infractions can easily be cleaned up for another edition, as this work, which unveils and compiles so much forgotten material, will undoubtedly form a central part of the historical record of this era, Greece, and this unique event.