Singular effort, done twice before

If ever you start feeling sorry for the organizers of the Athens 2004 Olympics, however likely that might be, spare a thought for those who staged the first Olympics in Athens 106 years ago. The current Games effort has solid government and opposition backing, seven years’ lead time to do all the work, an Olympic park already in place, an experienced and flush International Olympic Committee behind it, calling the shots, business sponsors spending fortunes to promote it (and themselves along with it), a public budget of over 4 billion euros just to cover new infrastructure and lots more from the IOC to cover operations, and EU help for all the auxiliary projects to boot. The 1896 promoters weren’t quite so fortunate. They had less than two years to do everything, the main stadium was a decrepit wreck, the city lacked decent facilities, the Olympics had been dormant for 1,500 years, so there was no precedent to learn from, the IOC was brand new and tiny, there was no budget and no money available, people resigned en masse from the organizing committee in despair, the effort became a royal family affair, and the Greek government was indifferent if not hostile to the whole project from the word go. It had reason to be, having officially declared bankruptcy just six months before a conference in Paris so kindly asked Greece to assume the burden of hosting the inaugural Olympiad of the modern era. And yet, somehow they managed. What Athens 2004 faces seems like child’s play in comparison. Well, almost. Big book… Such is the sort of entertaining and informative material offered up in a bilingual new book, «Oi Olympiakoi Agones Stin Athina 1896-1906» (The Olympic Games in Athens 1896-1906), written by Vassilis Kardasis, an associate professor at the University of Crete, and published by Ephesus (2002, 88 euros). If books were sold by the kilo, this hefty tome would be a valuable commodity indeed. But it is hardly empty bulk, as it presents a clearly written, richly illustrated history of the modern Olympics revival and its times, sprinkled with anecdotes, nostalgic illustrations and attractive period artwork. The text is clear and straightforward, and the author lets the fascinating material do the talking, without driving home pet theories of his own. The term «coffee-table book» may be descriptive but hardly does justice to this volume, which is based on selective but not overwrought archival research (185 endnotes in around 300 oversized pages) and is more than a flashy collage of color. Big books published in Greece tend increasingly to be in Greek and English, and this one offers Greek text on left-hand pages and the English version – professionally rendered by Geoffrey Cox – on the facing pages, both in double-spaced format, which means the amount of material is not actually that huge. The timing is perfect for Christmas; just don’t try stuffing it into anyone’s stocking. … on a big subject Two broad points are clear from perusing this text. One is that the 1896 Games came at a pivotal time for Greece, coinciding with the flowering of late-19th century Greek nationalism that was embodied in Greece’s Megali Idea (Great Idea) based on cultural and physical expansion, which the IOC unwittingly played into by convening the inaugural Games in Athens and choosing a noted Greek literary and nationalist figure, Dimitris Vikelas, as its first president – despite his belief in his «extreme unsuitability» for the post. After all the logistical mess endured in just putting them on (the cost of which hastened the end of the illustrious career of Harilaos Tricoupis, who died in the middle of the Athens Games), the Games came to assume intense, and disproportionate, symbolic importance. In particular, the marathon, a modern contrivance not an ancient race, became a key focus of national attention – and that was before Spyridon Louis emerged out of nowhere to win the inaugural race. The unprepossessing water-bearer from Maroussi was thrust into the limelight, showered with gifts and held up as an archetypal link with the spirit of liberation of 1821 and even with the ancient civilization. The abortive Greek effort, post-Games, to keep the Olympics in Greece permanently, which the IOC rejected outright amid considerable tension, was another example of this sense of messianic national cultural mission fueled by the 1896 events. The second point, emphasized from the outset in Kardasis’s text, is that the Olympic movement itself reflected broader European trends in the age of imperialism. The establishment of an international sports festival was a way of overcoming national passions and nationalist obsessions. Too bad those who preached didn’t always practice; we read that the 1894 congress in Paris, which launched the Games, pointedly excluded any German participation. One of Baron de Coubertin’s aims was to bolster French education – and France’s national standing – by emulating British public school practices and drawing on the ancient Games as examples, thus consciously counterbalancing German advances (with implications for the Greek royal family; King George was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister). Even before they first convened in Athens, the Olympics contained within themselves the seeds of nationalism (even racialism) and internationalism, in uneasy coexistence. A city overhauled The two Games of 1896 and 1906 also had major local impact, and two of the six chapters examine life in burgeoning Athens itself. In 1896 the city had 100,000 residents – and even that was 10 times the number in 1834 – representing just 5 percent of the country’s population (it’s over a third now); by 1906 it was at 160,000. It was full of dirt streets, slums and «dust by the ladleful;» today’s central, overcrowded district of Ambelokipi was a country excursion and Maroussi, to one observer, «a little village somewhere in Attica.» It was a mere town back then, but the Games were equally small scale, with around 300 athletes, the majority Greek. At the other end of the social spectrum, wealthy Greeks stepped in with their wallets after a hard sell from the organizers, who were led by Crown Prince Constantine. The old stadium was overhauled by funds from a private benefactor, Giorgos Averoff, but it went way over budget and was ready just three days before the opening ceremonies. Women were banned from competing and even from the preparations in 1896, although a dirt-poor mother of seven from Syros, thinking there was money involved, petitioned to run in the marathon race, actually doing a training run in bare feet, and covered the distance in four hours. At the 1906 «Mid-Olympiad,» though, they did compete. Such side facts and anecdotes are often the best part of such publications. The farcical first attempt to introduce «Olympia» Games in the mid-19th century, for example, led to athletic events being staged right in Omonia (then called Ludovicos) Square. If it’s chaotic now, it was then too; the Avghi daily wrote, «The spectacle was so repellent that everyone left disgusted… [from] this tragicomic scene, which we shall never forget.» Other, more successful «Olympia» attempts prior to the 1890s indicated a growing determination in Greece to put its modern stamp on an ancient institution. Then and now It is always tempting to draw parallels with the present, and many offer themselves: a change of mayor in Athens shortly before the 1896 Games; a citywide rush to make up for lost time; a lack of decent accommodation; a sort of Cultural Olympiad that fell foul of internal disagreements, yet still managed to stage good theater; and the transition from initial chaos and doubt to what became a triumphal conclusion to it all, though with a stiff political and economic hangover afterward. The information seems reliable apart from a few missteps (e.g. the misattribution of Pheidippides as the ancient runner from Marathon, loose usage of the term «Olympiad»). One thing missing is an index, lamented because the text is so full of useful references. This indicates a fast-track production schedule and detracts from the book’s overall usability for the diligent, not just the casual, reader. Compiling an index is a miserable essential, or perhaps an essential misery – sort of like the Great Athens Cleanup that will begin on the evening of August 29th, 2004, right after the closing ceremonies.