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Untangling the chains of history

Next week, Jacques Rogge will pay a somewhat unaccustomed visit to Athens as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), inspecting Games sites and seeing the 2004 Olympic torch unveiled. To be sure, this visit is less taxing than one in November 1894 that brought his illustrious predecessor, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, to town; he was here twisting arms in a last-ditch effort to keep a reluctant Athens from backing out of the Games completely. The torch was passed to the IOC’s seventh president 18 months ago. How will the historians look back on the Rogge era? It’s a bit early to tell. So far, his efforts to crack down on drug abuse and to address the Games’ overblown size have marked him out in terms of both vision and pragmatism, while his relaxed style helps soothe ruffled feathers among sponsors, organizers and the media. De Coubertin, too, was a French-speaking diplomat with vision, and a realist. But otherwise, they’re worlds apart and a century removed. And if the Coubertin legacy is any indication, it takes a long time to determine what the truth is and where the emphasis should lie, especially since he was responsible for setting out much of that history himself. One-man job? The Olympics revival was sparked by an ambitious visionary from northern Europe, a philhellene who believed in the value of sport for education, who fought to hold them in Athens in order to promote ideals of amateur but inclusive athleticism and international cooperation, and thus a better world. Thus spoke one William Penny Brookes. If you have never heard of this quietly extraordinary figure, you’re in the vast majority. Most accepted Olympics history focuses on the compelling saga of de Coubertin’s role as sole Olympics renovateur, selling this then-crackpot notion to a skeptical world. Yet there is a real case for regarding Brookes as the true Olympics visionary, and de Coubertin as a clever adapter of others’ ideas and a better publicist, not least for himself. At least, this is the alternative Olympics interpretation set out in painstaking detail in «The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival» by David Young (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Young, a classicist and modern Olympics historian, carefully unfolds a story that does more justice to 19th century Greek revivalist efforts than the «great (French) man of history» story line. Its chain links a Greek poet, a one-time mercenary, an English physician, an expatriate novelist and an upper-class pedagogue, and includes salacious details like misused funds, personal rivalries, and even a severed head and a disembodied heart (de Coubertin’s is buried at ancient Olympia). It is the stuff of fiction but as Young’s work is nearly one-third documentation (70 pages of notes), we should sit up and take notice. The instigators At least three key figures pre-dated de Coubertin. These people not only made the IOC founder’s role possible but without which the modern Olympics would probably have been impossible. In 1833, Panayiotis Soutsos published a lengthy poem «Dialogue of the Dead,» in which Plato’s ghost asks of this poor and truncated new Greek State: «Where are your Olympic Games? Your great festivals, your great theaters, the marble statues, where are they?» Soutsos then spent the next two-and-a-half decades in a lonely crusade to promote an Olympics revival, rotating among four Greek towns. By chance, Soutsos’s proposal was seen by one Evangelis Zappas, who provides one of those too-good-to-be-true stories of enterprising Greeks. He grew up in an Albanian-speaking town in northern Greece, ran off (like many of his generation) into the military services of the Ottoman local strongman Ali Pasha, and settled in Romania, where he made a fortune in landholdings and lived on an estate near Bucharest. It was an unlikely, hardscrabble bio for the man who gave his name to Olympic-style Games and to the graceful Zappeion Mansion in the National Gardens. Bizarrely, his will stated that his head was to be severed and reburied in the Zappeion itself. And so it was, at its 1888 inauguration. It is sometimes claimed that Frank Zappa, the late mad rocker of Mothers of Invention fame, was a Zappas descendant, but this is probably apocryphal. Zappas proposed a Games revival at his own expense. Accepting such a generous proposal seemed a no-brainer, yet officials dithered, afraid, perhaps, of emphasizing athletics, where Greece neither excelled nor needed to. Zappas then upped the ante in 1856 by sending a large sum to renovate the ancient Panathenaic Stadium and start up the Games. This time a royal decree got the so-called Zappas Olympics under way, of which four installments – a rather disorganized attempt in 1859, a sterling one in 1870 (in the partially renovated stadium), and ill-starred efforts in 1875 and 1889 – were held. Had the huge Zappas bequest (padded further by his 1865 will) been used properly, the Greek organizers for 1896 might never have had to go to Giorgos Averoff holding the collection plate. The English doctor Enter W.P. Brookes, a physician from the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England, whom Young calls the «missing link» who «might be seen as the founder of our Olympics.» Brookes had organized his Wenlock Olympic Games yearly since 1850, inspired by the ancient Games; these have been held annually, with interruptions, up to our time. The Wenlock Games were heavy on pageantry, including a parade of athletes and well-turned-out young women to hand out the prizes. This aspect struck de Coubertin as inspired when he visited Much Wenlock in late 1890. Brookes campaigned to take his Games national and rotate them around English cities, and actually held a London Olympic Games in 1866, a landmark event all but overlooked by history. These included swimming, track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, fencing, and boxing, and even included the first pentathlon-type event – but were boycotted by the «gentleman athletes,» most of whom also stayed away from Athens in 1896, an indication of the small-mindedness, bureaucratic intransigence and social exclusionism that marred the ongoing athletics revival in Europe. The late baron Brookes’s emphasis on sport as education caught de Coubertin’s eye. Until the two met (and contrary to received Olympics history), the young Coubertin was neither interested in international Games nor even a philhellene. Documents cited by Young suggest that de Coubertin, even as late as 1890, in fact actively disparaged the notion of international Games (along with rivals like John Astley Cooper). Even after his Much Wenlock visit he wrote tepidly that the British Olympic movement was «not without use… There was no longer any need to invoke memories of Greece and to seek encouragement in the past.» Yet something clearly happened to change his mind, and Brookes’s ideas, enthusiasm and willingness to share with his young charge must have been that spark. Brookes advocated international Games in Athens in a September 1892 speech; just two months later de Coubertin did the same, in what is erroneously regarded as the first official Olympics proposal. To Young, all this smacks of opportunism as much as a genuine change of heart. Certainly, Brookes regarded the young baron as the new torchbearer, and de Coubertin was happy to oblige. Young’s summary is fairly damning: «As the years progressed, Coubertin seemed to forget more and more about his predecessors in the Olympic movement in England and Greece… eventually giving Brookes no credit for the Olympic idea, and consciously misrepresenting the Greeks’ activity so that it appeared that Greece had had no Olympic revival whatsoever.» His sidekick, Georges Bourdon, apparently even admitted to trying to discredit the Zappas events – an eye-opening revelation if true. Young further suggests that the pivotal 1894 Paris congress, which launched the Athens revival Games and the IOC, effectively ratified a prior, secret deal cut by de Coubertin with the Greek government over hosting the first Games. By then, the horses were out of the gate and de Coubertin, who churned out publications throughout his life, was free to interpret things as he would. Yet he apparently did little in the way of helping with the 1896 effort – which worsened his relations with the Greek organizers during and after the Games. This neglect may be overstated, given de Coubertin’s successful crisis visit in November 1894 at the behest of IOC President Dimitris Vikelas. Still, de Coubertin comes across as falsely claiming sole paternity, partly neglecting his own baby, then later claiming he was an excellent but unappreciated father. Clearly, though, he was a pivotal figure, proposing to rotate the Games among the cities of the world, believing in the Olympics’ peacemaking potential, and working the connections, public relations touch, and timing to make it all happen. His main sin seems to be one of omission and selective memory. Perhaps it all shows how those who set out to make history are not generally the best ones to write that history up. Young has done the Olympics experience, and modern history, a favor even as he has rattled some cages with his endnotes.