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Historians query baron’s role in Olympics revival

Under a plain marble plaque in a colonnaded courtyard in the center of Athens lies the severed head of the little-known man who some historians believe was really responsible for reviving the modern Olympics. As the Games return to their birthplace in August, the ghost of Evangelos Zappas is stirring and it threatens to explode the myth that the Olympic revival was the brainchild of the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Historians argue that long-overdue credit should be given to Zappas and to a British doctor, William Penny Brookes. Before de Coubertin was born, the lavishly wealthy Zappas had funded and organized a series of Olympic Games in Athens that historians say the Frenchman later went to pains to conceal. According to Constantinos Georgiadis in his new book «Olympic Revival,» the baron who founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was a latecomer to the idea of reviving the ancient Greek spectacle and who then omitted the two men whose ideas he had borrowed from in the histories he produced. «Until recently, everything we’d read about the history of the Olympics was written by de Coubertin himself and in most of the 12,000 pages he identified himself as the sole architect,» Georgiadis told Reuters. Today, the IOC acknowledges only the baron as the architect of the Olympic movement and credits him with the creation of the first official modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. But after years of trawling through archives, Georgiadis discovered that Zappas and Brookes had organized national Olympics in their own countries four decades earlier and had lobbied the Greek government to host an international Games. Zappas, born in Albania to Greek Orthodox parents, enjoyed a colorful career as a freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks in the 1820s before going on to make a fortune in the distillery business in Romania. Keen to use his wealth to put the new Greek state on the map, he answered a call from the Athenian poet Panayiotis Soutsos to revive the ancient sporting festival. With Zappas footing the bill, the first modern Olympics were staged in the Greek capital in 1859, featuring familiar events such as the 200-meter sprint alongside less orthodox sports such as «bladdering» in which athletes leapt six times over a wine skin. Zappas died six years later and bequeathed his entire fortune to the Olympia committee whose job it was to stage Olympics every four years, build a grand exhibition hall and rebuild the ruined ancient Panathenaic Stadium. He left instructions that his corpse should be divided between the three countries he loved best. Initially, he was buried in Romania but upon completion of the Athens exhibition hall, christened the Zappeion, the body was dug up. The corpse was decapitated and the head entombed in the Zappeion while the remainder was sent to the village in which he was born in Albania. Georgiadis’s claims are endorsed by US academic Dr David Young whose 1996 book «Olympics: the Struggle for Revival» highlights the contribution of Britain’s Brookes. «I fear that Coubertin’s vanity caused him to seek all the credit and actively cover up the contributions of others, denying that the Zappas Games ever happened at all and omitting Brookes’s name from his ‘Memoires Olympiques,’» said Young. Born in the small town of Much Wenlock, in Shropshire, Brookes was a keen classicist who organized a series of Games he described as «Olympic.» What began as a local athletics festival grew to become the British Olympic Games in 1887. The first event open to women was knitting. Brookes learned of the Olympiads in Athens and wrote to Zappas. The pair exchanged money that was used as prizes in their respective Games. It was Brookes who in 1881 proposed to the Greek government that the parallel Olympics should be internationalized, according to an article at the time in the Greek newspaper Klio. In 1890, de Coubertin visited the Much Wenlock Games, where, according to Young, he was initiated into the idea of an international Olympics. Within four years, the IOC was formed and the Greek government had agreed to host the first international Games. «Until then, Coubertin was relatively uninterested in classical ideas and Olympic revivalism,» writes Georgiadis. But the Olympic establishment continues to downplay the contribution of Zappas and Brookes. Jean-Loup Chappelet, secretary-general of the De Coubertin Foundation, which is staging exhibitions in Athens in August, insists that de Coubertin’s legacy is of primary importance. «(He) is the one who worked hard toward this goal, networking with sports organizations… founding the IOC in 1894, fighting for circulating the Games across continents, unlike Zappas and Penny Brookes who kept their Games at the same place.» Both historians insist they are not interested in diminishing the role of the baron but that Olympic history needs revision. «I have no desire to discredit Coubertin but I do think others deserve some credit too,» said Young.