Staking a claim to the Olympics mantle, the 1896 event starts the ball rolling

Greece’s success had its own unintended consequences, thanks to a bit of justified hubris. King George got the ball rolling at a closing victors’ banquet in April 1896 when, making his toast, he stated his «hope that the foreigners who honored it will appoint our land as a peaceful meeting place of the nations, as a continuous and permanent field of the Olympic Games;» this may have caused the subsequent drink to go down the wrong way in some foreign throats. This also ignited a decade-long effort – bolstered by an open letter from the American athletic delegation at Athens – backing King George’s proposal to have Greece permanently host the Modern Games, a territorial claim of sorts that conflicted directly with de Coubertin’s idea (since, of course, realized) of Games rotating around different cities, as well as his intention of bringing them home to Paris. The dispute simmered for a decade as the Greeks watched their opening effort wither away as athletics took a back seat to other concerns, first to Paris’s Exposition Internationale (staggered over some five months) and then to the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair, physically out of reach for most athletic delegations (just 13 attended). But allegations that the second and third Games were total failures may be overstated; Paris hosted four times the athletes Greece had in 1896, and the overall St Louis numbers were lower than Paris but triple those of 1896. Quid pro quo What emerged, after some uneasy interchange between the Greeks and the IOC, was a classic diplomatic quid pro quo; de Coubertin came around to the idea of a Greek-initiated return Games in Athens and was able to drag along a reluctant IOC (though he never made an appearance at the 1906 Games). This step would, in turn, assuage Greek enthusiasts of an anniversary Olympics celebration in Athens (which most national Olympics committees opposed), who had been chafing at the bit for a decade. The Interim Games would serve multiple purposes: They would bring the athletic events back to center stage, not just as a side show; find a spirit of renewal in the city of their modern birth and the country of their origin; and, as a compromise (but unrealized) proposal in 1897 by Vikelas had it, would inaugurate a separate series of Games in Athens between Olympiads, without actually moving the entire Games apparatus to Greece. Subsequent Greek-based initiatives – the International Olympic Academy, the Olympic Truce Foundation, and now Culture Minister Venizelos’s push for a permanent organization promoting Cultural Olympiads – are all a legacy of this century-old drive to put a permanent Greek stamp on Olympic institutions, if not on the Games themselves. The 1906 events were even better attended than the first ones, and the athletic representation featured many prior Games winners; Martin Sheridan, for instance, a New York policeman, took a gold in the discus as he did in both 1904 and 1908. And Greece’s national athletic preparations, commencing with Tinia in 1895, finally paid dividends; the host country topped the USA and Britain on the medals table with 33 total, second only to France’s 40. Even King George apparently got into the action, reportedly accompanying the marathon winner, Canada’s William Sherring, around the track on his final lap.

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