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The Olympic movement, lost and found: Even renewing the Games’ spirit has a past

The notion of Greece jump-starting the Olympic movement by renewing its original spirit is central to the ethos driving the 2004 effort. But like the coming Games themselves, this ethos also has an historical precedent dating back a century. For while most know something about the 1896 Olympics in Athens, few are aware that a second – and in some ways even more crucial – set of Games was held here in 1906, to mark the 10th anniversary of the smallish first revival. It all warrants a closer look at their context and their significance for the Olympic movement, for Athens, and for the question of a permanent Olympics base in Greece. The 1896 and 1906 Games form a useful set of Olympics bookends that encased an opening-decade identity crisis for the fledgling Olympic movement. The 1906 Games in particular form a strange chapter in an Olympics history already littered with colorful characters, scandal, and political upheaval (and this is just in the modern version). Even their name is odd; the «Intercalated Games» is most often used, although «Intercalary,» «Intermediate,» «Interim,» or even «Unofficial» also crop up. This designation arose because they were interposed into the normal four-year Olympics cycle, in an atmosphere of some crisis and in an effort to revive a sagging project. The scattered second modern Games of Paris in 1900 had been followed by an even more ill-starred follow-up in 1904 in the unlikely city of St Louis in the US heartland, far from seaports and less than a year after the Wright brothers flew their first air machine. Another Athens Games, pushed strongly by the Greek diaspora, began to have some appeal. The Greeks responded to the 1906 challenge in style, with packed stadiums, nearly 900 athletes from more countries (20) in attendance than in 1896 (14), in the presence of kings and queens, a formal athletes’ procession and, for the first time, an athletes’ oath and gold, silver and bronze medals given to the top placers. Yet for all this, the 1906 Games, at least in terms of official Olympics history, never happened. They have been left out of the record books – eerily reminiscent of Soviet Politburo members who subsequently fell from grace and were airbrushed out of official photographs as if they’d never existed – their medal winners not considered Olympic champions, and their overall results left out of official tabulations. This is a cruel twist of history but also, arguably, a partial indictment of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which went along with the idea without formally sanctioning them, setting the stage for this case of historical limbo; to take credit for them afterward would have dealt a further blow to the IOC’s credibility. Even at the time, the Games were deliberately scheduled in a non-Olympic year and crucially not allowed by the IOC to use the magic designation «Olympic Games.» At any rate, Olympics decisions are not the easiest to change, ex post facto; it took 70 years to overturn an unjust decision to strip an early champion, Jim Thorpe, of his 1912 medals and reinstate them to his family. A rollicking start Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who masterminded the 1896 Games revival, was stimulated in his efforts by a positive development (the discovery of rich archaeological findings at Ancient Olympia by Germany’s Ernst Curtius in 1875-81) and a negative one (contempt for his countrymen’s slothful habits, to which he even attributed France’s war loss to Germany in 1870). His diplomatic efforts internationally to revive ancient Olympian values led to the 1894 Paris International Athletic Congress at the Sorbonne. There, Greek (sorry, Panhellenic) Athletic Association members scored double points, both in getting Dimitrios Vikelas, a well-known writer and Greece’s man in Paris, installed as first IOC president, with de Coubertin as the power behind the throne, and Athens chosen over Paris as the first venue. Greece (with shades of the present) managed to prepare itself after a mad pre-Games scramble. A pre-Games financial shortfall and the unsympathetic government of Harilaos Trikoupis, which had nothing to do with the decision but got saddled with the responsibility, was bailed out by private donations. Giorgos Averoff bankrolled the building of the Panathenaic Stadium, the seating of which was only halfway completed at Games time. Greece was the only country to hold a pre-Games qualifying event, the little-known Tinia Games on the island of Tinos, the first Panhellenic gathering of sport and the first major athletics event outside Athens. Despite this preparation and a preponderance of Greek athletes among the 245 present, Greece’s performance disappointed – until it produced the marathon winner in Spyridon Louis, a shepherd from Maroussi (along with the less famous winner of the 87-km «cycling marathon,» Aristides Constantinidis). De Coubertin himself, while hardly a reflexive egalitarian (he opposed the idea of female athletes and had them officially barred from the 1896 Games, which didn’t stop at least one unofficial female marathoner), was certainly alive to the value of symbols. In a deft nod to both national sensitivities and international bridge-building, he had the Games begin on Easter Sunday, which happened that year to be celebrated on the same day in both Orthodox (then using the old Julian calendar) and Western churches, and events got under way on March 25, Greece’s national day. The Games themselves were enthusiastically received – a stadium packed with 70,000 spectators in a city of just 150,000 (imagine that, residents of today’s megalopolis of 4 million plus) isn’t bad by any standard – even though prior information was so poor that many athletes weren’t even notified. That is one problem unlikely to be repeated in 2004.