Olympics and History of the Modern Games Athens 1896

About the Olympics and the modern games, account of the first modern games in Greece in 1896


Attempts were made to revive the Olympics in Athens in 1859 and 1870. These games were well attended but it was the initiative of a young Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (smarting at his country's defeat by Prussia in 1870 because the French had gone soft), which created the modern Olympics. Interested in physical education and scornful of its absence in French schools, the baron visited the Olympic site and his interest grew, culminating in the suggestion, at a meeting of the Athletic Sports Union in Paris, that the ancient Olympic games be revived. In 1894, 13 countries met to plan the 1st modern Olympiad; all agreed upon Athens in 1896.

The Greek Government was short on money, but a private donation of $184,000 from a wealthy Greek merchant, George Averoff, helped rebuild the stadium. Track and field events were considered to be the heart of the games and inspired the most interest. Greece had the largest number of competitors, but was without a track or field winner going into the marathon finale.

The marathon race of about 25 mi. had not been part of the ancient games, but it was added, at a Frenchman's suggestion, to commemorate the run by the soldier-Olympic star Pheidippides between Marathon and Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians. His message was brief: "Rejoice, we conquer." Then he dropped dead.

The Greeks had expected to win the discus, a classic event. Robert Garrett had been unable to obtain a regular discus at Princeton, but practiced with one fashioned by a friend. In Athens, a friendly Greek lent him a real discus and Garrett found, to his delight, that the disk was much lighter and more aerodynamically sound than his homemade one.

To the dismay of the Greeks, Garrett won the discus throw. A local writer, however, took pains to point out that the 2 Greek favorites had thrown with much better form.

The host nation desperately wanted a marathon winner. George Averoff, who had financed the stadium, offered 100,000 drachmas and his daughter's hand in marriage to any Greek who won the race. A barber and tailor offered to shave and clothe a Greek winner for life and the owner of a chocolate factory promised 2,000 lbs. of chocolate.

Spiridon Loues, a water carrier and devoutly religious man, prepared for the race by praying for 2 nights and fasting the day before. Greek spectators were disappointed when a Frenchman--and later Edwin Flack, an Australian representing the London Athletic Club--took the lead. Undaunted, Loues kept his pace steady; some claim he even stopped to drink wine, but considering what spirits would have done to his stomach, that's highly unlikely.

Midway in the race an American, Arthur Blake, was leading, but he had never trained for such a long race and soon collapsed. Loues took the lead. As their countryman entered the stadium, the Greek crowd went wild. Women tore off jewels to throw at his feet. Greek Princes Constantine and George ran down from their seats and accompanied Loues on his last lap to the finish line.

Since he was married, Spiridon did not take up the nuptial offer, but some say he did accept 365 free meals and free shoe polishing for life. He was given a field, thereafter called "the Field of Marathon." King George I of Greece told Loues he could have anything he wanted. The only thing the water carrier would accept was a cart and horse, so he wouldn't have to run after his mule any longer. Later, when life was hard, Loues wished he had asked for more.

After the games, King George gave a breakfast party for all the Olympic participants.

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