LONDON — The Olympic Games, an international festival of sport which originated in ancient Greece, were revived in the 19th century by a French aristocrat worried by young Frenchmen not getting enough physical education at school.
The ancient Olympics were mainly about the ruling classes preparing for war and barred women.
Successive presidents of the International Olympic Committee, which Baron Pierre de Coubertin set up in 1894, were just as eager to keep the working classes and women in their place.
De Coubertin, also troubled by the growing commercialization of sport 100 years ago, visualized an amateur championship for the world’s sportsmen.
He took as his model the British and American upper class educational system of enlightened paternalism.
Oxford and Cambridge university graduates had, after all, started France’s first sports club at Le Havre in 1872, while lawn tennis became all the rage after being imported from Britain in 1878.
At first, the Ancient Olympic Games lasted just one day, and had just one event – a running race. Over time, the Games were extended and lasted up to five days. Only men were allowed to compete and only unmarried women were allowed in the stadium to watch.
Winners at the Ancient Games had two victory ceremonies. In the first ceremony they received a palm branch and had red ribbons tied around their hands and head. At the second ceremony, an olive tree wreath was placed on the winner’s head.
The Greeks had twice tried to revive the Games, in 1859 and 1870, so the first Olympic Games, since the Roman emperor Theodosius had banned them in AD 393, were held in Athens.
Of the 13 nations who had responded to de Coubertin’s invitation to Paris, and the 21 who had given written support, only 12 were represented in Athens.
The nine sports on the Olympic program were athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, lawn tennis, shooting, swimming, weightlifting and wrestling.
A Greek architect Georgios Averoff picked up most of the bill and many of the competitors were simply tourists visiting Athens at the time.
James Conolly of Boston, who dropped out from Harvard to go to Athens, became the first Olympic champion in 1,527 years when he won what was then known as the hop, step and jump.
Athens crowds were fascinated by the “crouch” start of Americans Thomas Burke, who went on to get gold, and Thomas Curtis.
A Greek shepherd, Spiridon Louis, won the first marathon over the same course covered by Greek hero Pheidippides after the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
The Games, overshadowed by the Eiffel Tower, were very much a sideshow to the Paris Exposition and the organisation was an embarrassment.
Charlotte Cooper of Britain had already won three of her five Wimbledon titles when she became the first women’s Olympic champion.
American college students Alvin Kraenzlein, Irving Baxter, John Tewksbury and Ray Ewry won 11 of 23 track and field events, five seconds and a third. Kraenzlein is still the only athlete to win four individual athletic golds at one Olympics - 110m hurdles, long jump and the discontinued 60m hurdles and 200m hurdles.
1904 ST LOUIS
The distance to Missouri meant that only eight overseas nations took part. The Games, part of the World Fair, lasted five months. There was even a sack race.
There were some respected runners for the marathon. There was also Felix Carvajal, a Cuban postman who had hitch-hiked from New Orleans after losing his money in a card game, and Lentauw and Yamasani, two Zulus who were part of the Boer War exhibit at the fair.
The start was delayed so Carvajal’s long trousers could be cut off at the knees. He eventually finished fourth. Lentauw was chased through a field by two dogs but still finished ninth.
The race, run on dusty roads in the middle of the afternoon, was won by English-born Thomas Hicks from Massachusetts, second in that year’s Boston marathon, who was revived with strychnine and brandy.
Fred Lorz from New York caused a stir when he appeared in the stadium. He was about to be presented with the gold medal when it was discovered he had stopped running after nine miles and got a lift. The practical joke backfired when he was banned for life but he was later reinstated and won the 1905 Boston marathon.
To be continued