The Olympian legacy of a baron and an illiterate marathoner

In the fall of 1893, a short, relatively obscure French baron arrived in Chicago - and was promptly forgotten. Perhaps the city was too caught up in the events of the day - it was hosting the mammoth Columbian Exposition and the International Parliament of Religions. Perhaps the Frenchman's dreams were too preposterous.

But along the way, Baron Pierre de Coubertin did make acquaintances. To the president of the University of Chicago he announced his grand plan: He would revive the Olympic Games, bringing to an end a 1,500-year hiatus.

Perhaps the wonder of it all is that this minor aristocrat with overgrown mustache succeeded. While interest seems to be flagging in the most recent international expositions - the World's Fairs in Knoxville, Tenn., and New Orleans, for example - the modern Olympic Games have only gained prestige.

Despite boycotts and world tensions, a record number of countries - about 140 - are participating in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. One out of every 2 people in the world is expected to tune in to some part of it.

By the time Coubertin had reached Chicago in 1893, his ideas about an Olympic revival had begun to jell.

After spending his early manhood searching for a calling, he had become convinced that the sports practiced by English schoolboys were the key to reforming French schools. Reviving the Olympics was one way to generate more interest among his countrymen.

The Olympic idea was not new.

Calls for a revival had been made around the world. Sweden, England, Greece, and other countries had held sporting contests they called Olympics, even though these were, at best, regional events, says John J. MacAloon, associate professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and author of a book on Coubertin and the first Olympics. None of the competitions caught on at an international level.

One reason Coubertin succeeded was his enormous ''diplomatic shrewdness and tact,'' argues Professor MacAloon. He was not above coloring facts - his ''government commission'' to the United States was no more than a French minister's letter - to gain a greater end.

These ''talents'' came in handy. While most everyone applauded an Olympic revival, no one agreed on how it would be done or who would do it. In fact, sports itself was a rather vague notion in that era, MacAloon says.

Did the term ''sport'' constitute merely a model of physical health? Or did it denote organized gymnastics along the Swedish or German models? Or was the main function of sport to make men good soldiers?

''Coubertin had nothing against these veins (of thought), but he really found them inferior to this tradition of competitive sport as moral education and as social education, which he derived from England,'' MacAloon says. ''It was first in England that this whole complex was institutionalized and provided with this ideology that we now refer to as 'muscular Christianity.' ''

The baron was also able to latch on to one of the powerful movements in the late 19th century - internationalism. Historians are not sure exactly when Coubertin decided to revive the Olympics, but it is clear that, his mind made up , he worked diligently toward his goal. He brought together leading public figures, fended off rivals, and, in 1894, founded the International Olympic Committee.

But the Olympic Games, scheduled for 1896 in Athens, could not have succeeded without the enthusiastic support of the Greek royal family and one of the leading political parties.

What were those first modern games like?

A motley crew of competitors from 13 countries showed up - ''from embassy employees to tourists who happened to be traveling (to) schoolboys organized at the last minute in the United States,'' MacAloon says.

Vast crowds, mostly Greeks, turned out for the games. Most had never seen sporting events like these. In fact, they were not entirely sure whether the hurdles were serious competition or a circus performance. Well-behaved and sportsmanlike, the crowds cheered the Americans and Europeans, who kept stepping up to the winner's circle. But there was clearly a yearning for a Greek hero.

On the final day of competition, a short, illiterate peasant filled that void. Entering at the last moment, running well behind the leaders, Spiridon Loues caught up and won the marathon. The victory so fueled Greek support for the Olympics that MacAloon regards Loues, next to Coubertin, as the ''founder'' of the modern Olympics.

Even in 1896, however, the Olympics faced challenges similar to today's. Many German gymnasts boycotted the event, angry that other sports would be held in equal esteem with their own. Politics was involved: The 1896 games helped topple two Greek governments, MacAloon asserts. And from the very first, Greeks were working to keep the games permanently in their country - an idea that is being discussed again today as Olympic sites grow increasingly controversial.

Because he wanted the site to change every four years, Coubertin was snubbed by the Greeks. Afterward, the founder of the modern Olympics gradually drifted into relative obscurity, his larger dream of school reform unfulfilled. By the end of his life, he had exhausted his small fortune on sports projects. He and his wife spent their last years living off the charity of friends.

But Coubertin's revived games live on.

''What has changed, of course, is that the movement has grown in prestige and power,'' MacAloon says. ''You have to ask yourself why sport has managed to generate our most global performance system. I mean you're talking about probably two-thirds of the people alive on the earth (who take an interest in the games).''

MacAloon argues that people see in the games much of what they see as their own social identities. As an individual, one applauds the success of a single athlete. As the citizen of a nation, one cheers on the ''home team.'' As a member of the human race, one roots, perhaps, for the record-breaking achievements of mankind.

There is a danger in all this, MacAloon says. The Olympics exaggerate and trivialize the notion of competition among nations. ''We talk about the arms race,'' he says. ''Our Pentagon generals play war games. We talk about who's the bully and who's playing by the rules. For better or for worse, these kinds of international relations are not games.''

On the other hand, the Olympics also promote peace.

''I think it does make the world a safer place,'' MacAloon says. ''We ask ourselves: The Soviet boycott now and our own in 1980 ought to tell us that the world is a rather dangerous place. Now, didn't we already know that? Well, perhaps. But perhaps we hear it when it's in fact a recognition that we can't even get together to play games with one another.

''Is any kind of international cooperation truly possible. ..? Is there such a thing as humanity - or are there only very diverse and very rivalrous peoples? The mere fact that these questions are asked so powerfully, so dramatically - even for two weeks every four years - I think does an enormous service.

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