An Olympic score to settle: Who revived the modern games?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Most true sports fans know that the Olympics were brought back to life in Athens in 1896 by the enthusiastic young Frenchman Pierre Fredy, better known as the Baron de Coubertin.

In the 110 years since the Parisian baron founded the International Olympic Committee, he has enjoyed the unchallenged title of Olympiad revivalist.

But as the 2004 Games return to their ancient birthplace in Athens this summer, the contributions of two other men - an Albanian-born Greek and a British doctor - have surfaced with the help of revisionist historians keen to explode the myth that the Olympic revival was exclusively the baron's brainchild.

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Tuesday the French capital, along with Moscow, Madrid, New York, and London, were selected as finalists to host the 2012 Games. The controversy over the Olympics' origin holds serious implications for the French bid, as their argument leans heavily on the baron's legacy. It also offers a reminder of the powerful current of nationalism that surges beneath the movement's surface values of global peace and fraternity.

As the English writer George Orwell once said: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

Indeed, says historian Konstantinos Georgiadis, the French baron was actually a "latecomer" to the idea of reviving the ancient Greek spectacle. Long before the Frenchman was born, both Evangelis Zappas in Greece and William Penny Brookes in Britain were producing their own version of the games. "Until recently everything we'd read about the history of the Olympics was written by de Coubertin himself and in most of the 12,000 pages he identified himself as the sole architect," says Mr. Georgiadis.

Keen classicists

Messrs Zappas and Brookes didn't know one another but as classicists were brought together by their admiration for the Greek poet Dimitris Soutsos. It was his appeal for a modern Olympics that inspired both men to separately launch their own games.

Georgiadis' account "Olympic Revival" points out that the lavishly wealthy Zappas organized a national Olympics in Greece four decades before the IOC's 1896 revival in Athens. Born in Albania to Greek Orthodox parents, Zappas enjoyed a colorful career as a freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s before making his fortune in the distillery business in Romania. He used his wealth to fund the first of a series of Olympiads in Athens in 1859.

Meanwhile, Brookes had been producing his own games in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock. "I fear that Coubertin's vanity caused him to seek all the credit, and actively cover up the contributions of others, denying that the Zappas Games ever happened at all and omitting Brookes's name from his 'Memoires Olympiques,'" says American historian David Young, whose book "Olympics: The Struggle for Revival" highlights Brookes's contribution.

The local festivals Brookes produced in his hometown evolved, by 1887, into the British Olympic Games. His games were especially noteworthy for exhibiting the first women's Olympic event (even though it was the admittedly less-than-athletic knitting contest). And it was Brookes in 1881 who proposed to the Greek government that the parallel games in Shropshire and Athens be "internationalized," according to an archive from the Greek newspaper 'Klio.' It was also the Shropshire doctor who first planted the Olympic idea in the young de Coubertin's mind.

Seed of an idea

In 1890 the Parisian visited the Much Wenlock Games. At the time, de Coubertin was convinced that France was in a state of decline. French schools were unsatisfactory, and the country had suffered military defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The baron set about bringing Paris back to preeminence.

In his memoirs, de Coubertin immortalized himself as an idealistic internationalist. But from Mr. Young's claims, it is clear that de Coubertin was focused on his native country. Indeed his main ambition was to stage the first Olympics in Paris, not Athens.

It was also de Coubertin who ensured that nationalism was a cornerstone of the Olympics by making them a theater for the competition of national teams rather than individuals. As Australian sociologists David Rowe and Geoffrey Lawrence put it: "Through the identification of the sports champion with the nation, we are asked to celebrate a country's power and strength."

Jean-Loup Chappelet, secretary general of the de Coubertin Foundation, insists that the baron's legacy is of primary importance. "[He] is the one who worked hard toward this goal, networking with sports organizations ... founding the IOC in 1894, fighting for circulating the Games across continents, unlike Zappas and Penny Brookes, who kept their games at the same place."

Indeed, three separate exhibits commemorating his contribution to the Olympic movement will be held on the sidelines of August's Athens Olympiad. And for now the baron's internationalism is sealed by the fact that he was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland, while his heart was interred in the hallowed sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece.

But even in this he can be accused of copying Zappas, who left explicit instructions that his corpse be divided between Romania, Greece, and Albania, the three countries on which he had left his mark.

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