Centennial Olympics? Yes, But 100 Years Old? Not Really, Says UF Expert
GAINESVILLE — As the world prepares to celebrate the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, a French idealist is again being heralded as the idea man behind the first events in 1896 and the originator of the modern Olympics.
But the games weren’t really all Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s idea. England and Greece both hosted several Olympiads years before 1896, University of Florida classics Professor David Young says in his forthcoming book.
“Coubertin is a very important person in the founding of the Olympic Games, but he’s hardly the first,” Young said recently while looking over proofs from The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival.
Young said several men had worked to revive the ancient Greek games before Coubertin came along.
The first idea was in 1833 when a Greek poet suggested the government restart the ancient tradition of Olympic competition.
“He couldn’t get anyone interested,” Young said. At least not until about 23 years later when a Greek in Romania offered to bankroll the event if the Greek government agreed to stage the games.
“So they finally had the first Greek Olympics in 1859,” Young said.
The competitions only included Greeks, but they attracted the attention of an English doctor named W.P. Brookes, who liked the idea of a national competition and organized a series of British national Olympic games.
“There were two very successful Olympics – 1866 in London and 1870 in Greece,” Young said. “The fact that they weren’t international doesn’t preclude them from being Olympics.’ They had the spirit and name.”
Arguments that the competitions before 1896 were not “Olympic” because they weren’t international aren’t valid since the ancient Olympics were national — they had only Greeks, Young said.
“The first proposal for international games was in 1880 by this Englishman, Dr. Brookes,” Young said. “He is the one who gave Coubertin the idea.”
Coubertin was about the only person who liked the notion and he had to use a little trickery to get others to listen.
In 1894, amateur sports were finally becoming popular in many countries. Coubertin saw this trend and organized a conference on amateurism in Paris in 1894.
“By the time everyone arrived at the conference, he changed the name to the Congress to Revive the Olympic Games,’” Young said.
Out of that conference, the International Olympic Committee was formed. The IOC chose Athens for the first event in 1896, and has been working ever since to organize games in different parts of the world every four years.
“Coubertin said the idea was all his own and we’ve believed him ever since,” Young said.
Young, a teacher of the Greek language, is a big fan of the Games and considers the Olympic history a “sub research topic.”
He recently received wide attention for an article in Archaeology, called “Myths about the Ancient Games.” In it, he explains the true history of the Olympic Torch (not a Greek tradition, but a promotional invention for the Nazi Olympics in 1936) and the five interlocking rings (not an ancient symbol, but invented in 1913 to represent the first five games. The rings were mistaken as more than 3,000 years old after American authors found them on an old movie prop in Delphi).
But he doesn’t want to be considered a tradition debunker or a scrooge. He enjoys the Games and thinks the surrounding ceremonies are grand. He just happens to be a professor and a history buff who thinks the stories should be accurate.
- John Lester