Olympics in Athens 1896
by Michael Llewellyn Smith
255pp, Profile, £16.99
Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, 1894-2004
by David Miller
528pp, Mainstream, £35
The Complete Book of the Olympics
by David Wallechinsky
1172pp, Aurum, £16.99
It is with some amusement and not a little despair that one learns, in Michael Llewellyn Smith’s entertaining account of the first Olympic games of the modern era, of the absence from the event of Britain’s two members of the inaugural International Olympic Committee. Nor did Britain bother to send a team to Athens in 1896, leaving the way clear for the undergraduate athletes of Harvard and Princeton to win a high proportion of the medals on offer and lay the foundation for more than a century of the sort of stars-and-stripes triumphalism that will no doubt be seen again later this summer.
Yet Britain had provided the inspiration for a revival of the festival of sport with which ancient Greece diverted itself between 776BC and AD385. When Pierre de Coubertin arrived in Shropshire to attend William Penny Brookes’s Wenlock games in 1890, he discovered the template for which he had been searching. The young French aristocrat was already an admirer of the English public school and university system, with its increasing emphasis on organised sport rooted in the concept of “muscular Christianity”. Much Wenlock’s annual pageant, founded 40 years earlier (and continuing to this day), featured contests of running, jumping, tilting, football, spelling and fancy dress, and it persuaded him of the viability of a revival of the ancient games.
While his breadth of vision led him to formulate an event of international scope and significance, he was, like many of his contemporaries, also a philhellene, and recognised the persuasive power of rooting the new Olympics in picturesque and emotionally compelling traditions. “Coubertin was a modernist, not an antiquarian, so far as the sporting content of the games went,” Llewellyn Smith writes. “Yet he was also a master of the use of antiquarian rhetoric and symbol to mobilise support for his ideas.” It was a vision that coincided with the ambitions of Greek statesmen, who recognised an opportunity to confirm the identity of a fledgling kingdom which had emerged from the Ottoman era barely 60 years earlier. “Ancient Greece,” Llewellyn Smith observes, “was the new Greece’s unique asset.”
Setting an example to all the skilled politicians who succeeded him, Coubertin finessed the Greeks and his other hand-picked delegates to a founding congress in 1892, blocking a general desire to hold the first games in London (again, the British delegate neglected to attend). He understood that, in its new form, the games could serve many interests. “Those who visit Greece on this occasion,” Crown Prince Constantine told his people, “will receive cordial and irreproachable hospitality, which, together with the beauty of our sky, will easily make up for any defects. That is why the celebration of our Olympic games at Athens will have an undoubted moral utility for us.” As the event approached, Coubertin chivvied the government into speeding up the work on new facilities, which had fallen behind schedule.
“Somehow,” Llewellyn Smith reports, “it was all done,” and the games began on Easter day in generally unfavourable spring weather. The standard of competition was uneven and sometimes the rules were not clear; no consensus had been reached, for example, on the precise order of hop, skip and jump. Robert Garrett Jr of Princeton picked up a discus for the first time on the Sunday before the games, tried it out, and went on to beat the Greek favourites in a discipline they had justifiably considered to be their own. Among the few Britons to succeed was John Boland, later a member of parliament, who had arrived in Athens on holiday and entered the tennis tournament on a whim, winning both the singles and the doubles, the latter with a German partner.
From these beginnings it was but a hop, skip and jump to the world of the quadrennial extravaganza that will shortly be occupying our television screens. David Miller’s monumental account of the modern Olympics, massively resourced and exhaustively researched, balances the heroics of Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Dawn Fraser and Haile Gebrselassie with the darker tales of Nazi exploitation, cold war boycotts, terrorism, shamateurism and drug cheats. The successors to Coubertin’s presidency loom large, notably Avery Brundage (1952-1972), who tried to hold the line against professionalism, and Juan Antonio Samaranch (1980-2001), who presided over the modern expansion and commercialisation of the games, enjoyed surrounding himself with minor royalty, and appeared to see himself as some sort of head of state. Jacques Rogge, the present incumbent, takes a more modest attitude to the leadership of the “Olympic family”.
Much influenced by the views of Samaranch, who authorised him to write the movement’s history, Miller acknowledges the many problems faced by the IOC but prefers to dwell on the success stories. Of the 1996 games, in which the last vestiges of Coubertin’s idealism and practicality were swamped by American commercialism and administrative incompetence, he reports: “None the less Atlanta had triumphed. There had been a record eight and a half million live spectators, three million more than ever before, more than Los Angeles and Barcelona combined.” Few of those who were there would have measured the centenary games by such statistics.
Each of these books contains material essential to an understanding of a modern phenomenon. But the one that sports writers will be taking to Athens this summer is the latest edition of David Wallechinsky’s invaluable guide, which provides the results and capsule reports of every event at the summer games since 1896. This is the Wisden of the Olympics and, like cricket’s primrose-jacketed almanac, is virtually impossible to put down, thanks to the author’s delight in sharing information.
While browsing the decathlon section, say, you might come across the observation that many medal-winners in this event became film actors: Jim Thorpe (Stockholm 1912) in westerns; Glenn Morris (Berlin 1936) as Tarzan; Floyd Simmons and Bob Mathias (London 1948 and Helsinki 1952) respectively in South Pacific and with Jayne Mansfield in It Happened in Athens ; and Bruce Jenner (Montreal 1976) in Can’t Stop the Music – “one of the worst films ever made”, according to Wallechinsky. Let the book fall open at another page and you might encounter Agnes Keleti of Hungary, who at the age of 35 took the silver medal in the all-round women’s gymnastics competition in Melbourne in 1956. “Keleti, who was Jewish, had survived the Holocaust by buying the papers of a young Christian woman and lived in a small village working as a maid until the second world war was over,” Wallechinsky writes. “After the 1956 games she decided, as did half the Hungarian delegation, not to return to Hungary. Instead she stayed in Australia and eventually settled in Israel.”
No doubt this summer will supply further tales in which Coubertin’s Olympic ideal is either exalted or debased. Llewellyn Smith, a former British ambassador to Greece, closes his history by looking ahead to the return of the Olympics to Athens, wryly concluding that the effort to redeem the games by restoring balance and returning them to a human scale may, after all, be misconceived. “Perhaps they should be celebrated as a triumph of modernity, capitalism, commerce, sporting prowess and celebrity culture,” he writes. “Gestures in the direction of balance and human scale are gestures of respect to the mythical origins which the games have escaped.”