For over a thousand years, the Olympic Games were a relic of the past. While they were a crucial part of ancient Greek history since 776 BCE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I proclaimed the Games illegal in 393 CE to promote Christianity and bring an end to pagan practices within the borders of the Empire. Thus, a single man banned the Olympic Games, and a single man would eventually bring them back. From Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s tireless efforts to promote an active lifestyle during the 19th century to the Olympic Games we know today, it was a long journey to see the revival of the modern Olympic Games.
How One Man’s Love of Sports Brought About the Modern Olympic Games
At the dawn of the 19th century, the Olympic Games had been a long-forgotten part of history. In France, in particular, intellectualism was the matter of the day, and society at the time discouraged an active lifestyle, as “many people believed that physical activity would take energy away from mental growth.” Not even one school of the day provided formal physical education to students across the country. Sitting in classrooms all day was preferred.
This French way of life didn’t please a certain Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Born to the highest rungs of Parisian society on January 1st, 1863, he was an aristocrat, and his high status allowed him to have the active lifestyle he craved. All around horse rider, rower, boxer, and fencer, Pierre de Coubertin could do as he pleased. His family was affluent enough to let him be idler than the average working-class man.
Pierre de Coubertin was fascinated by the English and American education system, which were much more sports-oriented. He traveled to both England and the United States, and his love of sports soon turned to activism. As Pierre de Coubertin didn’t want to stay complacent, he preached an active lifestyle like his own.
Establishing the Modern Olympic Games: From Paris to the World
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For Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s grand ideas to succeed, he knew the education system had to be reformed. Thus, he preached those reforms during the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, where he held the first Congress on Physical Education and Scholar Competitions. International attention turned to the matter of sports, and Pierre de Coubertin surrounded himself with an extensive crew of “educators, politicians, aristocrats and leaders in commerce, culture[,] and sport[.]” His plan to revive the Olympic Games was set in motion.
Five years later, on June 23rd, 1894, Pierre de Coubertin proposed his idea for the Olympic Games. In front of an assembly of two thousand people, which included “[s]eventy-nine delegates from 12 countries,” in the Sorbonne amphitheater, Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed his idea of bringing back the Olympic Games under the administration of an International Olympic Committee (IOC). Thunderous applause welcomed Pierre de Coubertin’s proclamation.
Pierre de Coubertin and his allies laid out the ground rules for the modern Olympic Games. Only adults could take part in the Games, and no one would give them compensation if they did. The Games would be an international affair that involved any nation interested in sending athletes. And every four years, a different country would host the Olympic Games.
While Pierre de Coubertin proposed Paris as the city to host the first modern Summer Olympic Games, the committee eventually chose Athens. Paris was rejected at the time, but the French capital wouldn’t be refused for long. It was selected to host the second Summer Olympic Games in 1900. And France, too, hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix in 1924.
Who Participated in the First Modern Olympic Games? Who Didn’t?
As the Olympic Games were born from Greece’s ancient past, it was only fitting that Pierre de Coubertin’s committee chose Athens to host the first modern Olympic Games. Some criticized this choice, as Greece’s political and military situation at the time was tumultuous, but the events were still funded. Thanks to the leadership of Crown Prince Konstantine of Greece, who asked the population of Greece to fundraise $100,000 for the events, and of merchant George Averoff, who donated $300,000 to the cause, Athens was given a facelift. From April 6th to 15th, 1896, the city held the first modern Olympic Games.
Only fourteen countries participated, and over two hundred athletes were sent to represent them. Those countries were Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.
While men (who practiced athletics, cycling road and track, fencing, artistic gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling) were welcomed to participate, women were discouraged from competing. Pierre de Coubertin himself opposed women participating in these elite sporting events. It wouldn’t be until the Paris Olympic Games of 1900, the second Olympic Games in modern history, that the committee changed the rules and allowed women to compete.
The Olympic Games, too, were born from European empires. While people of color could take part in these first sporting events, it is critical to note that Pierre de Coubertin himself stated in 1912, in a French article entitled Les sports et la colonisation (See Further Reading, Patrick Clastres, 2013), that sports were a tool of colonialism and were used to discipline colonized peoples. Thus, it is important to consider that his desire to unify the international community was born from white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism.
The Modern Olympic Symbols: The Flame
The Olympic flame has become one of the most important symbols of international unity in our modern era. However, it was absent from the first modern Olympic Games. It didn’t appear in Athens in 1896, nor would it be present in any Olympic Games until the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928, thirty-two years later. Every following Summer Olympics would have a flame since then, and every Winter Olympics since 1936.
During the ancient Olympic Games, people lit up a sacred fire in the sanctuary of Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, and more fires were lit up at other temples, such as the temples of Hera and Zeus. Much like the torch relay, which wouldn’t precede the lighting of the torch until a few years later, the Olympic flame was a nod to the Olympic Games’ long history.
The torch relay was first held for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and left the city of Olympia in July 1936. A total of 3,331 runners made the 1,980-mile journey from Olympia to Berlin over the course of eleven nights and twelve days.
The Modern Olympic Symbols: The Five Rings
While the Olympic flame is a literal light traveling through the world before the beginning of the Olympic Games, the five rings are the Games’ true symbol of international unity. Blue, yellow, black, green, and red are the five colors, and they represent the colors of every flag in the world. They carry the meaning of “the activity of the Olympic Movement and represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.”
Pierre de Coubertin introduced the five rings to the public in 1913, based on a design he invented himself. The five rings first appeared officially in 1920 at the VII Olympiad in Antwerp, Belgium, and have been in use ever since. Their designs were slightly tweaked in 1957 and 1986 before finally being approved in 2010 as the design we know today.
The Modern Olympic Games & Nazi Germany
As well as promoting an active lifestyle, the Olympic Games also advocate for international relations, diplomacy, and politics. This history hasn’t always been glorious, though. Modernity’s darkest moments have overshadowed the Olympic Games’ rich legacy of sports.
The International Olympics Committee declared Germany host in 1931, years before Hitler came to power. In 1936, the Olympic Games were a grand propaganda event designed to show the world that Germany was peaceful. Joseph Goebbels, the leader of propaganda for the Third Reich, oversaw the torch relay himself.
The Olympic flame relay was conceived by Carl Diem, a German university lecturer and sports theorist, who proposed it as a nod to ancient Greece. But the relay was used by the regime as a show of peace and strength, too; it was a way to connect the might of the ancient Olympic Games to the Nazi regime.
Boycotts were called for before Berlin hosted the Games. Still, forty-nine nations participated. The United States took part in the “political Olympic Games,” as they called it, where they were particularly controversial. African American athletes competed in the events–such as Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 100m, the 200m, the long jump, and the 4x100m relay–and were successful in the Games. Americans at home interpreted this success as an enormous blow to Nazi Aryan propaganda, a sentiment that contradicted American politics at the time since Jim Crow laws were in full swing in the South.
The Olympic Games were only canceled a handful of times during our modern era. They were called off during both World Wars: in Berlin, Germany in 1916; in Tokyo, Japan in 1940; and in London, England in 1944. The Olympic Games’ history of authoritarianism would continue long after the end of World War II, though, such as during the 1980 Olympic Games hosted by Soviet Moscow, nine years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In Tandem with the Olympic Games: The Paralympic Games
Following the Second World War, many soldiers came back from the front after suffering major injuries. Thanks to the efforts of one man, Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jewish doctor, an interest in athletes with disabilities competing was born. Guttmann had moved out of Nazi Germany in 1939 and became “Director of the new National Spinal Injury Centre at the Emergency Medical Services Hospital at Stoke Mandeville” in Buckinghamshire, England. He organized the first Stoke Mandeville Games in tandem with the London Olympic Games in 1948 as a competition meant exclusively for wheelchair athletes.
It wouldn’t be until 1960 that the first Summer Paralympic Games would be born from the Stoke Mandeville Games. Four hundred athletes from twenty-three countries participated in Rome, Italy. During the 1960s, too, the International Sport Organization for the Disabled was created to help propel athletes who were “vision impaired, amputees, persons with cerebral palsy and paraplegics” to the Paralympic Games.
Sweden hosted the first Winter Paralympic Games in 1976. It would take a few more years for the International Paralympics Committee to be established in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1989. Since then, the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games have been hosted every four years in tandem with the modern Olympic Games.
The Olympic Games: Today & Tomorrow
Throughout history, cities have been proud to host the Olympic Games. Over 12,000 athletes come from over 200 countries for the Summer Olympic Games, as well as 3,000 athletes from 92 countries for the Winter Olympic Games to participate in more than 300 sporting events. These events are incredibly diverse even in the sports they showcase, from skateboarding to horse showjumping to ice hockey and everything in between.
Nowadays, though, countries hesitate to host the Olympic Games. While they showcase the best of the host country’s cultures, natural landscapes, and populated areas, they are also a herculean effort to host. Billions of dollars (a whopping 50 billion dollars for the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014) are drained into the preparations, infrastructures, and overview of these events. As soon as the Olympic Games are over, too, the infrastructure remains and costs even more to maintain for years to come.
In 2004, eleven cities fought for the right to host them, and in 2008, ten cities did the same. During the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2022, only Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan remained when “at least five potential host cities” withdrew their applications due to negative public opinion. The same happened for the 2024 Olympic Games, where Paris, France and Los Angeles, United States were the only cities left that offered to host.
What will then become of the future Olympic Games? Perhaps, as some have theorized, only a few cities will be asked to host the events in a rotation every four years. For now, though, no one knows.
The Modern Olympic Games: From Problems to Promise
The modern Olympic Games have had a long, tumultuous journey through the last two hundred years of history. From the tireless efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin to reform French society to promote an active lifestyle, to the first Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, to Nazi Germany hosting the Olympic Games in 1936, to our contemporary Olympic Games and beyond, they are a staple of our time. International relations, athleticism, finances, and the world at large come to a head whenever the Olympics are open for business.
Brought back from the dead like the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes, the Olympic Games have become a staple of modern life. Time will only tell which city will host the next Olympic Games and how long its history will last.
Clastres, Patrick (2013). Culture de paix et culture de guerre. Pierre de Coubertin et le Comité international olympique de 1910 à 1920, in Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, Presses universitaires de France, Paris. Accessible online: https://www.cairn.info/revue-guerres-mondiales-et-conflits-contemporains-2013-3-page-95.htm.