- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

ATHENS — A seat halfway up the tightly curved end of Athens’ old, horseshoe-shaped marble stadium offers a rare vantage point of the first modern Olympics 108 years ago.

At just the right angle, eyes see only the bone-white stone, flame-shaped cypress trees and Acropolis rising in the distance.

The spectators who sat here during the 1896 Games had a very similar view. But there are not many places like this left in Athens. More than years separate the Olympic rebirth and the version of the Summer Games that begins tomorrow.

The world, the games and the host city are all profoundly different.

“I don’t see too much of a connection between these games and 1896,” said Bill Mallon, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “A better analogy could be the ancient games. Back then it was the best athletes coming together with city states at war and all sorts of political tensions. It’s not so different now.”

The enduring snapshots of this year’s Olympics will undoubtedly include the unmatched security: cameras, armed guards, surveillance aircraft, an Olympic Village with fortifications suited for a maximum-security prison.

The 1896 Games, by comparison, were a casual affair. European royalty mingled with spectators. Athletes caught naps in shaded groves near the stadium. The tennis champion was a tourist who competed for Britain.

The Americans almost didn’t make it.

U.S. organizers miscalculated the starting date by relying on the Julian calendar used by Greece at the time. They arrived just a day before Greece’s King George I formally opened the first Olympics since another ruler, Roman Emperor Theodosius, banned them as pagan in 393.

The improbable dream of a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, had come true.

Coubertin — an avid admirer of ancient Greek ideals — lobbied for years to stir interest in reviving the games. The idea got a cool reception.

Earlier attempts had already sputtered, including 17th century games in England and a series of 19th century meets in Greece called the Zappas Games after founder Evangelos Zappas, whose head is entombed in the Zappeion villa in Athens. The rest of his remains were sent to his adopted home in Romania.

But Coubertin persisted. At an international sports meeting in France in 1894, he managed to push through a proposal to resurrect the Olympics.

Dozens of men from 13 countries — including the 13 late-arriving U.S. athletes — made it to Athens to join at least 150 Greek competitors. Women were not allowed into the Olympics until four years later in Paris.

The stadium — with marble from the famed Mount Pendeli quarries outside Athens — was built over the site of ancient festival grounds for the goddess Athena. The stadium price tag was picked up by an ethnic Greek businessman from Egypt. The cinder-and-clay track was squeezed into the narrow infield with curves so sharp that runners had to slow or risk tipping over.

But such shortcomings were mostly overlooked by the athletes of the age — a collection of amateurs, adventurers and heirs with time on their hands.

“Why, it was a moment to inspire,” wrote a Boston triple jumper, James Brendan Connolly, in a memoir on his days as an Olympian in Athens.

Connolly paid his own way because his Suffolk Athletic Club lacked the cash. He quit Harvard after the dean refused his request for leave. He never regretted the decision.

Connolly became the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years with a leap of 44 feet, 113/4 inches in the triple jump — which was then a hop-hop-jump combination. His prize: a silver medal and olive wreath.

The gold medal was not introduced until 1904. Coubertin wanted gold to be the top prize in Athens, but Greece’s Crown Prince Constantine didn’t want it to seem as if the athletes were being paid.

The Greeks had expected to dominate the games. Instead, the Americans were on their way to taking the most victories: 11 in all. The marathon became a point of national pride for the host country.

The race is inspired by the legend of messenger Phidippides running to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce — with his dying breath — a Greek victory over Persians in the Battle of Marathon. In 1896, a water-seller named Spyridon Louis joined 16 others in the first Olympic marathon.

What got Louis there in the first place is lost to history. Some versions say he was picked by a military officer impressed by his speed and stamina. A more romantic tale is that he wanted to gain the respect of the family of the woman he loved. Stories also say Louis gulped wine along the route.

With the race entering its final stretch, an Australian accountant named Edwin Flack stumbled. Louis moved to the front.

“It’s a Greek! It’s a Greek!” the crowd roared as Louis entered central Athens, according to newspaper reports. Spectators pulled out guns and fired in the air. Louis was flooded with offers of generosity: cash, livestock, a sewing machine, free haircuts.

Louis, however, fell on hard times. In 1915, a reporter visited Louis and was shocked to find a destitute man whose clothes were “full of dust and spiders.”

He had one last Olympic moment: appearing at the 1936 Berlin Games and presenting Adolf Hitler an olive branch from Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the games. Louis died four years later.

The marble stadium will again be the marathon finish at this month’s games. Archery also will use the famous venue.

Louis’ great-grandson, 27-year-old car salesman Manolis Louis, will be one of the last torchbearers before the Olympic flame enters the main Athens stadium north of the city.

The event will cap a very difficult Olympic homecoming. But one that’s worth it, say many Olympic historians.

“The Olympics are seen as this universal, global institute. But if, after the Greek experience, they decide that only big, modern cities can host the games, then they run into troubles, because [the Olympics] won’t be as universal and global as they say,” said Alexander Kitroeff, a history professor at Haverford College and author of a recent book on Greek identity and the games. “Then the Olympics become a sort of jeweled big boys’ club. … This is not what was in mind back in 1896.”

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