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Friday, October 15, 2004

Book Reviews

Behind the Scenes

Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games by Michael Llewellyn Smith. Profile Books, London, 2004, 290 pages, £16.99. To be published in the United States in the fall by as Days of 1896: Athens and the Invention of the Modern Olympic Games.

Courtesy of Profile Books
There are many books on the first modern Olympic Games, but it is only Michael Llewellyn Smith’s work that informs its readers that King George I of the Hellenes liked to take walks on Falêron beach accompanied by his dachshund. Smith certainly has an eye for detail, and he has peppered his account with little-known facts that have gone unnoticed in the shadow of the modern Olympics’ revival. Fortunately, he is a skillful writer—and the author of Ionian Vision, a scholarly account of Greece’s involvement in Asia Minor between 1919 and 1922—who does not lose sight of the bigger picture and balances nicely between the general and the particular.

Smith’s attention to detail serves his main purpose, which is to provide a general readership with an overview of the origins of the Athens Olympics and a description of the games themselves. What appears initially as a straightforward chronological account of the modern Olympics’ revival that reaches into their aftermath and includes a coda on the Athens 2004 games, proves, upon closer inspection, to be a rich tapestry of places and people. In a bibliographically crowded field—the 1896 games are the most written-about Olympics—what distinguishes Smith’s account is the contribution it makes to our better understanding of key places and personalities. This is achieved by means of observations on the main characters, enriched by nuggets of background facts. Far from being trivial or distracting, however, the anecdotal dimension of this account conveys the spirit of the places and the personalities of the heroes central to the story.

Behind the places and people, of course, were national cultures. Smith accommodates these as well, weaving them in and out of the narrative. They include the values placed on sporting activities by nineteenth-century American universities and British schools; British and German philhellenism; and Greece’s sense of nationhood, on the one hand, and quest to become more “European,” on the other. Perhaps inevitably, given the author’s nationality, we are constantly reminded of the British connection to this story. This happens even if it involves tangential ties such as, for example, the British restoration of an ancient trireme berthed in the bay of Falêron, next to the old warship Averôf. The latter vessel is mentioned only because it was named after the diaspora Greek who funded the construction of Athens’s Panathenaic Stadium, in which the 1896 games took place.

In his introduction, Smith explains that the story he is about to tell moves “from Athens, the young capital of the new Greek state, to Much Wenlock in Shropshire, the Rugby School of Dr Arnold, Paris of the second Empire, Olympia in the Peloponnesos, Princeton University, and back to Athens of the 1890s” (p. 2). Most of this itinerary—Athens, Olympia, and Paris (the birthplace of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics)—is expected. For knowledgeable readers, little-known Much Wenlock is not a surprising addition to the list. It was there that Penny Brookes, an Englishman, attempted a revival of the ancient Olympics in the mid-nineteenth century. Much Wenlock was a source of inspiration to Coubertin, along with the sporting culture of Rugby School, which lay a short distance away in the English Midlands. Princeton’s presence on this list, however, is somewhat odd, for although it sent athletes to the 1896 games, the Boston Athletic Association sent a larger number—and won many more first places than the Princetonians.

Smith’s discussion of these important places is interspersed throughout the chronology of the Olympics’ revival. Whenever Smith deems it important enough, he devotes an entire chapter to a particular place’s historical background. For example, the first chapter guides the reader briskly through the emergence of modern Greece and the rise of sport in the nineteenth century. Subsequently, after going through the emergence of sport, the attempted revivals of the Olympics in Athens and Shropshire, and the culmination of Coubertin’s efforts (with the announcement, in 1894, of the revival of the Olympics), we pause to consider the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Olympia by travelers and archeologists.

After Smith describes the preparations for the 1896 Olympics, we have another place-oriented chapter, this one on the nineteenth-century revival of Athens. It is a broad, free-ranging account with a great deal of information, including a diagram of the type of mosquito net a guidebook recommended for visitors to the Greek capital. It is here, alongside accounts of signs of a Europeanizing urban trend in the city’s life, that we learn of the Greek king’s penchant for walking along Falêron beach with his dog. Smith’s prose is lively and captures the form, if not quite the content, of Athenian life in nice turns of phrase, such as “there was a fizz about the city’s intellectual life” (p. 143).

There are many advantages to telling the story of the Olympics’ revival by focusing on places. The Olympic Games are an institution bathed in ritual and symbolism, and their modern birth was suffused by theatrical elements reflecting the cultural meaning of particular locations, ranging from the playing fields of Eton to the ruins of Athens. Smith’s keen eye for colorful detail brings out the sense of place that shaped the games’ revival. There is, however, more to tell about some of the most important places in this tale. Precisely because they were not mere background but organic elements in the story—mythmaking ideological domains—one has to also distinguish between the general and particular. For instance, beyond revealing the basics of nineteenth-century Athens, an account of the Olympics’ revival also has to identify the aspects of the city that shaped the games’ rebirth. For example, how significant were the ancient monuments in legitimizing Greece’s role in that process or in lending credibility to Coubertin’s idea that one could, in fact, revive an ancient Greek institution?

The persons and personalities involved in the revival of the games were larger-than-life figures who strutted on the as-yet relatively small stage of Olympic history with a great deal of self-assurance. Smith brings the heroes of this story to life by means of colorful character sketches. He announces in his introduction that his story “brings together a French aristocrat…a German scholar…a Greek translator of Shakespeare…a Greek King…a Crown Prince…a great Greek statesman…[and] a farmer who won the first Olympic marathon…” (p. 3). Of all these dramatis personae, it is the first, Pierre de Coubertin, who gets a whole chapter to himself; the others, in the order they appear above—archeologist Ernst Curtius, writer Dêmêtrios Vikelas, King George I, Prince Constantine, Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupês, and runner Spyros Louês—are treated within the unfolding narrative by means of generous and detailed pen portraits.

Smith uses shorthand to convey personality, and that is not a bad idea when dealing with Coubertin, a prolific writer whose breadth of intellectual interests was matched by the range of practical measures he took in his effort to use sport as a vehicle of human progress. John MacAloon’s in-depth biography, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games, proves the difficulty of analyzing Coubertin: now a quarter-century old, it still remains the only authoritative source. But getting into Coubertin’s existential maze is not Smith’s brief; instead, he offers a shorthand metaphor when he writes, “In photographs, Coubertin looks out at the spectator with the melancholy eyes of a visionary” (p. 66). The venerable German scholar, Ernst Curtius, in charge of the first archeological digs at Olympia, is also the subject of a shorthand description. Smith writes of Curtius’s religious sense of mission and adds that “the domed forehead and firm jutting jaw of his portrait seem to indicate a man of determination as well as high culture” (p. 106). And so it goes for the other major figures.

After introducing the main and secondary characters and describing their roles in the 1896 Olympics, Smith rounds off his account with two what-happened-to-them-afterward chapters. In some cases, this takes us a little afar, but we do get the ends tied up by learning how and when these people died and, in the case of the royal family, how its members fared during the comings and goings, to and from exile, that the House of Glucksburg experienced during the twentieth century’s first half. Moreover, these two chapters on the political and athletic aftermath of 1896 function as a bridge to Smith’s concluding discussion on why Greece had to wait until 2004 to host the Olympics again. Smith spent time in Athens as Britain’s ambassador during the Nineties, but—bound by diplomatic etiquette, perhaps—he offers only a couple of tantalizing hints at what he witnessed in connection to Greece’s bid for the Olympics.

Of all the heroes of this story, King George I earns pride of place in Smith’s account. At the moment the games open in Athens in 1896—the games themselves take up four chapters—the Danish king displaces the French aristocrat, as Coubertin all but disappears from the story and the dachshund-loving monarch takes center stage. In a sense, that is what happened in reality: the Greek hosts ignored Coubertin during the Olympics, and, at the games’ conclusion, the king suggested that Greece become their permanent venue, a slap in the face to Coubertin’s internationalist project. Still, while it is true that Greece’s Danish royals were central to this story—a fact that certain Greek sources discount—they were villains as well as heroes. Smith, however, refrains from passing judgment on the king’s move; indeed, his account of the 1896 games treats the royal family’s appropriation of them with a very light touch.

The individuals that Smith brings to life so deftly were not just heroes but historical agents, whose actions were shaped by ideological and political agendas. Indeed, the particular roles of the main characters is a matter of sharp contention among Olympic scholars. Smith is aware of these debates, and especially of David Young’s claim, in his The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, that the Greeks and Vikelas are due more credit for the revival. But rather than get involved in the ongoing debate, Smith prefers to credit all the main actors more or less equally, including—controversially—King George. To delve deeper into those issues, readers will have to turn to more detailed studies. If they are looking for an introduction to the story of 1896, however, Smith’s eloquent storytelling will serve them very well.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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