- Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games
The Athens 2004 Olympic Games generated a cluster of books related to the Olympics, to Greece and the Olympics and also to the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. Michael Llewellyn Smith, author of Ionian Vision, a scholarly account of Greece's involvement in Asia Minor between 1919 and 1922 has contributed to this yield with an extremely readable account of the 1896 Games.
Among the many books on the first modern Olympic Games, it is only Smith who takes time to inform its readers that King George I of the Hellenes liked to take walks on Fáleron 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 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 along with those held in Berlin in 1936 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 and ideologies as well as culturally different attitude toward sport. 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 Fáleron, next to the old warship Averôf. The latter vessel is mentioned only because it was named after the diaspora Greek who funded the [End Page 209] construction of Athens' Panathenaic Stadium, in which the 1896 games took place.
Yet primarily this is very much a "places and peoples" account, with the deeper structures and wider international and social context discreetly arranged in the background. There is nothing wrong with that. The revival of the modern Olympic Games was freighted by culture and ideology but enacted, above all thanks to the role of several key personalities and thanks to the exploitation of the Greek landscape and the Greek capital with all its classical symbolism.
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" (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...