November 15, 1859: The first modern Olympic Games begin. There had been references to the Games after a revival of the classics came to Europe. During the 19th century, the romantics of the era had a great affinity for ancient times and in 1833 Panagiotis Soutsos, published Dialogue of the Dead, a poem about the era and used the Olympic Games as a touch point for the ancient Greek traditions. Soutsos was a Greek born in Constantinople and edited a Greek newspaper there. He used his paper to explicitly campaign for a revival of the Games in the newly formed Greek state (1832) and even sent a note to the Greek government in 1835. King Otto seemed to like the idea, but did nothing with it despite Soutsos’s pleadings over a 26 year period.
German archaeologist Ernst Curtius gave a lecture in 1852 and he, too, advocated for a reenactment of the Olympic Games. Evangelis Zappas was an ex-pat Greek businessman living in Romania and he was inspired by these men to revive the Games. Zappas sent a letter via diplomatic channels to King Otto in 1856 and offered to fund the entire project. He not only would provide funding for the event itself, but would provide prize monies for the winners. Amazingly, some people opposed this. There were some Greek politicians who believed that it was detrimental and just a look to the ancient past rather than an eye to the new Greek state and all it hoped to achieve. They thought it might make Greece look primitive and old-fashioned. Alexandros Rangavis, the foreign minister, went so far as to propose an industrial and agricultural exposition instead.
Months went by with no decision forthcoming. In July 1856, Soutsos finally made Zappas’s generous offer known to the public and they got behind the idea and pressured for a return of the Games. Finally, King Otto consented to host the Games at Athens every four years – while an industrial and agricultural exposition was being held – as long as Zappas would fully fund the events. Zappas put money into an Olympic Trust Fund and the Games were on. Work to upgrade the panathenaic stadium began but it was not finished in time for the event and so contests were held in Loudovikou square in Athens. Although these were the first games played in the modern era, they were not exactly an international event. Everyone who participated was Greek, although from various parts of the world.
The events included those same pursuits as in the ancient Games – running, discus, javelin throw, wrestling, jumping, and pole climbing. The King did attend as well as other dignitaries. About half the population of Athens attended, the first such large crowd in the new country’s short history and crowd control was an issue. The site was poorly chosen, the weather was cold, and the participants were not “athletes” but rather anyone who wanted to try their hand at the various sports. Even so, the event proved popular and was held again in 1870, 1875, and 1888. Zappas died in 1865 and did not get to see future Games, but he left money to fund them. Eventually, the International Olympic Committee was formed in 1896 and the Games began in earnest as international events where athletes can compete.
The Olympic Games are highly commercialised. They purport to follow the traditions of an ancient athletics competition, but today it is the commercial aspect that is most apparent. I have seen how, through sport, cities and corporations compete against each other for financial gain. – Ai Weiwei
The torch relay is an excellent embodiment of all that the Olympic Games have come to symbolise – a celebration of the human spirit. Personally to me, it represents striving to be the best in whatever we do, never giving up despite the odds, and a commitment to health and fitness. – Lakshmi Mittal
If the Olympic Games ever served a true altruistic purpose, they have long since outlived it. Yeah, the pursuit of athletic excellence, sportsmanship and international goodwill is plenty noble. But the modern Olympics are at best a vehicle for agitprop; at worst, a scandal magnet. – John Ridley
Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else. – Joseph Heller
Also on this day: The King – In 1956, Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley’s first movie, was released.
Clutter Family – In 1959, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two children were murdered.
Where’s the Beef? – In 1969, Dave Thomas founded Wendy’s.
Remember – In 1939, the cornerstone for the Jefferson Memorial was laid.
Professional Football – In 1914, a football player was paid to play.