The world has never seen the likes of the modern Olympic Games, which may not be saying very much because it hasn't seen the likes of the halftime show at the Orange Bowl, either. And, contrary to popular opinion, the Olympics are not the world's biggest sporting event. Although 7,000 athletes will forgather at Munich next month, the annual Vasaloppet cross-country ski race in Sweden draws more than 8,000 participants, as does the mass swim across the Sea of Galilee, which is also held every year. Nor are the Olympics necessarily the best sporting event. But the Olympics are undeniably the most misunderstood.
The Games tend to be regarded as a sacred festival featuring boffo brotherhood-of-man numbers; socko extravaganzas featuring the flags of all nations, thousands of terrified doves and a butane flame; and whammo feats of physical skill. The Olympics have become somehow levitated, so that, like the events on a Tiepolo ceiling, they unfold accompanied by cherubs (all bearing the features of Avery Brundage) high above the smoke of factory chimneys, the stench of open drains, the ringing of cash registers, shouts from the street—and the manifold sins and follies of man.
The spiritual essence of the Olympics is said to eternally spring from the hallowed soil of ancient Greece. The operative ideals of the Olympics are said to be everlastingly based in The Olympic Creed—"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part...."
In a manner of speaking.
July 9, 1972
THE OXONIAN & THE MAN IN PLANT NO. 40
A strapping young Englishman first learned of the events to be held in Athens while strolling along the Strand in London during the winter of 1896. A sign was posted in the corner of the window of a shop owned by a travel agent, Thomas Cook, and the young fellow paused to read it. He saw that it urged passersby to drop their cares and book passage for Greece in order to view and perhaps, for the exceedingly spry, to participate in the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
The young chap—George Stuart Robertson by name, a whimsical though brilliant student at Oxford—decided he would indeed go to Athens to compete as an Olympian. Many years later, when he had lived to be 91, a wrinkled, twinkling and wise old soul widely celebrated for his art criticism, Sir George Robertson reminisced about his decision: "Oh, it all seemed a bit of a lark. The Greek Classics were my proper field at Oxford, so I could hardly resist a go at the Olympics, could I?"
By boat and by train, he journeyed to Athens. There he met the King of Greece, George I, of whom he recalled, "Nice chap. Sense of humor. Poor fellow. Assassinated at Salonika, wasn't he?" Robertson also met the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the revived Games. The baron has been all but canonized for this achievement in the years since, but Sir George could only remember of him, "Funny little man, the baron."
George Robertson was a hammer thrower at Oxford—"a proper hammer with a wooden handle and a leaden head, not some confounded ball on a string like they throw now." Alas, the Olympics of 1896 had no competition for hammer throwers, so he entered the shotput, where he finished fourth, and the discus throw, where he finished sixth. He also participated in tennis where, he said, "I had a bit of a pit-a-pat." All things considered, George Robertson found the Games quite tasteful. "There wasn't any prancing about with banners and nonsense like that," he said.
At the closing ceremonies George Robertson leaped to his feet at a secret signal from King George I and recited to the crowd an ode in Aeolic Greek that he had composed himself. The Games Committee had refused him permission to read his ode, but young Robertson had conspired with the king to let him do it. "Oh, the king was awfully bucked by it all," recalled George Robertson. Indeed, the king gave him an olive branch and a laurel wreath and a pin which he took from his own tie. The pin was encrusted with sapphires and diamonds.
Two weeks after his arrival in Greece, George Robertson returned to London. He found he had spent $11 in Athens as a contestant in the first modern Olympic Games. "Oh, it was all a huge joke; it was a splendid lark," he recalled.
Al Oerter is 35 years old, a big, serious-looking fellow who works as a manager of data communications for the Grumman Corporation. His office is in a long, white cement building called Plant No. 40. It is located in a section of suburban wasteland in Bethpage, Long Island, and is enclosed by a high wire-mesh fence. One needs an identification badge to get in and out.
Al Oerter is one of the greatest Olympic competitors. He won four gold medals as a discus thrower in four consecutive Games—at Melbourne in 1956, at Rome in 1960, at Tokyo in 1964 and at Mexico City in 1968. No other man has ever done such a thing.
On March 15, 1971 Al Oerter reluctantly decided that he would retire from the rigors of Olympic competition. "My neck was hurting and I couldn't double my weight-lifting program to put on the weight I needed, O.K.? I weigh 235 pounds now and I had to get it up to 275 or maybe 300 to compete properly. I don't believe in steroids and I think I've proved you don't have to take them. It's no secret that most of the weight guys used steroids in Tokyo and in Mexico, but I don't believe in them, O.K.?"
For all his Olympic triumphs, Al Oerter rarely competed without pain or suffering. "In Rome the nervous tension was terrific. I injured my neck in 1962 and had to wear a brace. In Tokyo I ripped the cartilage in my rib cage. I had to use novocain. I was wrapped up in bandages like a mummy. I was popping ammonia capsules to clear my head. In Mexico I pulled an abductor muscle in my leg a week before the Games, but the doctors were good."
When Al Oerter decided that the ordeal of a fifth Olympics would be too much, he telephoned his wife. "Honey," said Al Oerter, "I think I'll be home a little early tonight, O.K.?"
THE RISING PRICE OF NATIONAL PRESTIGE
Amos Alonzo Stagg had to borrow $2,500 to transport a few fellows from the University of Chicago track team to Paris for the 1900 Olympics, which were held in conjunction with the World Exposition. There was trouble from the start. The Americans were appalled when they learned that some of the events would be held on Sunday. "Everybody here feels that it is a most contemptible trick," said Amos Alonzo Stagg. "Not a single American university would have sent a team had it not been definitely announced that the Games would not be held on Sunday. Even at this late date, it is likely that the American teams will unitedly refuse to compete if the French officials persist in carrying out what seems to us a very nasty piece of business."
As it turned out, some Americans did not mind violating the Sabbath and they won a few medals. They won more on the weekdays—including a gold medal in the Olympic tug-of-war. The American teams won no medals at all in Olympic croquet, Olympic bowling-on-the-green, Olympic still-fishing in the Seine or Olympic pigeon racing.
Perhaps they would have done better if they had known that they were competing in the IInd Olympiad of the modern Games. According to Charles H. Sherrill, a New York Athletic Club official who later became an ambassador to Turkey, the Americans were unaware that they were participating in an Olympics until they received their medals and read the inscriptions.
There was no mistaking that it was an Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928: 3,000 athletes from 46 nations were on hand. The U.S. men's track team alone had two managers, two assistant managers, a head coach, 10 assistant coaches and six trainers. The president of the U.S. Olympic Committee was Douglas MacArthur, and he firmly declared the team to be in "superb condition...for the great test" and said that "Americans can rest serene and assured."
The men's track team proved to be terrible. The only U.S. runner to win a gold medal in an individual event was Ray Barbuti in the 400-meter dash. People muttered that it was a blow to the nation's pride. Nevertheless, when all the points were added up in all the events, the U.S. had more than any other country. And in his formal report General MacArthur left few phrases unpurpled in arguing that the U.S. had been well served in Amsterdam.
"Nothing is more synonymous of our national success than is our national success in athletics," he wrote. "This team proved itself a worthy successor of its brilliant predecessors." He described specific triumphs thusly: "The resistless onrush of that matchless California Eight as it swirled and crashed down the placid waters of the Sloten; that indomitable will for victory which marked the deathless rush of Barbuti; that sparkling combination of speed and grace by Elizabeth Robinson [a sprinter] which might have rivaled even Artemis herself on the heights of Olympus...."
If anyone still had doubts that the U.S. had sent less than a full complement of Olympia's own gods and goddesses to Amsterdam, the general let it be known that "the American team worthily represented the best traditions of American sportsmanship and chivalry. Imperturbable in defeat, modest in victory, its conduct typified fair play, courtesy and courage. It was worthy in victory; it was supreme in defeat."
MacArthur also reported that the total cost of sending the godlike creatures to the Olympics was $290,000.
"ESKIMO PIE HAS CALLED"
The U.S. Olympic Committee steadfastly refuses to ask the U.S. Government for money on the assumption that if it did the Olympic program would fall into the hands of bureaucrats. The bread is supposed to come from voluntary contributions. For the 1963 Pan-American Games and the 1964 Olympics the budget was $4 million; in 1968 it was $4.5 million and this year it is $10 million.
A few years ago the USOC concocted a scheme whereby a few extra hundred thousand bucks could be raised by dealing big business a piece of the U.S. Olympic effort. It works like this: if a company donates $30,000 to the U.S. Olympic Committee it is allowed to use the U.S. Olympic symbol in its advertisements and to identify itself as a supplier to the U.S. team. For $100,000, a firm can use the Olympic symbol and base a promotional campaign on the Olympics, such as a sweepstakes with the first prize being a trip to Munich for four. Hawaiian Punch, for one, has done this.
Not long ago, the people who make Copper-tone Suntan Lotion contributed $30,000 to include the Olympic symbol in their ads. Their campaign featured the famous trademark of the little girl with a healthy tan on her back and a puppy tugging playfully at her bathing suit, thus exposing a lot of her white bottom in striking contrast to her brown top. The symbol was shown not far away. Several elderly members of the USOC complained about the symbol appearing next to a bare bottom. They felt this desecrated the Olympic Ideal. Their outrage subsided, however, when they learned of Coppertone's $30,000 donation.
Raising money in this fashion is a substantial commercial operation in itself. On a fairly typical day in May 1971 there was a certain amount of tension at Olympic House, where the ice-cream people were scheduled to make their donations. Olympic House, a mansion on New York's Park Avenue, is the headquarters of the USOC. The building was once owned by J. P. Morgan and occupied by his mistress, actress Maxine Elliott.
"We are running a $10 million business here," said Arthur G. Lentz, a brisk fellow with iron-gray hair who has been executive director of the USOC for eight years. "We feel big business should be involved since it helps benefit the kids. Our procedure is to send out letters soliciting offers to contribute and we mail the letters on a staggered basis—to the toothpaste people one week, the shaving people the next, the ice-cream people the next. Ice cream is officially open right now. Eskimo Pie has called. Eskimo Pie is the first to call. I'm positive we'll also hear from Howard Johnson's soon."
Alas, there is no official Olympic ice cream this year, but Olympic House did hear from Gillette, which became the official razor. Rise is the official shaving cream. Brut is the official after-shave lotion.
THE OLYMPIC ART OF DEMONSTRATING FOR A CAUSE
White Gloves. The opening ceremonies were over and the restored Pentelic marble stadium in Athens was abuzz with the murmur of the crowd. The King and Queen of Greece waited expectantly in the royal box. The opening event of the first modern Olympiad—the preliminary heats in the 100-meter dash—had begun. The contestants arranged themselves along the starting line. In one heat there were two Greeks, a German, an Englishman, an American named Thomas Curtis from the Boston Athletic Association and a Frenchman who had taken a swig of red wine only moments before. Many years later, Thomas Curtis wrote:
"As we stood on our marks, I was next to the Frenchman, a short, stocky man. He, at that moment, was busily engaged in pulling on a pair of white kid gloves, and having some difficulty in doing so before the starting pistol. Excited as I was, I had to ask him why he wanted the gloves.
"'Aha!' he answered, 'zat is because I run before ze keeng!' "
With white gloves flashing, the Frenchman ran a showy but slow race, failing to qualify for the finals.
"Later, after the heat was run," wrote Thomas Curtis, "I asked him in what other events he was entered. He was in only two, 'ze cent metre and ze marathon,' to me a curious combination. He went on to explain his method of training. 'One day I run a leetle way, vairy queek. Ze next day, I run a long way, vairy slow.'
"I remember the last day of the Games. The marathon had been run.... The king and queen had left and the stadium was about to be closed up for the night. And then, all alone, the little Frenchman came jogging into the stadium running 'vairy slow' and passed in front of the empty thrones of the royal box, wearing his little white kid gloves, even though 'ze keeng' was not there to see them."
The Bible. At the 1908 Games in London, Forrest Smithson, of Notre Dame, was so incensed that the 110-meter hurdle race was being held on a religious holiday that he ran with a Bible in his left hand. He won and set a world record.
Flags. The Games of 1908 were perhaps the sourest of all. Apparently, the trouble began when the U.S. team arrived at the stadium in London, gazed around and realized that among all the flags on display, Old Glory was nowhere to be seen. The Americans protested. The British explained that they simply had not been able to turn up a Stars and Stripes suitable for flying at the stadium—an excuse the Americans found unacceptable. When the opening parade began, Ralph Rose, a shotputter, was leading the U.S. team, carrying an American flag. Flag-bearers from all other nations obeyed the protocol of the day by dipping their banners in tribute to the head of state, King Edward VII, as they passed his seat of honor. Not the American. The burly, hot-tempered Rose muttered, "This flag dips to no earthly king." The crowd gasped, but Rose held his flag erect when he stomped past the king.
The American flag has never again been dipped in honor to a foreign head of state. At Mexico City in 1968, Harold Connolly, the veteran hammer thrower, was asked by the USOC to carry the flag in the opening parade. Connolly replied, "I'd be honored, but I may as well tell you, I am going to dip it when I pass the President of Mexico."
Harold Connolly did not carry the flag that day.
Black Gloves. The gloves of the little Frenchman went all but unnoticed. Not those of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished one-three in the 200-meter dash in Mexico City. Standing on the victory steps for The Star-Spangled Banner, they bowed their heads and each held a clenched fist in a black glove aloft, in symbolic protest of the black man's plight. "They were both supposed to have a full pair of gloves," said Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who finished second, "but Carlos forgot his. Smith was loath to give one up but John begged him and finally Tommie gave him one glove."
TECHNOLOGY IS THE ATHLETE'S FRIEND
In 1896, a swimmer named Gardner Williams traveled to Athens with the Boston Athletic Association team. He was a magnificent athlete who had won many sprints in American pools and he was properly confident he would win the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, which was to be held in the Bay of Zea in the Mediterranean. Thomas Curtis was there to record Gardner Williams' quest for glory: "He had traveled 5,000 miles for this event, and as he poised with the others on the edge of the float, waiting for the gun, his spirit thrilled with patriotism and determination. At the crack of the pistol, the contestants dived head first into the icy water. In a split second his head reappeared. 'Jesu Christo! I'm freezing!' he cried. With that shriek of astonished frenzy he lashed back to the float. For him the Olympics were over."
According to the organizers of the XXth Olympiad, at Munich there will be "a small warming-up pool where competitors can get used to the water temperature (26° and 27° Centigrade) of the competition pool before the start."
A SAMPLER OF DIVERSE QUOTATIONS DEFINING THE OLYMPIC GAMES
In 1936, a Belgian nobleman, Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, was president of the International Olympic Committee. He was concerned that Adolf Hitler was going to turn the Berlin Games into a political, carnival for the Nazis. "The Olympic Games are not held in Berlin, in Los Angeles or in Amsterdam," the count lectured the F√ºhrer. "When the five-circled Olympic flag is raised over the stadium, it becomes sacred Olympic territory and theoretically, and for all practical purposes, the Games are held in ancient Olympia. There, I am the master." The reply of the Chancellor of the Third Reich to the Master of Ancient Olympia was never recorded.
Harry Edwards is an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley. In 1967, he spearheaded a movement among U.S. blacks to boycott the Mexico City Olympics. Ultimately the effort faltered, but Harry Edwards goes on, an outspoken critic of the Games. He said, "Sports and war are born from man's same needs. The same training, the same drive works for both. The same rituals prevail—anthems, martial music, prayers for victory, medals for heroes. The same organized structures that support war also support the Olympic Games; nationalists and politicians, hymn singers, American Legion Neanderthals. The Olympics as an ideal of brotherhood and world peace is passé. The Olympics is obviously so hypocritical that even the Neanderthals watching TV know what they're seeing cannot be true. With access to total information instantly on TV, even the Neanderthals know that the Russians stomped the Czechs and that the Arabs despise the Jews and that racists rule the world. So, all of a sudden, the Olympic Games come on TV with all the smiles and handshakes, and even the Neanderthal sits up and says, 'Hey, what the hell? All year I watch nothin' but hate on TV, now they come on with a big love feast. It's gotta be phony. The Olympics gotta be a put-on, man.' "
And Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founding father of it all, said: "The Olympic movement tends to bring together in a radiant union all the qualities which guide mankind to perfection."
WUXTRY! OLYMPIC GAMES
ENFOLD COKE, INTERNATIONAL
MUTUAL, CHARLIE CHAN, IRVING
BERLIN & FLOWERS OF ARYAN
Commerce: During ABC's telecasts of the 1972 Olympics these concerns will pay $48,000 per minute to advertise: the Coca-Cola Company, International Harvester Company, The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Texaco Inc., Warner-Lambert Company and Toyota Motor Distributors, Inc.
Drama: In 1937 Twentieth Century-Fox studios made Charlie Chan at the Olympics, starring Warner Oland. The story involved the Hindenburg, the theft of a robot pilot and the 100-meter freestyle at the Berlin Games.
Science: During the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis there were Anthropology Days, in which members of "savage and uncivilized tribes" competed. "The world had heard of the marvelous qualities of the Indian as a runner..." an official account of the Games stated. "It had read much of the strength of the Kaffir, of the remarkable athletic feats of the Filipinos, and of the great agility and muscular strength of the giant Patagonians. All these traditions were spoiled. In actual competition, the representatives of the savage and uncivilized tribes proved themselves inferior athletes.... An Americanized Sioux Indian won the 100-yard dash in remarkably slow time, and an African Pygmy in the same event made a record that can be beaten by any 12-year-old.... The Patagonian could throw the shot only 10½ feet."
Music: The first time Irving Berlin ever wrote both the lyrics and the melody of a song was in 1909 when he composed Dorando. The subject was Dorando Pietri, the poor, brave, broken little Italian marathon runner who wobbled into White City Stadium during the 1908 Games, stricken and dizzy but leading the pack. Eager Englishmen actually helped him across the finish line, and Dorando was disqualified. A sampling of the lyrics to Dorando by Irving Berlin:
Dorando! Dorando! He run-a,
run-a, run-a, run like anything.
One-a, two-a hundred times around da ring.
I cry, 'Please-a nun ga stop!'
Just then, Dorando he's a drop!*
Love: In 1936 one of the least celebrated but most interesting elements was the Love Garden behind the Olympic Village. Not every Olympian knew about it, but one who did was Paul Martin, then a middle-distance runner for the Swiss team. Today he is 71 and an orthopedic surgeon. Although he won a silver medal in the 800-meter run in 1924, Dr. Martin is more famous as the only man to compete as a runner in five consecutive Games.
Still remarkably energetic, Dr. Martin recently said: "The Olympic athlete in Berlin was elevated to a godlike creature. The Germans had even reserved a sort of heavenly forest near the Olympic Village for these gods. And there the prettiest handpicked maidens would offer themselves to the athletes—especially to the good Aryan types. Olympic babies born out of such encounters were cared for by the state. There was every indication that this Woods of Love was a matter of state policy by the Nazis.
"The maidens were usually sports teachers or members of Hitler's Bund Deutscher M√§del and they had passes to enter the village and woods and mingle with the athletes. It was a lovely beech forest which had a pretty little lake, and the place was tightly ringed by Schupos [police] so no one would disturb the sportive couples.
"It was interesting that before submitting to the Olympic god of her choice, the girl would request her partner's Olympic badge. In case of pregnancy, she would give this badge to state or Red Cross maternities to prove the Olympic origin of her baby. Then the state would pay for the whole works."
Dr. Martin said that since Aryan racial improvement was apparently the object of the young ladies' affections, they avoided blacks and seemed to favor white Americans, Scandinavians, Dutchmen and, of course, Germans. Dr. Martin had been at the Games in Los Angeles in 1932 and he recalled, "Very pretty girls with big automobiles would turn up at the Olympic Village there, too, to try and meet the athlete of their choice. But there, obviously, race improvement was decidedly not the prime incentive."
"I HEREBY ASSERT MY CLAIMS FOR BEING SOLE AUTHOR OF THE WHOLE PROJECT"
In his waning years Baron Pierre de Coubertin was often seen by the citizens of Lausanne rowing on Lake Geneva, a small and melancholy figure bending and pulling, bending and pulling, propelling himself in slow circles upon the water. He was quite poor now, his ancient family fortune spent.
The baron, his wife Marie and their daughter Renée lived in a hotel suite paid for by the municipality of Lausanne. His wife refused to give him even a few sous for pocket money. His daughter had come to be what relatives called "funny." Since late childhood, Renee had been forced by her mother to wear masculine clothing and was forbidden to use powder or rouge. This, relatives agreed, was a result of the guilt Mme, Coubertin felt over the bizarre tragedy that befell an infant son many years before. The boy had been two years old when his mother left him exposed for several hours beneath a fierce summer sun. When he was found, he had suffered sunstroke, and though he lived several years more he never again showed the faintest sign of human intelligence.
"The baron was very disillusioned, very sad at the end of his life," his great-nephew Geoffrey de Navacelle recalled recently. "Remember, in 1914 the Olympics were in their infancy when war broke out. No one believed the Olympic ideal could stop war then. But by 1936 my uncle realized that even a full-grown Olympics could never be the means to world peace that he had been searching for. He was quite distraught. Things had not gone as he intended."
The Associated Press reported that the Baron de Coubertin died "of a stroke of apoplexy," while strolling in a public park of Geneva on Sept. 2, 1937. He was 74. In his will he asked that his body be buried in Lausanne, where the headquarters of the IOC is located. But first, his heart was to be removed from his breast, encased in a marble column and interred at Olympia in Greece.
Marie did not die until 1963, when she was 101 years old. She was buried, intact, in Lausanne.
Pierre de Coubertin had grown up in a castle at Saint-Rémy-l√®s-Chevreuse, in a town house at 20 Rue Oudinot in Paris, and in a seaside ch√¢teau near Le Havre. The family title dated back to the reign of Louis XI. When Pierre was 16, his family made a pilgrimage to Frohsdorf, Austria, where they paid clandestine homage to the pretender to the French throne, the man they believed to be King Henry V. Pierre was appalled at what he saw—a shattered and rheumy-eyed bit of human wreckage. The folly of waiting for this old crock to dash into Paris and seize France was too much for Pierre. He rejected his family's politics and eventually came to refer to himself as a "revolutionary." In time, he would even be called a socialist. Of course, he was not. For all of his life the baron's warmest and most influential friends in Olympic and personal matters were counts and archdukes and princes and extremely rich men.
The baron was quite tiny, barely 5'3". Early in life he cultivated a fine, sweeping mustache. He wore it all his life and it turned snow white when he grew old in Lausanne. The baron did not indulge greatly in competitive sport. Mostly he rowed or rode. He wrote endlessly. He loved flowers, music and drawing-room chatter. He cut an impressive figure at the podium, despite a high voice which had obviously traveled the full length of his nose (it was the nose of a much taller man) before it arrived in public. But with all the words he delivered, it is odd that the most famous quotation attributed to him was not of his own creation: "The important thing is not winning hut taking part...." De Coubertin said it countless times, but he seized upon it only after he had heard it said in 1908 by the Bishop of Pennsylvania.
Toward the end of the 19th century, France was still stunned by the ringing defeat suffered at the hands of Germany in 1871. A few critics said France had lost because she was too cerebral, too effete. Sport and physical exercise in general were considered a detriment to scholarly work. The less said about sport the better. No one minded when a leading newspaper explained to its readers that soccer was a game played with rackets and small, hard balls. People minded even less, perhaps, when a competitor struck back by saying that soccer was, in fact, played with long, flat mallets.
Then along came the little baron, declaiming athletic propaganda through his nose. He preached against "physical degenerance" in France and said that he wanted to remold French youth. He praised the relatively robust British educational system: "It is the application according to modern requirements of the most characteristic principles of Grecian civilization: to make the muscles be the chief factor in the work of moral education." He was denounced as a vulgarian.
Still, he managed to attract some of France's finest educators and philosophers to his ideas, as well as two presidents of the Republic, and he discussed his theme with Gladstone, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Nov. 25, 1892 was the day the baron chose to reveal his idea for reviving the Olympics. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the Union des Sociétés Fran√ßaises de Sports Athlétiques, of which de Coubertin was president. The place was the Sorbonne. The heart of the baron's speech dealt with the value of internationalism in sports. He spoke with fervor: "There are those whom you would call Utopians since they speak of the disappearance of war, but there are others who believe in the progressive diminution of the chances of war, and I don't see that as Utopian."
He shouted that the "cause of peace would receive a new and forceful boost" if nations competed in athletics rather than in armies. Then he promulgated his historic notion: "We must join to found a base conforming to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and beneficent work: the re-establishment of the Olympic Games!"
The baron paused and glared significantly at the gathering. The gathering looked back rather blankly. People had no idea what the baron was talking about. At last, men began scrambling to their feet to ask questions:
"Do you mean a theatrical reproduction with fake athletes?"
"Mais, non," said the baron, "the real thing...."
"Then will the athletes be nude?" The audience was laughing. "Will it be forbidden for women to watch? Who will participate? Only the French? It used to be only the Greeks...."
"I foresee the Games on a world scale," said the baron.
"Oh, then we'll have Negroes and Chinese and...and...Redskins!" shouted one buffoon and the auditorium rocked with laughter. The baron was abashed.
Downcast, he left the Sorbonne. Outside, he was approached by a young woman who placed her small hand upon his arm. "Your idea was too much for them," she said. "It will be necessary to give it to them little by little. This time their reaction is not important." The young woman's name was Marie Rothan and she and the baron were married on March 12, 1895. Ahead lay the grandeur of the Olympic Games and the desolation of Lausanne.
The baron finally sold the Olympics to an assembly of world sports officials in Paris in June 1894. It was decided that the first Games must be held in Athens. Unfortunately, the news of this decision did not set off dancing in the streets of that city. In fact, the Greek government did not really see how it could afford the Olympic Games. The glories that were Greece were no more. The treasury was bankrupt. The nation was struggling to regain some semblance of vitality and direction after a bitter and costly revolution in which it had succeeded in expelling the Turks.
When word of disenchantment in Athens reached Paris, Baron de Coubertin hurried off to Greece. He met with the prime minister and was told there was not enough money to finance the Games. The baron said he must see the king. King George was out of town, so de Coubertin saw Crown Prince Constantine. And here, Olympic historians agree, the baron did something very wise: he did not launch into a paean to ancient Greece and the splendor of an Olympia long gone. Instead, the baron told the prince that the world greatly admired the Greece of the 19th century. He spoke of the courage displayed in the Greek fight for independence and of the nation's grim resolve to maintain its identity "when the world no longer knew there were any Greeks."
The prince sat entranced as the baron cried, "It is in this Greece that I believe!"
Young Constantine replied, "And I, sir, believe in your Olympics."
So it was done. The royal family organized a public fund-raising campaign that produced 332,756 drachmas ($65,246). Commemorative stamps brought in another 400,000 drachmas and the sale of tickets and medals another 200,000. It still was not enough; a great deal of money was needed to rebuild the decrepit Panathenaic Stadium of Herodes Atticus (102-178 A.D.), which was little more than a bramble-choked ravine. But the Greeks knew where to turn for the money—to George Averoff of Alexandria, a Croesus figure who had made millions of drachmas dealing in Egyptian cotton, wheat and gold thread. Averoff had already gained a reputation as the nation's leading philanthropist and he lived up to it by donating 920,000 drachmas to restore the heroic old pile. The resulting masterpiece seated 45,000 people. At its entrance rose a statue of Averoff. On the eve of the opening ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games, the crown prince gave a stirring speech in praise of the merchant and when he pulled the cord that dropped the flag of Greece draped over the statue, the crowd roared: "Long live the Crown Prince! Long live Mr. Averoff! God bless our nation!"
The baron later wrote his own analysis of what the Games could mean to the world: "Their revival is not owing to a spontaneous dream, but is the logical consequence of the great cosmopolitan tendencies of our times.... Men have begun to lead less isolated existences, different races have learnt to know, to understand each other better and by comparing their.... achievements in the fields of art, industry and science, a noble rivalry has sprung up amongst them, urging them on to greater accomplishment."
The baron wanted no mistakes made about the origins of this new phenomenon, the modern Olympics. "As for myself," he wrote, "I hereby assert once more my claims for being sole author of the whole project."
When the baron and his wife had returned to France, Marie asked him, "Why was it that not one time did they mention your name during the ceremonies?"
* ¬© Copyright 1909 Irving Berlin. ¬© Copyright renewed. Reprinted by permission of Irving Berlin Music Corporation
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