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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2016 > The Games Reborn

The Games Reborn

It took the drive and ambition of one Frenchman to reinstate the Olympics on the sporting calendar. Nige Tassell tells the story of Pierre de Coubertin and the first modern Games, held in Athens in 1896
ARENA OF AMBITION Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s decision to resurrect the Olympics had the aim of bringing “the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility”. The swiftly renovated Panathenaic Stadium in Athens was to be the main location for the event’s rebirth
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The noise would have been deafening, 60,000 cheering voices resonating around a stadium the shape of an elongated horseshoe. It would have been a noise like no living person had heard before. And it was a noise that celebrated the deeds of a lowly water-carrier, a young man unknown to the crowd a couple of hours before.

It was late on an afternoon in Athens in 1896 and the occasion was the first edition of the modern Olympics. Tis young man – Spyros Louis – was making history, about to be elevated to the status of national hero. Here at the Panathenaic Stadium, to the rapturous acclaim of the home nation, Louis was completing an extraordinary sporting triumph. Victory in the marathon, in a shade under three hours, was in the bag.

The celebrations extended beyond the stadium into the surrounding hills. As the American reporter Charles Waldstein would soon observe in the pages of Te Field, this corner of Athens was “covered with a human crowd that from a distance looked like bees clustering over a comb… this mass of humanity rising in one great shout of joy”.

William Penny Brookes, founder of the Wenlock Olympian Games FAR founder
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The number of y ears that golf has been absent from the Olympics. It is being r eintroduced at this summer’s Games in Rio

On crossing the line, Louis was greeted by George I, the King of Greece, standing to applaud. For a nation claimed to be Europe’s most bankrupt, his victory was a focus for national unity. As Waldstein noted, the occasion reached back into Ancient Greek history. “It might almost have been Philippides of old bringing to the anxious inhabitants of Athens the news of their glorious victory, the salvation of their country and home.”

Waldstein wasn’t the only non-Greek enthralled by proceedings. Te man whose vision, energy and powers of persuasion had brought about the return of the Olympics – the diminutive Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin – was caught up in the excitement too. He later described how the Athenian audience “rose to its feet like one man, swayed by extraordinary excitement”, before “a flight of white pigeons was let loose, women waved fans and handkerchiefs, and some of the spectators who were nearest to Louis left their seats, and tried to reach him and carry him in triumph”.

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August 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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