Athens, 1896

A gold medal-winning hurdler and an eminent Classics scholar recall their experiences at the 1896 Olympics

By Sage Stossel

This summer the Olympic games are returning to their birthplace. This is not, however, the first time since antiquity that they have been hosted there. In 1896, at the urging of a French educator named Pierre de Coubertin, the ancient games were first revived and held in Athens. At the time, it had been nearly 1,500 years since the Greeks had last held the games, and some were doubtful that their original spirit could be reproduced in modern times. In "My Sixty Days in Greece: The Olympic Games, Old and New" (February 1897 Atlantic), Basil L. Gildersleeve, a professor of Greek and Latin who made it to Athens in time to see the end of the games, recalled his own skepticism about the enterprise, and recounted how it had ultimately given way to enthusiasm.

Gildersleeve had been convinced that the sacredness associated with the original Olympics would elude the moderns. After all, he explained, the original Olympics had in part constituted an offering to the gods. He feared that the 1896 Olympics would end up as a mere athletic contest.

We must not forget what it all means. We must not forget the great altar that dominates Olympia. We must not forget that there were priests and prophets among the victors. The festival was sacred to the supreme god. The year was a sacred year; the poems that celebrated the victories were sacred poems.... The athlete served God with his body....

Is there anything left of the old spirit, or can anything of the old spirit be evoked? Will the new Olympic games be anything more than athletic sports?

Because he imagined that the Olympics would be such a disappointment, he decided to visit Sicily first, and only made his way to Athens as the games were ending. When he arrived, tremendous celebrations were erupting throughout the city in response to the news that a Greek man had won the Marathon. Gildersleeve instantly regretted his decision not to go straight to Athens.

The scene was one to stir the most sluggish soul.... The coast-line of Greece did not speak to the soul as did the simultaneous joy of a hundred thousand men and women with blood in their veins and the light of gladness on their faces. I have seen the light of battle on the soldier's face, but I have never seen faces more brilliantly illuminated than the countenances of the throngs that pervaded the streets of Athens.

Perhaps, he concluded, his doubts had been wrong; a noble new spirit of patriotism would stand in for the old religious feeling, and the loftiness that infused the original Olympics would grace the games' new incarnation after all.

Sitting in one's study, it was easy enough to wax eloquent on the spirit of the old contests, the spirit that had flown never to return... Yet the consecration was there. Even in the old times when Zeus was the patron deity, the contestant strove for his people, his canton, his city; and while the poet of the games gives due honor to the god of the games, he does not forget the claims of the land of the victor. This is the consecration that has remained after the other has passed away, and the cry "Zíto I Ellás!" (Long live Greece!) hallowed the new Olympic games, and gave them the sacredness that they would otherwise have lacked.

Thirty-five years later, in "High Hurdles and White Gloves" (originally published in The Sportsman in 1932 and subsequently published in the December, 1956, issue of The Atlantic Monthly), the hurdler Thomas P. Curtis looked back at his own experiences as an athlete in the 1896 Olympics, and cast a nostalgic eye over his impressions.

For Curtis, the 1896 games had been more an occasion for high-spirited conviviality and adventure than for strenuous athleticism. Even the manner in which he and his teammates were selected for participation bore little resemblance to today's rigorous winnowing process.

When an invitation was received in this country, asking the United States to send representatives to Greece, the powers of the Boston Athletic Association went into a huddle and decided that the B.A.A. had a pretty good track team which had met with reasonable success at home and that the Association could afford to send a group of seven athletes and a coach to the first Olympiad.... That was all there was to it.

Once they had arrived in Athens, rather than preparing zealously for their events, Curtis and his teammates took a more casual approach, and ended up competing hungover. As it turned out, there was little to fear from the competition. Curtis had been warned of the daunting prowess of the Greek hurdler against whom he would be racing, but as soon as the race began, it became clear that the man posed little threat:

His method was to treat each hurdle as a high jump, trotting up to it, leaping, and landing on both feet. At that, given the method, his time was really remarkable.... It is only fair to add that Greece, as a nation, knew very little about track and field sports.

Though Curtis won the gold medal in his event, his friend on the swim team did not fare as well:

He had traveled 5000 miles for this event, and as he posed 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 headfirst into the icy water. In a split second his head reappeared. "Jesu Christo! I'm freezing!"; with that shriek of astonished frenzy he lashed back to the float. For him the Olympics were over.

Such mishaps aside, Curtis made clear that for himself and his teammates, the games were an extraordinary adventure. He recalled such singular experiences as being applauded in the streets by awed locals; watching thousands of white pigeons released into the sky as Greece's marathoner approached the finish line; and using a walking stick and an orange to teach the Crown Prince of Greece how to play baseball. The 1896 Olympics were an occasion he would never forget.

Sage Stossel

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/08/athens-1896/303472/