From Zeus to Athens, how the modern Olympics came to be

Spyridon Louis
AP
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Spyridon Louis, an unheralded competitor in an unknown event, ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, following the path not just of the ancient messenger Pheidippides but also some more contemporary couriers on horseback and bicycle who announced his arrival at the Panathenian Stadium with the cry: “A Greek! A Greek!”

Sixty thousand of his countrymen greeted Louis as he entered the arena, their cheers echoing off the marble edifice. Crown Prince Constantine jumped onto the track to run alongside him for the final lap.

Embarrassed thus far by a shutout on the track in the inaugural modern Olympics, the hosts had their champion, a water carrier from a nearby town — and in a new event that was as Greek as the Games themselves: the marathon.

“The fact that three Greeks were the first ones in the race has stirred up the whole population to the deepest enthusiasm,” The Associated Press reported on April 10, 1896. “The vast assemblage looking on became fairly frantic and paid a tribute to the prowess of their victorious countryman such as the epic heroes of antiquity might well envy had they been here to see it.”

The French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin may have been the force behind the modern Olympics, working to revive the ancient athletics festival in its homeland in 1896. But it was Louis who first kindled the passion that helped the Games grow into the world’s largest sporting spectacle.

From that modest start in Athens with 241 participants in 43 events, the Olympics have ballooned to include 11,238 athletes vying for 306 gold medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. More are expected for the Tokyo Olympics that were postponed one year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost 3,000 more took part in 2018 in the Winter Games, which were first contested in Chamonix, France, in 1924. The Youth Olympics and Paralympics help spread de Coubertin’s credo of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” — faster, higher, stronger.

Here is a look at how the modern Olympic movement came to be:

OLYMPIA

The ancient Olympics began in 776 B.C. with a single, 190-meter sprint the length of the “stadion” where it took place — purported to be the distance Hercules could run on a single breath. The quadrennial sporting festival expanded over the next 400 years to include additional running events as well as chariot races, military competitions, wrestling, boxing, a Pentathlon and a mixed martial arts forerunner called pankration.

Only free Greek men were allowed to enter — women could not even attend, though they could claim victories for horses or chariots that they owned. Instead of medals, winners received wreaths cut from “the sacred olive tree of Zeus.” Runners who committed a false start were beaten with a whip or a stick. Athletes competed naked, with the wrestlers coating themselves in oil.

Some traditions remain: A truce was proclaimed to allow the competitors to travel to Olympia safely. And then, like now, the Classical Games were intensely political, with city-states using their athletic prowess to claim superiority.

The ancient Olympics were also religious, marked in the middle by the sacrifice of 100 cows or oxen to Zeus. Pagan festivals were banned in 392 by Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great, a Christian, but evidence suggests that the Olympic competitions continued for many more centuries before flickering out for economic reasons.

LE RENOVATEUR

A French Baron convinced of the value of athletics in building character, de Coubertin was determined to revive the ancient Olympics as an international sporting festival.

After several failed attempts, de Coubertin finally obtained the support to stage the event in Athens in 1896, with Paris to follow four years later.

The first modern Olympics had no people of color and were all-male. The second Summer Games had its first recorded Black Olympian, Haitian-born French rugby player Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, and female competitors in tennis, golf and sailing. And de Coubertin’s belief in amateurism persisted as an Olympic ideal — in principle, though somewhat imperfectly in practice — until 1988.

THE RACE

There were 241 athletes from 14 countries competing in 43 events in Athens, but one mattered most to the host Greeks: The cross-country race retracing the steps of the messenger Pheidippides, who in 490 B.C. ran to Athens to deliver news of the victory in the Battle of Marathon before dying.

By April 10, 1896, the day of the first Olympic marathon, the hosts were reeling from their losses in track and field, including an especially galling victory by American investment banker Robert Garrett in one of the signature Greek events, the discus throw.

Louis delivered Greece’s only track and field victory. Despite stopping mid-race to eat an orange and drink a glass of cognac, Louis finished more than seven minutes ahead of countryman Kharilaos Vasilakos. (Greece’s Spyridon Belokas finished third but was disqualified for taking a carriage ride during the race.)

“The news of the athletic victory was flashed all over Greece,” the AP reported, “and the whole country is rejoicing over it tonight as over a national victory.”

It wasn’t just the Greeks who were excited.

Members of the Boston Athletic Association — including Arthur Blake, who was among the marathon leaders before dropping out near the halfway point — were so impressed that they began staging their own long-distance run the following year. The Boston Marathon has been run every spring since except 1918 and this year, and hundreds more are held around the world.

ALSO RUN

The Greeks claimed 47 total medals to top the table, with the United States winning 11 gold. Gymnast Hermann Weingartner earned six medals in all: three gold, two silver and one bronze.

The 1896 Games also made a star of 18-year-old architecture student Alfréd Hajós, dubbed by the Athenian press as “the Hungarian Dolphin.” Taking up swimming at the age of 13 after his father drowned in the Danube River, Hajós overcame 13-foot (4-meter) waves in the cold, open water of the Mediterranean Bay of Zea, to earn two gold medals.

“My will to live completely overcame my desire to win,” said Hajós, who coated himself in a thick layer of grease to ward off the cold.

At a dinner to honor the Olympic champions, Greek King Georgios I asked Hajós where he learned to swim so fast. His reply: “In the water, Sir.”

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”

Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss

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One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“This wasn’t the skate that I wanted,” said Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen. The Virginia chalked up the flaws at least partially to putting more recent practice time into his short program, which he skated clean on Friday after errors in previous competitions.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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