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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U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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