Philip Barker

If these were normal times, this would have been the week that Paris celebrated the arrival of the Olympic handover flag to start the countdown to 2024.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo was to have received the ceremonial banner from Tokyo Governor Yoriko Koike. This would have represented a moment of Olympic history, the first time two female civic leaders had been involved in the handover ceremony.

The handover flag was donated to the International Olympic Committee by the organisers of the 1988 Games in Seoul. It has never flown in an Olympic stadium but spent the last four years in the Tokyo’s municipal buildings.

It is accompanied by an elegant carrying case, embossed with the emblem of every host city since 1988 to which that of Tokyo and eventually Paris will be added.

When the ceremony does eventually take place, it will complete a circle for Paris as it was the first to receive the original Olympic handover flag. This had been commissioned exactly 100 years ago by the city fathers of Antwerp after the five rings had flown over their Olympic stadium in 1920. For this reason it was known as the 'Antwerp' flag.

In those days, it was presented to the host city after it had staged the Games so the Parisians kept it for four years after 1924.

They have been waiting for the Summer Games to return ever since, although like Japan, France has twice hosted the Winter Olympics in the interval.

Paris is due to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 ©Getty Images
Paris is due to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 ©Getty Images

When caravan does finally arrive once more in Paris exactly a century after it last did so, it will be in a city which can lay claim to some of the richest Olympic heritage in the world. It is also the birthplace of perhaps the most influential figure of all.

It was at number 20 Rue Oudinot in the seventh arrondissement, that Pierre de Coubertin was born on New Year’s Day 1863. It doubled as Olympic headquarters in the early years and was barely three kilometres away from the University of the Sorbonne, where the meetings to revive the Olympics eventually took place.

At a meeting in late 1892, he proposed an Olympic revival. The manifesto he used in that meeting recently sold for $8,806,500 (£6,764,543/€7,916,191) at auction.

His idea did not immediately bear fruit, but in June 1894 he arranged another even more impressive meeting at the Sorbonne. The tone was set by a musical rendition of a newly discovered verse by Pindar. Set to music by Gabriel Faure, it was performed by opera singer Jeanne Remacle. Coubertin felt this lent "a spirit of Hellenism" to the proceedings.

A document at the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne reveals how he wanted the first modern Olympics to be held in Paris in 1900.

Plans changed after a speech by Greek representative Demetrios Vikelas made his plea for Athens to host in 1896. Vikelas himself lived in Paris so the first two International Olympic Committee (IOC) Presidents were in spirit at least Parisian.

Paris did stage the Games in 1900 but they were not considered a success. Coubertin was sidelined after disputes behind the scenes. Women competed for the first time in golf and tennis.

Coubertin himself had infamously declared: "Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands."

There were Latin American competitors in fencing though Cuban Ramon Fonst and Carlos de Candamo, son of the Peruvian ambassador. Both lived in France.

A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Pierre de Coubertin in Paris ©Philip Barker
A plaque commemorating the birthplace of Pierre de Coubertin in Paris ©Philip Barker

The main arenas were at the Bois de Boulogne and the Vélodrome de Vincennes on the other side of the city.

This was used for cycling, football, rugby union and even cricket in 1900. It exists to this day little changed from 1900.

The IOC returned to Paris for its session the following year. The minutes record considerable discussion on the 1904 host city and initially Chicago was the preferred option, although the Games eventually took place in St Louis.

In 1906, Coubertin organised another "Congress" in Paris. More than half of the invitations for the conference went to artists. It was proposed that the Olympics should include "five contests of architecture, sculpture, music, painting and literature for original works directly inspired by sport". 

Coubertin was thrilled when these were eventually introduced in 1912 and even won a medal himself, his "Ode au Sport" entered under the pseudonyms Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach.

In 1914, when the IOC returned to Paris, the world was heading towards war but Coubertin and France pushed the boat out to celebrate the IOC's 20th anniversary.

There were banquets, a nocturnal fete in the Bois de Bologne, displays of fencing , costumed riding, and a festival at the Trocadero which featured, in Coubertin’s words, "a prelude by a septet of harps in 'blueish' obscurity". The "Voices of the North", a Swedish singing group, and procession in ancient costume to honour the host cities of the modern Games also featured.

At the conference table, the IOC hammered out the future programme of the Games. Coubertin insisted "a considerable amount of work was accomplished".

Within a few days of the Paris gathering came war.

Parisian Léon Flameng, an 1896 cycling champion, was killed whilst serving in the air corps. Brothers Ismaël and Bertrand de Lesseps both fenced in 1908 but died in the war.

Jean Bouin, 1912 silver medallist over 5,000m, lost his life early in the war. A stadium in Paris bears his name to this day, and is set for rugby sevens in 2024.

Athletes compete in a cross country race at the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Getty Images
Athletes compete in a cross country race at the Paris 2024 Olympics ©Getty Images

In 1921, at the IOC Session in Lausanne, Paris was selected as the host city for 1924 along with Amsterdam for 1928. By a twist of fate, almost a century later, Paris was chosen for 2024 at the same time as Los Angeles for 2028.

Comte Justinien de Clary was "Commissaire Générale" for the 1924.

The management also included IOC member Albert Glandaz, politician Gaston Vidal, athletics official Joseph Genet and Jules Rimet, later better known as the creator of FIFA’s World Cup.

The main stadium was at Colombes, renovated with two covered stands each seating 10,000 and room for a further 40,000 spectators in the standing areas. Forty-five nations came to Paris and an Olympic Village was built close to the stadium to accommodate the teams.

The Games proved a great success. American swimmer and future Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, Paavo Nurmi of Finland and Uruguay’s football team all forged their place in Olympic lore.

These were Coubertin’s last in charge of the Olympic Movement. He stood down as President the following year.

By the time the IOC returned to Paris in 1955, another Parisian had become a leading figure. Armand Massard, individual épée champion in 1920, was now IOC vice-president.

"Paris is an extremely busy city where everything is difficult to arrange. I hope you do not have too many regrets at coming amongst us," he told his fellow members.

He need not have worried. There was a record attendance. "I am happy to state we have never been so numerous in the whole existence of the IOC", President Avery Brundage declared in his opening speech.

French historian Jean Durry studies the document showing that Pierre de Coubertin wanted the first modern Olympics in Paris in 1900 ©Philip Barker
French historian Jean Durry studies the document showing that Pierre de Coubertin wanted the first modern Olympics in Paris in 1900 ©Philip Barker

Massard wanted to "lend a little more dignity to the official ceremony" for the introduction of new IOC members. 

He proposed they "make a declaration according to a text formulated by the Executive Board and will be introduced to all members of the IOC in turn."

It was also in Paris that Rome and Squaw Valley were elected as host cities for 1960.

Although Grenoble and Albertville staged Winter Games, the IOC did not return to the French capital until 1994.

"Our city prides itself on having faithfully accompanied the history of Olympism," said Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac as the centenary of the IOC’s foundation was celebrated.

A special ceremony was held at the Sorbonne on Olympic Day - June 23.

"Respecting Coubertin means above all placing what he said in its historical context but also means asking what he would want to say and do if he were here with us today" said French National Olympic Committee President Henri Sérandour.

Then in late August came the full Session, and an Olympic "Congress of Unity". An Olympic Flame arrived at the Eiffel Tower by parachutist. Edwin Moses began a relay through the streets of the city. Runners included 1956 marathon champion Alain Mimoun and Colette Besson, 400m gold medallist in 1968, as part of  a group of some 30 Olympians.

The final cauldron was lit by Marie-José Pérec, 400m gold medallist in 1992, destined to win again in 1996.