Philip Barker

Next month’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) session was to have been in Athens, but will now take place remotely following an IOC Executive Board decision "to respect the strict measures being implemented now all over the world to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and bring the number of cases down".

The Athens Session was to have coincided with celebrations of the 125th anniversary of the first Modern Olympics held in 1896.

Plans had also originally included a visit to Ancient Olympia, considered the cradle of the Olympic Games.

It is a pilgrimage made by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and many subsequent generations of Olympic officials and competitors. 

Sixty years ago, some members of the IOC did make the journey after a Session which had more in common with 2021 than might be imagined.

In 1961, the talk was also of the next Olympics in Tokyo.

A report was presented by a delegation from the 1964 Organising Committee, an all-male group led by Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda.

The dates for the Games were finally fixed for October 1964. The Japanese asked for judo to be included on the programme.

The Zappeion was used during the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens ©Philip Barker
The Zappeion was used during the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens ©Philip Barker

The word "quarantine" was discussed, but this was only for horses taking part in the equestrian portion of the modern pentathlon.

In fact there had been moves for it to be dropped from the programme "owing to lack of horses in Japan".

Unsurprisingly, given Hungary’s fine tradition in the sport, Hungarian member Ferenc Mezo objected and confirmed that his country had offered to provide "free of expenses, the loan of 100 horses for the pentathlon events".

In 1961, Avery Brundage was beginning his second term as IOC President. He described the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics as "a glorious festival of winter sport" and the Rome Olympics "inscribed a new constructive chapter".

Brundage had also been re-elected IOC President by acclamation to "loud cheers", an event bound to leave him with fond memories.

There is likely to be a similar reaction next month when Thomas Bach, unopposed as IOC President, is formally re-elected, but this will make history as the first time it has been done online.

The Session will no doubt discuss Agenda 2020+5, a document with fifteen points described as a "road map" for the next five years of the Olympic Movement.

While Bach has always insisted the IOC must "change or be changed", Brundage showed less inclination to do so in 1961. He circulated his own agenda. "If we are to preserve the Olympic Games as originally intended, it is high time we review the situation, restate the objectives of the Olympic Movement, and in the light of modern conditions decide how best to accomplish these objectives," Brundage wrote.

At the opening of the Session in the imposing open air theatre of Herodes Atticus on the Acropolis, Brundage told the members: "Today we have the same problems that disturbed the organisers of the ancient Games more than two thousand years ago, when the Greek philosophers exclaimed against the subsidisation, the proselyte-ing, the excesses, the commercialisation, and the other abuses that had corrupted the ancient Games.

He insisted "steps must be taken without further delay to preserve the purity of the modern Games."

The Panathinaiko celebration is traditionally a focal point for Olympic visitors ©Philip Barker
The Panathinaiko celebration is traditionally a focal point for Olympic visitors ©Philip Barker

Throughout his career, Brundage had ardently defended amateur sport.

"The Olympic Games are and must remain amateur if they are to continue. The amateur question, since it deals with matters of the spirit, will probably always be with us," he said.

Television had started to play a role in 1961, although Brundage insisted that "the benefit realised from television rights is not sufficiently large to allow the IOC to subsidise National Olympic Committees".

Television pictures from Rome had shown East and West Germany under a single tricolour flag emblazoned with Olympic rings. Brundage was delighted but the political problems were more complex, particularly when the Berlin Wall took shape in the months which followed.

There was discussion of what was described as "the ambiguous situation prevailing" in North Korea as the IOC tried to find a workable solution to accommodate both Koreas.

Bach has called for "greater solidarity" within the Olympic Movement in the wake of the pandemic.

In 1961 the French member Jean De Beaumont did not use that precise word, but insisted: "It is imperative to envisage seriously the necessity of assisting the new countries of Africa and Asia."

It was a time when the colonial era was ending. The Olympic map was changing.

An IOC commission was established, though it would be some years before the Olympic aid became a formal organisation with the name "Olympic Solidarity".

When the IOC Session ended, many set out for Olympia, where one Olympic dream was about to be fulfilled and another to embark on an opening chapter.

The Olympic Flame is lit in Athens before beginning its journey around the host country of the Games ©Philip Barker
The Olympic Flame is lit in Athens before beginning its journey around the host country of the Games ©Philip Barker

Excavations at the site of the Olympic Games of antiquity had come to an end after almost a century of work, but now tents had been pitched across the hillside to house a new Olympic venture.

Shortly before his death in 1937, Coubertin had written: "I believe that a Centre of Olympic Studies would aid the preservation and progress of my work more than anything else, and would keep it from the false paths which I fear." 

In 1961, after many years of lobbying, the first "trial course" of the International Olympic Academy (IOA) was taking place.

It was organised by Ioannis Ketseas, IOC member in Greece, and German sports official Carl Diem, known for his work on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By this time Diem had become rector of the sports university in Cologne.

Diem said: "The idea and the reality of this Academy harmonised happily in those noble precincts, whose excavation has yielded findings which to-day throw new light on the past."

There were some 30 students drawn from 25 nations. The theme chosen was "Athlete Training" and 12 visiting lecturers conducted lectures in the open air.

Numbers were swelled to over 200 by a large group from Diem’s university in Cologne and the Greek National Academy for Physical Education.

In the weeks before, there had been intense activity to provide a water supply and an electrical supply was installed by members of the Air Force. Food was sent up from a hotel in the village to the campsite.

Although the Greek summer is typically hot and dry, the local primary school was placed on standby to provide emergency accommodation in the event of bad weather. (The first permanent buildings on the site did not take shape until the late 1960s.)

"Everyone in the camp was steeped in the ambiance of Olympism," said Jürg Baerlocher, a student from Switzerland.

"What made the deepest impression on us was the walk leading to the sacred enclosure and the fact that we trod under foot, the ground of the stadium. To reach this spot, we walked, as they did 2,500 years ago, passed the columns and crossed the vaulted tunnel leading to the entrance of the stadium."

A wreath is laid at the Coubertin monument when the IOC visits Olympia ©Philip Barker
A wreath is laid at the Coubertin monument when the IOC visits Olympia ©Philip Barker

As the programme of  lectures reached their conclusion, the formal handover of the ancient site drew near.

"The excavation of the Olympic Stadium is part of the great enterprise of giving antique Olympia back to the sun again. Olympia now lies before our gaze as it has been made and remade in the course of its history," Diem said poetically as he toured the ruins with Brundage.

Organisers planned "a simple ceremony in the ancient stadium". This was to be a demonstration of ancient sports performed by the students.

They had been rehearsing for a week, but on the day of the display, heavy rain flooded the ancient stadium.

Instead, formalities took place in the nearby museum where it fell to Swiss professor Carl Burghardt to mark the occasion.

"We stand here at the source of solemn festival and heroic contest," he said. "All the powers of body and mind had free play together here in Olympia."

Happily the display of ancient sports did prove possible in the days which followed.

"This moment flung a bridge across the centuries, and made a living bond between Olympia yesterday and today," Diem said.

The success of the "pilot" scheme assured the continuation of the IOA, which is scheduled to reopen this summer after extensive renovations in time for its 60th anniversary. With IOC backing, its activities are set to be expanded.

The museum of the Modern Olympic Games, originally opened in 1961, is also due to open again this autumn after an interval of 11 years. The collection includes memorabilia such as a casket used to take Coubertin’s heart to its last resting place in Olympia.

After a year of lockdown, the new installations in Olympia will come as a welcome boost.