The Olympics are reborn after England inspires de Coubertin
Born in 1863, Baron Pierre de Coubertin had grown up in the shadow of his country's devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. He decided that France had lost the war due to physical and spiritual flabbiness caused primarily by poor educational methods.
A boxer, fencer, and rower as a young man, de Coubertin determined to devote his life to education and, especially, to physical education. His ideas fitted in exactly with England's "muscular Christianity" movement, which espoused moral and intellectual development based on physical fitness.
He visited England several times to see first-hand how sport was used in public schools, and he also travelled to the United States with the same goal. The Olympic idea was definitely in the air in 19th-century England. The Baron de Berenger held an Olympic Festival at Chelsea Stadium in London in 1832.
To commemorate Queen Victoria's coronation, he staged another festival in 1838, which included archery, gymnastics, cricket, fencing, rowing, sailing, and target shooting with both rifle and pistol.
By far the most important of such events was the annual Olympic festival at Much Wenlock, which began in 1850.William "Penny" Brooke, a life-long campaigner for physical education, organised the games, which included cricket, hurdling, jumping, quoits, running, and football.
The Much Wenlock Games were originally designed for youngsters - there was an even a race for children under seven - but they eventually grew to include older athletes. They also drew some attention from Europe and the German Gymnastics Society began sending a team to England to compete in various events.
In 1861, Brooke organised the Shropshire Olympian Association, which led to the founding of the National Olympian Association four years later. Brooke's goal was to create an international Olympics, primarily to promote physical education in participating countries.
Brooke never achieved that goal. But, in 1890, de Coubertin, who was eager to learn about the Much Wenlock games and the Olympian Society, visited him and Brooke was very helpful to the young Frenchman who shared his interest in physical education and his dream of an international Olympic festival.
The idea of reviving the Olympics as a true international festival grew out of that meeting. Baron de Coubertin began openly espousing the idea in 1892, but attracted little notice.
Despite repeated rebuffs, not only from his own countrymen but from the English and the Americans as well, de Coubertin persisted. On June 23, 1894, he presided over a meeting of 79 delegates, representing 12 countries, who unanimously voted for the restoration of the Olympic Games.
As a result, the International Olympic Committee was organised, with the goal of staging the first modern Olympics in Paris in 1900. Pressed by Coubertin, the IOC soon decided to aim for 1896, with Athens as the site.
That idea, too, met with resistance, especially from the government of Greece. But when Georgios Averoff of Alexandria donated 920,000 gold drachmas to build an Olympic stadium in Athens, the resistance folded, and the King of Greece himself opened the first modern Olympic Games on April 6, 1896 (March 24 on the Greek calendar).
The honour of being the first Olympic champion of the modern era fell to James Connolly, an American who won the triple jump, justifying his decision to drop out of Harvard University to compete in the Games.
But to the Greeks the hero of the Games was Spiridon Louis, a 24-year-old shepherd. He won the marathon, a race created to honour the legend of Pheidippides, who allegedly carried the news of the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC by running from Marathon to Athens.
Date Games held: April 6-15
Number of nations represented: 14
Number of competitors: 245 (0 women)
Number of medal events: 43