Philip Barker

Next month, the Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou is set to join International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach for the lighting of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Flame.

Both are also to attend the formal reopening of the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in its 60th anniversary year, after the completion of modernisation work.

The re-opening will be a welcome moment after two difficult years. COVID-19 had forced the closure of many educational institutions including the IOA, which normally offers a range of lectures and activities on Olympic topics to students from across the world.

Then, in the summer of 2021, there were devastating forest fires across the region. Nearby villages suffered terrible damage and the flames were even visible from the IOA premises.

It was Baron Pierre de Coubertin who first dreamed of an "Olympic Academy". Like many before and since, he was captivated by the birthplace of the Ancient Games as he forged ahead in his work to revive them for the modern era.

Coubertin stood down as IOC President in 1925 and in 1927, he visited Olympia for the inauguration of a commemorative monument and also discussed Olympic education.

It was a concept which he had long cherished.

Before the First World War, he proposed the establishment of an Olympic gymnasium and institute in Lausanne.

"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", he wrote before his death in 1937.

His heart was interred in the stele which now stands at the end of a tree-lined avenue in the "Coubertin Grove".

Another monument a few metres away pays tribute to Ioannis (Jean) Ketseas of Greece and Carl Diem of Germany, two men who ensured Coubertin’s wishes eventually came true.

Wildfires this year came close to the IOA ©Getty Images
Wildfires this year came close to the IOA ©Getty Images

Both had attended the 1906 Olympic Games, a special event in Athens to mark the 10th anniversary of the first Modern Olympics.

In 1906 Ketseas competed in tennis and later won the Pan-Hellenic Championship. For good measure, he won national medals at rowing and as a high jumper.

Diem also went to Athens in 1906. He reported for three German newspapers and was a team official as well.

When Berlin was selected to host the 1916 Olympics, Diem joined a study group which recruited leading American coaches to work with the German team.

"Athletics is viewed by us Germans as a means of fortifying and solidifying the national strength", he wrote.

The 1916 Olympics never happened because of war, but by the early 1920s Diem was a leading figure in German sports organisations and had become deputy director of the German Sport University Cologne.

Meanwhile Ketseas joined Coubertin’s discussions on Olympic education with professor Ioannis Chrysafis, a former gymnast who was Greek director of physical culture.

Chrysafis would surely have been a valuable supporter of the project but he died in 1932.

By now, the 1936 Olympics had been awarded to Berlin and Diem was involved in their organisation.

When the Nazis came to power and seized the Games as a propaganda tool, his expertise ensured that as a sporting event, they were the greatest yet seen.

Diem and Ketseas also played an important part in establishing the first Olympic Torch Relay in conjunction with Greek writer Alexandros Philadelpheus.

By the late 1930s, they had also set about realising Coubertin’s dreams for Olympic education.

A rustic sign was a feature of the first 25 years of the IOA ©Philip Barker
A rustic sign was a feature of the first 25 years of the IOA ©Philip Barker

In 1939, Ketseas was a prominent Greek sports official but not yet an IOC member, so it was Angelo Bolanaki who announced that "Greece had established a sports academy at Olympia."

The IOC granted patronage, believing it would help in "infusing the public opinion of the future with the Olympic spirit".

At this time, German archaeologists were still excavating in Olympia.

Lectures were to be held amongst Olympia’s ruins and participants "like the competitors of old, will dwell in tents and live according to Spartan principles".

Details were given in the Olympic Review, edited by Diem. This was now based in Berlin where he was also in charge of an "International Olympic Institute".

Although Diem visited Greece, any thoughts of Olympic activity were soon put to one side because of the war.

When war ended in 1945, the Olympic Movement set about rebuilding. Diem even suggested the possibility of establishing an academy in the United States.

Meanwhile Ketseas had become an IOC member. At the 1948 Olympics in London, he made a further call for the establishment of an Olympic Academy. Because time was short, the IOC Executive Committee decided to discuss the project with Diem, who they described as "an expert in the matter."

By now, Diem was rector of the revived German Sport University Cologne. He helped draw up a memorandum presented by Ketseas at the 1949 IOC session in Rome.

"The purpose of the projected Olympic Academy is to spread the Olympic idea and ideals."

It hoped to help "in the education and training of young men to become worthy heralds of the Olympic ideals."

The curriculum was to include the history of the Ancient and Modern Olympics and lectures on sport and education. The idea was accepted, but making it a reality proved more difficult, even though a Hellenic Olympic Committee special committee was established.

Ketseas persisted, and by the late 1950s surveys were begun to find a site.

A view across the IOA grounds ©Philip Barker
A view across the IOA grounds ©Philip Barker

There were still disputes over the best location and in 1960, even suggestions in Patris, a local newspaper, that the project had been "torpedoed" because some believed Athens to be a more practical location.

Eventually, a site beneath Mount Kronos, close to the site of the ancient stadium was identified.

The first trial session in 1961 coincided with the formal handover of the archaeological site. Diem described this as "part of the great enterprise of giving antique Olympia back to the sun again".

Student groups from Germany and Greece staged a re-enactment of ancient sports and some 23 nations took part in the session.

"Preference shall be given to students or graduates of Universities, of Colleges or Institutes of Physical Culture, and also to coaches or officials of various sports."

Lectures took place in the open air, where Ketseas cut an elegant figure in a bow tie. Diem was joined by his wife Liselott, a distinguished academic in her own right.

"The mode of life at the Olympic Academy of both lecturers and participants shall be simple and conducted in an atmosphere suitable to their mission", IOA regulations stated.

Participants lived in tents.

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

In 1962, French writer Paul Vialar spoke in anticipation of the centenary of Coubertin’s birth.

Diem’s own 80th birthday was celebrated. He was presented with a special medal marking "almost a lifetime devoted to the interests and propagation of Sports in general and the Olympic Spirit in particular."

He delivered three lectures on "The Olympic Idea".

As the session’s end, he told participants:  "The meaning of the Academy is fulfilled by thought, work and enthusiasm which will follow upon your stay here. An Academy does not constitute an endless objective. It is the base upon which human progress is cemented."

Ioannis Ketseas and Carl Diem were honoured with a tablet ©Philip Barker
Ioannis Ketseas and Carl Diem were honoured with a tablet ©Philip Barker

They were his last words in Olympia. He died in December 1962. Tributes were paid to a "kindly, erudite and genial" professor.

Participants in 1963 were told how Diem "had been an inspiration to the Academy".

Ketseas suggested that an empty chair should be placed in the lecture area "in recognition of the fact that Diem’s spirit would be eternally with the Academy".

Within two years Ketseas also died.

"The fortunes of the Academy were particularly dear to his heart, for he was among those who did not see the Olympic Movement purely as a sporting movement", the Olympic Review said. 

"He was a humanist who had made himself the apostle of the complete man."

Although the first planning for permanent buildings had been formulated in 1961, Diem and Ketseas did not live to see them become a reality .The first buildings went up in 1967.

It was in 1982, almost 40 years ago, that Bach first spoke at the IOA. He was a member of the fledgling IOC Athletes' Commission, set up after the 1981 IOC Congress in Baden Baden.

“It is not our intention to challenge or undermine the competence of existing institutions," Bach said.

"We want to generate a genuine impulse and become a kind of link between athletes on the one hand and the International Olympic Committee on the other."

He called for "our proposals and ideas to be taken seriously and made reality where possible. In other words, the Commission is not to be degraded to a merely decorative function."

In 1982, 168 participants from 60 nations attended the IOA Session.

The 2021 IOA Session did go ahead, but on a virtual platform because of COVID-19 restrictions.

When the IOC President views the renovations, bankrolled by an IOC investment of €12.5 million (£10.7 million/$14.7 million), he won’t be alone in looking forward to a time when the place is full of people once again.