If you’re glued to the Olympics this week, you know all about the international sporting festival’s origins in ancient Greece. But what you might not recall is that our modern Olympic Games are a product of the Victorian era. What better time for a recap?
Thanks to widespread interest in Classical history, the idea of Olympic-style sporting events enjoyed periodic revivals in 19th century England. The village of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, put on an annual local festival of sports and merriment, beginning in 1850, which still runs today: The Wenlock Olympian Games (they’ve been on hold the past two years due to the pandemic, but may resume this September!).
The Cotswolds have an even older Olympics, begun in the 17th century, and featuring events that have not made it to modern rosters (like hunting) and nowadays seem somewhat… unsportsmanlike (shin-kicking).
The Cotswold Olimpick Games lasted well into the 19th century, were revived in the 1960s, and are still going strong today—and, yes, still feature shin-kicking.
The modern Olympic Games, organized under the aegis (a lovely Greek/Latin word describing a badge or emblem) of the International Olympic Committee, were founded in 1896. Held in Athens to speak directly to the classical tradition, these new Olympics were a true international endeavor, with inspiration and input from Greece, England, and France. William Brookes, Wentworth Olympian Games founder, took his idea to the national English stage in 1866, creating the first National Olympic Games, held at London’s Crystal Palace.
In Greece, the philanthropic Zappas family organized sports festivals under the name Olympics throughout the 1850-70s. Athens’s ancient Panathenaic Stadium, pictured earlier, had been excavated by archaeologists and, thanks to funding from the Zappas family and other benefactors, rebuilt in 1870 to host these events.
Inspired by these new versions of the Olympics, pioneering French physical educator and (maybe more significantly) wealthy aristocrat Pierre Coubertin took up the torch. Establishing the International Olympic Committee, Coubertin made his proposal for the new Olympics to the representatives of sporting organizations from eleven European nations, and the date was set.
These first modern international Olympians were all male–but that wouldn’t last long. The next games, held in Paris in 1900, had female athletes competing in several events, including tennis, equestrian events, and golf.
So as you find yourself biting your nails over the death-defying feats of the skateboarders or cheering on the relay swimmers, give a thought to the generations of pioneering athletes of yesteryear—and their enthusiastic fans—who brought the Olympics into the modern era.