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The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris come 128 years after the first modern Olympics. But the fact that we tend to think of the game as a 2,000-plus-year-old tradition was very much the plan from the start. Humanities scholar Louis Callebat explains that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a humanist, historian, and social scientist with a firm grounding in Graeco-Roman culture and a commitment to cultural and physical education, had a specific vision for harnessing an ancient tradition for modern purposes.

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The ancient games that de Coubertin took as his model were held at Olympia from 776 BCE until 394 CE. After that, the site where the games had been held was swiftly destroyed by a combination of human choices and natural disasters. But they remained a cultural touchstone over the centuries to come thanks to a continuing interest in Greek literature.

Pierre de Coubertin, 1915
Pierre de Coubertin, 1915 via Wikimedia Commons 

Starting in the eighteenth century, Callebat writes, various scholars proposed the idea of physically restoring Olympia. German archaeologists conducted a thorough excavation of parts of the site in the 1870s and ’80s. And in 1889, architect Victor Laloux exhibited a reconstruction of ancient Olympia at the Palais des Beaux Arts.

At the same time, Callebat writes, Europeans were also seeking to revive the spirit of the games, which they viewed as encompassing elements such as “physical effort, fair competition on a wide scale, and sacred truce.” Many sporting events across Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted names featuring “Olympia” or “Olympics” to suggest a connection to that tradition.

Following their country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, French authorities took a new look at the games as a model for building strength and fortitude in young men. De Coubertin later recalled his thoughts regarding the possible global revival of the modern Olympic Games, stating that

Germany had excavated what was left of Olympia. Why should France not be successful in reconstituting its splendour? It was only a small step from that idea to the less brilliant but more practical and fertile project of reviving the Games.

In 1892, de Coubertin proposed the idea as a way to “buttress the structure of general education.” Callebat writes that the proposal was not for a simple effort at reconstruction of ancient tradition—de Coubertin noted that he in no way intended the competitions to involve altars, incense, or other trappings of the Greek ceremonies. Instead, he sought to create new, modern rituals to promote national pride, international unity, and youthful strength and hope. He explicitly called for a transformation of the religious aspects of the Greek games into a reverence for competitors’ flags and nations.

In the early years of the games, de Coubertin and other organizers proposed expanding their scope to include competitions in architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, and music. While that didn’t happen, elements of music, artistic design, and carefully planned ceremony have remained a huge part of what enthralls Olympic audiences and conveys the continuing message of national pride and international unity.

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International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring 1998), pp. 555–566
Springer Nature