Ancient Games as Modern Inspiration

Ancient Olympia served as a touchstone of inspiration for Pierre de Coubertin from his childhood on.

As the glorious centre of ancient sport, the sacred sanctuary of Olympia and its rituals shaped his vision for the creation of a global event that would be characterised by solemn ceremonies, religious sentiment and symbols of peace. 

In 1874, when Pierre was eleven years old, a German archaeological team began a six-year excavation of ancient Olympia. Lost for 15 centuries and buried under more than 13 metres of sediment left by floods and earthquakes, Olympia had once been the spiritual centre of the Greek world—and had hosted the Olympic Games every four years for almost 12 centuries, from 776 BC till 393 AD, when the Roman Christian Emperor, Theodosius I, cancelled them as a pagan ritual. 

Gradually, antiquity gave up its treasures. Out of the ground emerged 130 statues, 40 monuments, 6,000 coins, 13,000 bronze votives used as sacrifices to the mythological gods, and 400 inscriptions. On 6 May 1877, the Germans found a beautifully preserved sculpture known as the Hermes of Praxiteles in the Temple of Hera, precisely where Pausanias said it would be in his second-century book, Travels in Greece. The dig produced a frenzy across Europe for the classical world—and it certainly inflamed the imagination of a young boy, as the Baron recalled years later: 

“Nothing in ancient history had given me more food for thought than Olympia. This dream city, consecrated to a task strictly human and material in form... [this] factory of life-forces, loomed with its colonnades and porticos unceasingly before my adolescent mind.”

Again and again, throughout his career, the Baron identified Ancient Olympia as the source of inspiration for the modern Games—and often referred to its spiritual dimension as the essential characteristic that distinguished the modern Olympics from other sporting events and world championships: “Like ancient athletics, modern athletics is a religion, a belief, a passionate movement of the spirit that can range from ‘games to heroism.’”

Coubertin was also fond of drawing parallels between ancient and modern athletes: "By chiselling his body through exercise as a sculptor does a statue, the ancient athlete 'honoured the gods.'” For Coubertin, the modern athlete honoured his country.

In the aftermath of World War I, as Coubertin rallied the Olympic Movement to resurrect the Games once again in Antwerp in 1920, he celebrated The Triumph of Olympism with another telling reference to the ancients: “… the lifeblood of youth, changeless, always energetic, always ready to rise, ardent, joyous. It was the same for the athletes at Olympia. Now, three thousand years later, that lifeblood is still striving among the youth gathered in Antwerp to establish balance in humanity.”

As a boy and a young man, he admired what the Germans had done in bringing the glories of the Ancient Games back to life—and wanted a share of those glories for France: “Germany had brought to light what remained of Olympia; why should not France succeed in rebuilding it splendours?” And that, of course, is just what the Baron did; he rebuilt the splendours of the Olympic Games for the modern world.

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