Uniting the World with the 1896 Olympic Games

I have decided to open the vault and start putting papers I have written on here. I wrote this paper a year ago for my Historical and Societal Aspects of Sport class. It is about the first modern Olympic Games and their importance in the world.


Uniting the World with the 1896 Olympic Games

The world is a lot smaller than it was in the eighteenth century. For information to travel across the Atlantic and back took six months. Interaction with other nations in capacities other than political was limited at best. During the nineteenth century that began to change. The railroad allowed travel across the continent to be a normal occurrence rather than a harrowing expedition. The telegraph allowed information to be transmitted quickly so news from across the country, or thanks to the Transatlantic Cable, across the world could be placed in the newspaper for the next morning.

While the world was shrinking the differences among people still remained. The cultures around the world varied as much as the terrain covered to visit there. Plans to bring all people together were underway. Scientists were getting together to help each other as technology advanced rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. Countries were entering complex military alliance with each other and the World’s Fair began as the Great Exhibition in London,Englandin 1851.

These ways all failed to unite like Sport can. Most people aren’t scientist or politicians so technology and alliances meant very little to the common man. The World’s Fair is accessible to all but this more highlights the differences than similarities. That leaves Sport. But the sports that were being competed for at the time did very little to unite. Boxing was called barbaric by some, rowing quickly grew and faded away and yachting was only for the very rich.

Enter Pierre de Coubertin’s idea to restart the Olympic Games contested in Greece since ancient times. By bringing everyone together in athletic contests all could participate in the Olympics could provide a venue to bring the world together and highlight their similarities as humans.

Uniting the World at the Fair

According to Urso Chappell, the webmaster for ExpoMuseum, a website dedicated to the history of the World’s Fairs, the World’s Fair is similar to the Olympics and United Nations in that it brings everyone together. The advantage of the World’s Fair is that anyone can participate and be a part of it (2010).

In 1851London held the Great Exhibition at the newly constructed Crystal Palace. The event was used by Great Britain as a display for the many great technological advances of their country and its colonies. The British Empire at the time included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and a large portion of Africa. The Great Exhibition was also used to show the technological advances of “less civilized” nations and how they were inferior to Great Britain’s advances (Victorian Station, 2001).

People from all over Europe flocked to London to see the Industrial Revolution rise in front of their eyes. Great Britain relished in displaying it was the superpower nation on the world stage with their inventions and culture superior to the rest of the world’s (Victoria Station, 2001).

While a way to bring the whole world to one place the Great Exhibition which grew into the World’s Fair, it was a way according to Urso Chappell, to experience new cultures. (2010). The World’s Fair highlights the differences of humans, not how they are the same.

The First Modern International Events

The first international boxing match took place in 1860 inHampshire, England. It was prized as the world championship and pitted Tom Sayers of England against John Heenan of the United States. It was a fight that at the time was illegal but it is widely regarded as the first time an attempt to crown a World Champion was made (Champs).

Boxing however never was able to unite the world. While popular in English speaking locations such as the United States, England and its colonies, other places did not regard it as sport. Journalists from all over Europe came to the British countryside to witness what was being billed as “The Fight of the Century.” They were all appalled at the spectacle. According to Champs one French journalist at the Sayers-Heenan fight wrote, “This is my first and last witness to such a barbaric ritual. England and America your shame”

Rowing was a growing sport in the world when Harvard University challenged Oxford College to a race on the traditional Oxford-Cambridge course outside of London (Miller, 2006). Professional rowing was what grabbed the public’s attention with rowers being local, regional and even national heroes.

While the hard fought race that garnered much attention on both sides of the Atlantic sparked interest in amateur rowing it was a one shot deal and did not continue. It also only connected two nations, United States and England.

Professional rowing continued and in 1880 there was a World Championship for rowing down the Thames River in London between Ned Hanlan from Canada and Edward Trickett from Australia. This was the pinnacle of rowing as Hanlan held the Championship until 1884. Rowing died soon after as the crowds left for other sports (Miller, 2003).

The only international competition from the nineteenth century that competed with any kind of regularity and that survived was the America’s Cup. The race was an annual race for the Royal Yacht Squadron in England, one 53 mile loop around the Isle of Wright. The yacht from the United States named America joined the regatta. America beat all of the British contenders to take the trophy (Loomis, 2008). The Cup won by America was taken to the New York Yacht Club where it was held in trust to take on any challengers to it.

While the America’s Cup was a sustained international competition it lacked the ability to unite the world. Only challengers from English speaking nations competed for the Cup until 1992. Also under the rules of the trust the yacht must be able to sale to the location of the race on its own effectively eliminating any landlocked nations from competing (AmericaOne, 1999). There also financial barriers to someone looking to compete. As character Natalie Hurley said about the America’s Cup on the television show Sports Night, “All you need is forty million dollars and a dream.” (Lloyd, 1998, October, 6)

The Ancient Olympics

Pierre de Coubertin’s idea to create an Olympic Games was based off of the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. The first recorded date of the Olympics was 776 B.C. (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 69). According to Mechikoff the games took place every four years. Not only that the games also over rode any wars currently going on among Greek city-states. When it became time for Olympics all wars stopped an athletes were given free passage to Olympia to compete in the games.

The Olympic Games of ancient times united the city-states on the Greek peninsula who at that time all acted as their own individual countries. Two city-states in particular, Sparta and Athens, had very little similarities as Sparta was concerned about educating with the body and Athens was concerned with educating through the body (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 65). Sparta saw the body as a way to attain knowledge and Athens saw the body as tool to help to attain knowledge. When the Olympic Games started they both took the same playing surface and both competed in the same events highlighting their similarities rather than their differences.

While uniting the Greek peninsula the ancient Olympics did little for the rest of the world. In order to compete in the games you must have been a free man and able to speak Greek. When Rome took over Greece the popularity of the Games spread to the far reaches of the Roman Empire (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 75). With Greek being the dominant language of the Roman Empire athletes from all over the known world at that time could compete in the Olympics. While the games that were compete for changed from foot races and wrestling to gladiatorial contests that were life and death battles they remained as the Olympics (HickokSports, 2009).

The Olympics continued for a thousand years until they were finally stopped by the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned them 394 A.D. (HickokSports, 2009) when he decided to do away with all pagan festivals. A gateway to celebrate the ways humans are alike was closed for 1500 years.

Restarting the Olympics

Pierre de Coubertin in his writing about the Olympic Games in the 1896 Official Olympic Games report talks of how new appreciation for athletics and new inventions can unite all men. He mentions how various sports have competed sporadically on an international national stage and that the Olympic Games are necessary (Lampos, Polites, de Coubertin, Philemon, & Anninos, 1897, p. 121).

A Frenchman from birth, Pierre de Coubertin was inspired to start the Olympics after visiting Much Wenlock in Stropshire, England and witnessing the Wenlock Olympics which originally began in 1850 as a physical, intellectual and moral education class (Shropshire Tourism).

In de Coubertin’s writing for the official report he talks of how the rise of sporting societies in the world in the past decade made him think it was possible to unite all of them together in the Olympic Games to save them less they degenerate as was seen by the rivalry members of each sport had for the other sports. The fear of Athleticism dying moved de Coubertin to take action (Lampos, Polites, de Coubertin, Philemon, & Anninos, 1897, p. 124).

De Coubertin soon discovered uniting all sporting associations was a difficult undertaking. The associations in England were particularly wary about uniting to a foreign entity and saw little advantage to do so. Slowly but surely progress was made. De Coubertin scheduled a conference for all sporting societies in the world in 1894 (Lampos, Polites, de Coubertin, Philemon, & Anninos, 1897, p. 126).

In June of 1894 in the Hall of Sorbonne at the University of Paris the International Olympic Committee of 14 members was formed and the date was set for 1896 for the rebirth of the Olympic Games in Athens,Greece(Lampos, Polites, de Coubertin, Philemon, & Anninos, 1897, p. 127).

While the Greeks were ecstatic about their country being chosen to host the first Olympics of modern times, there were great difficulties ahead in the execution. There was less than two years to prepare for the Games compared to the six to seven years host cities are now given. Also the Greek government was in dire financial straits. While the elected government could do little to help finance the Games the royal family, particularly Prince Constantine, and the wealthy George Averoff provided much guidance financial backing allowing the first Olympics to run smoothly (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 304).

Fourteen countries being represented by 241 athletes took up competition in the 1896 Athens Olympics. Ten different nations brought home the silver first place medal that was awarded in Athens. The unity of the event was highlighted by the fact that every mention of athletes in the Official Report mentions them as “Champions” regardless of how they did during the competition (Lampos, Polites, de Coubertin, Philemon, & Anninos, 1897, p. 224).

The Games went so well in Athens that the Greeks didn’t want to relinquish their right to host them. De Coubertin wanted them to travel around the world and thus the 1900 Olympics were held in Paris, France in conjunction with the Universal Exposition, an event that overshadowed the Olympics Games, much to the disappointment of de Coubertin (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 306). The next Olympics held in St. Louis, United States in 1904 suffered from the same second class status to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The 1908 Olympics in London, England had to share compete in the same city with British-Franco Exhibition. It wasn’t until the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm,Sweden that the Olympics were the only event in town (Mechikoff, 2010, p. 311).

While the Olympic Games at times have lived up to de Coubertin’s dream of uniting all people in the athletic arena they have also been used as political weapons in the case of the boycotts of the 1976 Montreal, Canada Olympics, 1980 Moscow, Soviet Union Olympics and 1984 Los Angeles, United States Olympics. Even the International Olympic Committee has been guilty of this when in 1920 Germany, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey were banned from competing in Antwerp, Belgium because of their aggressor role in World War I that prevented the occurrence of the 1916 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. It was a move that de Coubertin did not agree with since he viewed athletics as a means to peace (Mechikoff, 2010, 314).


The idea of uniting all people was an admirable one by Pierre de Coubertin. With the world shrinking and information and transportation bringing people closer together than ever the desire for a way to unite all people was on a lot of people’s minds. The World’s Fair failed because not only did it highlight the difference of cultures and the original intent byEnglandby starting it was to show they were the world power at the time. The boxing match by Tom Sayers and John Heenan started the attraction of prizefighting in England and America but disgusted other nations with its brutality. The rowing match between Oxford College and Harvard University spurred interest in rowing and led to world championships between English speaking nations but interested in rowing died out in the mid 1880s. The America’s Cup drew interest in yacht racing but did nothing little to connect with the common man as only the rich had access to their own yacht and there were strict rules on who was allowed to challenge for the Cup. The Olympics however provided sports that all could participate in. All nations were invited to participate, even if their nations sent the world to war if de Coubertin had his way. While the Olympics hasn’t always lived up to the ideal of uniting nations through Sport it has succeeded and is still going strong 114 years after its first modern inception in 1896 in Athens, Greece.



AmericaOne (1999). Deed of gift. AmericaOne. Retrieved from http://www.americaone.org/cup/acdeed.html.

Champs. Tom sayers vs. john c heenan 1st ever international boxing event which lasted 2hrs and 27mins rare commemorative 1860 victorian clay pipe. Champs. Retrieved from http://www.champsuk.com/i-1549/tom-sayers-vs-john-c-heenan-1st-ever-international-boxing-event-which-lasted-2hrs-and-27mins-rare-commemorative–1860-victorian-clay-pipe-.html.

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Lampos, S.P., Polites, N.G., de Coubertin, P., Philemon, P.J., & Anninos, C. (1897). The olympic games b.c. 776 – a.d. 1896.Athens,Greece: C. Beck.

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Miller, B. (2003, January). The wild & crazy professionals. Friends of Rowing History. Retrieved from: http://www.rowinghistory.net/professionals.htm.

Miller, B. (2006, February). The great international boat race. Friends of Rowing History. Retrieved from http://www.rowinghistory.net/1869.htm.

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