We wanted to touch on a couple of topics of the history of the Olympic games to pay homage to this sporting event as it is currently being celebrated in London. Form its revival in 1896 thanks in great part to Baron de Coubertin, to the infamous treatment given to Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens by the Nazi regime and Hitler in Germany and the White House and the president in his native country in 1936, to the Olympic Flame and all the ideals it represents.
Lets start with Pierre, the Baron de Coubertin, who served as the 2nd President of the International Olympic Committee, but his importance in the Olympic Movement far overshadows that simple statement. Although recent scholarship has shown that he was not the only person who had the idea to begin international Olympic Games, he is certainly the person still mostly responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. For this effort, he is correctly termed le rénovateur.
Born in Paris as Pierre Frédy, he was descended from a noble line which had lived in France for over 500 years. After his preliminary studies he entered law school in 1884 although he never intended to practice law, and he left after one year, enrolling instead in the École libre de sciences politiques. Coubertin had early on decided that his goal would be the reform of the French educational system.
Some historians describe Coubertin as the instigator of the modern Olympic movement, a man whose vision and political skill led to the revival of the Olympic Games which had been practiced in antiquity. The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years in the Greek city of Olympia, in the Kingdom of Elis, from 776 BCE through either 261 or 393 AD.
In 1936, Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, went to the Olympics in Berlin and upset Hitler’s visions of Aryan supremacy. He did it not once, but four times, won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay.
The first race was captured by the German filmmaker/propagandist Leni Riefenstahl in her famous film documenting the 1936 Games, Olympia. It’s all queued up below and ready to go.
After his four victories, Owens returned to the U.S. and immediately confronted the cold racist attitudes of his countrymen. There was no pause, no reprieve, even for an Olympic gold medalist. Later, he recalled:
When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.
New York City did hold a ticker-tape parade in his honor. But when he attended a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria, he was forced to ride the freight elevator. And he didn’t make it to the White House until Eisenhower named him an “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955. FDR and Truman never bothered to extend an invitation to the Olympic hero.
For all the recent scandal and the trauma of past Games, the Olympics remain a pageant of grandeur and glory, and there is no greater symbol of its ideals than the Olympic Flame. The video below, from the Ontario Science Centre, explains the evolving technology that keeps the flame burning from its lighting to the closing ceremonies. It’s a pretty cool story, set to a bombastic soundtrack worthy of its subject and carried by an animated runner who just peeled himself off of an ancient Athenian vase.
Introduced in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, the flame revives a symbol from antiquity, commemorating Prometheus’s audacity and reminding warring city states to put aside hostilities for as long as it burned. In the modern Olympics, between the lighting and the opening ceremonies, the flame, in its stylized torch, makes a pilgrimage to the host city via relay, a practice that began with the 1936 games in Berlin. This year’s relay started on May 19th in Land’s End in Cornwall and ends this Friday, the 27th at the opening ceremony in London. The torch will have traveled through 1,000 places in the UK, covered a total of 8,000 miles (and passing through 8,000 hands), moving over land, air, and water, without once having to be relit.