Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Athens sees big changes since the Games in 1896


A seat halfway up the tightly curved end of Athens' old, horseshoe-shaped marble stadium offers a rare vantage point of the first modern Olympics 108 years ago.

At just the right angle, eyes see only the bone-white stone, flame-shaped cypress trees and Acropolis rising in the distance.

The spectators who sat here during the 1896 Games had a very similar view. But there are not many places like this left in Athens. More than years separate the Olympic rebirth and the version of the Summer Games that begin Friday. The world, the games and the host city are all profoundly different.

"I don't see too much of a connection between these games and 1896," said Bill Mallon, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "A better analogy could be the ancient games. Back then it was the best athletes coming together with city states at war and all sorts of political tensions. It's not so different now."

The enduring snapshots of this year's Olympics will undoubtedly include the unmatched security: cameras, armed guards, surveillance aircraft, an Olympic Village with fortifications suited for a maximum-security prison.

The 1896 Games, by comparison, were a casual affair. European royalty mingled with spectators. Athletes caught naps in shaded groves near the stadium. The tennis champion was a tourist who competed for Britain.

The Americans almost didn't make it.

US organizers miscalculated the starting date by relying on the Julian calendar used by Greece at the time. They arrived just a day before Greece's King George I formally opened the first Olympics since another ruler, Roman Emperor Theodosius, banned them as pagan in 393.

The improbable dream of a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, had come true.

Coubertin -- an avid admirer of ancient Greek ideals -- lobbied for years to stir interest in reviving the games. The idea got a cool reception.

Earlier attempts had already sputtered, including 17th century games in England and a series of 19th century meets in Greece called the Zappas Games after founder Evangelos Zappas, whose head is entombed in the Zappeion villa in Athens. The rest of his remains were sent to his adopted home in Romania.

But Coubertin persisted. At an international sports meeting in France in 1894, he managed to push through a proposal to resurrect the Olympics.

Dozens of men from 13 countries -- including the 13 late-arriving US athletes -- made it to Athens to join at least 150 Greek competitors. Women were not allowed into the Olympics until four years later in Paris.

The stadium -- with marble from the famed Mount Pendeli quarries outside Athens -- was built over the site of ancient festival grounds for the goddess Athena. The stadium price tag was picked up by an ethnic Greek businessman from Egypt. The cinder-and-clay track was squeezed into the narrow infield with curves so sharp that runners had to slow or risk tipping over.

But such shortcomings were mostly overlooked by the athletes of the age -- a collection of amateurs, adventurers and heirs with time on their hands.

"Why, it was a moment to inspire," wrote a Boston triple jumper, James Brendan Connolly, in a memoir on his days as an Olympian in Athens.

Connolly paid his own way because his Suffolk Athletic Club lacked the cash. He quit Harvard after the dean refused his request for leave. He never regretted the decision.

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