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The renaissance of the Olympic Games

The ancient Olympic Games were banned by the Roman emperor in the 4th century AD after more than 1000 years of existence because of "idol worship". Like many other things from antiquity, their ideas had been buried over the entire Middle Ages for a millennium and only reappeared in the Renaissance.

The translation of ancient writings, such as the "De arte gymnastica" (1569) by Hieronymus Merkurialis, in which the entire range of ancient sports were described and the ancient Olympic Games were explicitly referred to, resulted in an ideal image of ancient times and their games. But a number of poets also brought the games to people's minds through allusions to antiquity. There are references to the Olympic Games in various works by Shakespeare, but also in Milton's "Paradise Lost".

  • “View into Greece's Blossom”, detail from a painting by K.F. Schinkel, 1825; Rights: SWR

  • Coubertin's Olympic dream: the ideal of antiquity combined with modern sport. Rights: SWR

Since the Renaissance there have been countless attempts to revive the ancient Olympic Games in Italy, France, England, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. But all these attempts failed, mainly because - like the ancient Olympic Games - they were just small, national sports games.

Timeline: The renaissance of the Olympic Games

Adoration of antiquity in the 19th century

The culture of antiquity was celebrated in the 19th century and the life of the Greeks was often presented in a beautiful way. Many European archaeologists vied with each other to bring evidence of antiquity to light. The excavation of Olympia by German archaeologists after 1875 brought new movement to the "Olympic cause". The excavations made the Olympic Games, which previously only existed in the form of written sources from antiquity, now a reality. At the same time an old dispute between nations began:
"... Germany has excavated what was left of the old Olympia. Why shouldn't France restore the old glory? (...) We will, on the basis that meets the requirements of modern life, again the great, fantastic Olympic Games introduce." (Baron Pierre de Coubertin)

  • The general enthusiasm for Greece let mainly English and Germans set out for Greece to look for remnants of this bygone culture. Rights: SWR

  • German archaeologists will find what they are looking for in Olympia. Wilhelm Dörpfeld will lead the excavation until 1936, after Ernst Curtius had previously started the excavations in 1875 von Bismarck. Rights: SWR

Pierre de Coubertin - a nobleman with idealism

Coubertin, rich son of an old noble family, dedicated his life to the task of helping his homeland France, politically and culturally, to regain the position it had lost at the end of the 19th century - especially after the military defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870 / 71

  • Baron Pierre de Coubertin, 1863-1937; Rights: SWR

He tried to achieve this goal by renewing the French educational system. Coubertin's love for his homeland did not allow Coubertin to underestimate the cultural achievements of other countries. If the opinion in France was that Germany's superiority was based on the expensive but well-organized school and university system, when he visited England and North America there, he found a particular balance between physical and intellectual education at colleges and private schools. In it he saw the reason for the wealth and the dynamic development of these then world-ruling countries.

"The second characteristic of Olympism is that it means nobility and selection. But, understood, a nobility that means perfect equality from the start, which is only determined by the physical superiority of the individual ..." (Baron Pierre de Coubertin)

The dream of peace

Coubertin loved his country, but was internationally minded and saw the role of sport as well. He dreamed of a new world order that was shaped by internationality and democracy, which met with the greatest resistance from his aristocratic peers.

  • Coubertin in his study - recreated in the IOC Museum in Lausanne. Rights: SWR
  • Become the Olympic motto: Citius, altius, fortius; Rights: SWR

Coubertin's openness to international educational methods clearly contradicted prevailing nationalism. The end of the 19th century was accompanied by the arms race of the great European powers and the dispute over territorial claims in their colonies. Coubertin wanted to create an opposing position through sport.

"The idea of ​​peace is an essential part of Olympism ... For every exclusively national feeling," truce "must prevail, or, to put it another way, every only national feeling must be temporarily sent on vacation." (Baron Pierre de Coubertin)

However, at the time of Coubertin's time, people were already thinking about whether, of all things, modern sport, which is based on competition, can be the best means of understanding between peoples. For him, taming the sport was definitely out of the question:
"The attempt to impose a guideline of binding moderation on martial arts is a utopia. Its followers need unrestrained freedom. That is why they have been given the motto: Citius, altius, fortius"

First sports festivals

Against this background, Coubertin organized sports festivals from 1889, at which he combined the Anglo-Saxon sport, which he wanted to integrate into French education, with the French preference for festivals.

  • The First Olympic Committee, Athens 1896: From left: Gebhardt (Germany), Coubertin, Guth-Jarkovsky (Bohemia), Bikelas, President (Greece), Kemeny (Hungary), Boutovsky (Russia), Balck (Sweden); Rights: SWR
  • Rivalries: The German Gymnastics Federation forbade participation in the games of "a Frenchman" in Athens in 1896. They drove without a permit and were successful: the German gymnasts with a wreath. Rights: SWR

After an opening breakfast, sports competitions were held, which eventually ended with fireworks or torchlight procession. At these festivals, Coubertin did not focus on the athletes, but on the politicians whom he wanted to influence. At the end of one of these festivals Coubertin announced in November 1892:

"Let us send rowers, runners and fencers abroad, this is the free trade system of the future! And on the day it penetrates the customs of old Europe, the cause of peace will have a new and powerful support ! " (Baron Pierre de Coubertin)

His intention to have a peacemaking effect on a political level through international sport, however, was in clear competition with Germany German MPs pointed out the incompatibility between "German" gymnastics and the newfangled "sport" from England. Coubertin then became more specific. He organized a preparatory meeting for physical education teachers from various countries for June 1894. The invitation read: "Congress for the Resumption of the Olympic Games". In the dispute between gymnastics and sport, Coubertin decided clearly in favor of sport. For him, sport was a cult that should lead people to self-improvement:

"Sport is not a luxury item, nor is it an activity for idlers, but a physical compensation for intellectual work. The first and essential characteristic of both ancient and modern Olympism is: to be a religion. ... This gave rise to all the forms of cult that make up the ceremonial of the modern Olympic Games. "

Although sport should perfect all people, Coubertin put competitive sport at the center, with only one caveat: sport must be fair. This maxim of Coubertin is still the focus of the Olympic thought.

Olympic international understanding - between ideal and reality

The beginnings of the modern Olympic Games fall in the age of imperialism. Precisely at the point in time when the "great" nations were competing against one another for power in the world, the revival of the ancient Olympic Games was supposed to create a counterbalance, a peaceful competition between these nations.

  • In the early days, the European royal families in particular used the games for self-expression. Rights: SWR
  • The 1916 Games did not take place: the world's youth met in the trenches of the First World War. Rights: SWR

However, the games cannot hide the fact that they were only a marginal phenomenon in history until the First World War. They were welcomed, especially by the rulers of the time, as a forum for self-expression. But they showed no effect whatsoever in terms of promoting peace. They too could in no way prevent the First World War, which can be seen as the result of imperialism. A war in which, for the first time in human history, acts of war took place in all parts of the world.

The world was changed more than ever before in the time when the first ten Summer Olympics were to take place (1896-1932, Berlin 1916 was canceled). The automobile began its triumphal march, followed by aviation. For the first time there was the possibility of a quick exchange of information from city to city and country to country. Even in the field of sports, changes in the leisure sector and leisure behavior led to significant innovations, which found their climax in a wide variety of professional sports. A development that is also increasingly influencing the Olympic Games.

© Text: Gerhard Reckendorf / SWR