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Flashback > 1906 Athens Games saved Olympic Movement August 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Athens 2004 Olympics.

ATHENS, Greece — An Olympic quiz: How many times has Athens been awarded the games? The International Olympic Committee answer would be two — the first modern Olympiad in 1896 and the upcoming games this August. Many scholars, historians and general Olympic mavens would say the IOC is wrong. It should be three.

In 1906, athletes from around the world came to Athens in the spirit of the games and may have saved the young Olympic movement from collapsing under the weight of its own shortcomings.

The IOC, however, has refused to give full recognition to the so-called “intermediate” games. The event remains — in the words of historian David Young — a “hot potato” in Olympic circles.

“It’s pretty much accepted that the 1906 games pulled the Olympics back from the brink,” said Young, a University of Florida classics professor who has written extensively on the Olympics.

“The IOC just refuses to see it that way.”

The latest attempt to win full Olympic status for 1906 was rejected by the IOC last year. The effort could get fresh momentum at an international conference on the 1906 games set to begin Feb. 26 in the central Greek city of Volos. Organizers hope to attract representatives from the 18 countries that participated 98 years ago.

Don’t expect any official mention of 1906 at this summer’s Olympics. Athens planners say they won’t do anything to embarrass or ruffle the IOC.

The bitter twist is that many IOC envoys speak about recapturing the soul of the Olympics in the Aug. 13-29 homecoming. The same thing was being said in 1906.

“The 1906 games were real Olympics,” said Bill Mallon, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “They saved the Olympic culture. If they had another difficult Olympics … it’s not sure whether it would have survived.”

After the 1896 revival, the games lost their way.

The 1900 Games in Paris almost didn’t take place because of spats between French officials and countryman Pierre de Coubertin, regarded as the founder of the Olympics’ rebirth. The competitions ended up being scattered over more than five months during the World’s Fair. The lines were so blurry that Olympic fencing events were held in the fair’s cutlery area. But there was one important breakthrough: the first women athletes.

St. Louis in 1904 was even more of a sideshow.

It was an American rout during the World Exposition, which is now mostly a trivia question about the birthplace of the ice cream cone. Travel was so difficult and expensive that only 12 other nations sent athletes. Nearly half the events had only Americans competing. Even an IOC blurb on St. Louis admits “it repeated all the mistakes of 1900.” Yet one silver lining poked through: Two tribesmen were sprung from a Boer War exhibit for the marathon to become the first African Olympians.

“The Olympics were reeling,” Mallon said.

The 1906 games were a compromise between two powerful forces. The Greeks and their supporters wanted the Olympics permanently in Athens. Coubertin believed in spreading the games around the world.

The solution was for Athens to host interim summer Olympics. The four-year international cycle also would continue. The 1906 games shucked off the carnival atmosphere. For the first time, athletes entered the stadium in procession behind their flags. Historians describe the 10-day competition as well-organized, dignified and full of media-friendly pageantry that included 6,000 schoolchildren at the closing ceremony.

The 1908 Games in London had crisp organization despite a few blemishes — notably the U.S. flag bearer’s refusal to dip the Stars and Stripes when passing the royal box. Stockholm, four years later, brought even more fanfare to the Olympics and provided the first big superstar and a headline-grabbing saga: a Native American named Jim Thorpe and the long fight to restore his twin gold medals taken away because he once played summer baseball for about $2 a day.

“The Olympics might well have died in the cradle if Greece had not come to the aid of the faltering institution,” Young wrote.

Coubertin, however, kept his distance. He did not attend the 1906 games. He was also absent from an IOC session in Athens where some delegates questioned Coubertin’s leadership. He managed to cling to power. But some historians suggest he considered 1906 a mutinous affair and used his influence to foil official IOC recognition.

Balkan conflicts and then World War I hurt efforts to continue the interim games in Greece. The dream vanished for good in the 1920s.

A proposal to restore 1906 to the Olympic constellation — as the IIIB Olympiad — was again rejected in 1949 by a three-member commission led by Avery Brundage, who would serve as IOC president from 1952-72. Brundage, bested by Thorpe in the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm, is also accused of not fully applying his power to restore his teammate’s reputation. Thorpe’s medals were finally returned — posthumously in 1982. Mallon said last year’s IOC rejection of another 1906 recognition bid “seemed to close the door.” “But,” he added after some thought, “you really can’t say it’s over. The IOC may have to deal with this again.”

On the Net: International Society of Olympic Historians journal: www.olykamp.org/isoh/journal-abs.html

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