A Week to Remember: The Birth of the Modern Olympics | Los Angeles Public Library

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A Week to Remember: The Birth of the Modern Olympics

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
College of images of First Olympic Games

On April 6, 1896, the first modern Olympic Games were opened in Athens, Greece.

This was a revival of a tradition from Greek antiquity. Athletic competitions were held every four years in honor of Zeus, with contestants representing different Greek city-states. The dates of the games are uncertain, but they appear to have begun in the mid-8th century BCE and lasted until almost 400 CE. M. I. Finley and H. W. Pleket offer a history of the ancient games in The Olympic Games (e-book).

There had been a few small attempts to revive the Olympic Games before 1896. Games were held in Greece, three times between 1859 and 1875, with the competitors coming from Greece and the Ottoman Empire. But the idea of a global competition began with French historian Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1890. That committee, at its meeting in 1894, scheduled the first modern Olympics for 1896.

More than 200 athletes, representing 14 countries, competed in the 1896 Games. The event was generally considered a great success, and many of the athletes urged the IOC to make Athens the permanent home for the Olympic Games. The IOC chose instead to make the Games a movable event, with a new host city every four years.

The 1900 Paris Games were the first to include female athletes, who competed in croquet, sailing, golf, and tennis. The Games were tied to the World's Fair; as such, they sprawled over an unusually long period of time. The lack of a concentrated event seemed to scatter the energy and enthusiasm, and similar problems marred the 1904 St. Louis Games.

The 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium were the first to include winter sports – ice hockey and figure skating – and they were so popular that the first Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Until 1936, the IOC awarded the year's Olympics to a single country, which hosted both the Winter and the Summer Games that year.

1936 Summer and Winter Olympic Games travel posters

Travel posters for the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympic Games hosted by Germany

Los Angeles hosted its first Olympic Games in 1932. Again, the difficulty of travel to the United States was a problem, as was the international financial crisis of the Great Depression; the Los Angeles Games had only about half as many athletes participating as had gone to Amsterdam four years earlier.

The Games of 1956 saw important changes. The Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, were the first to be broadcast internationally, and the Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, were the first to be held anywhere other than Europe or the United States. Broadcasting would grow in importance over the next several Olympic cycles. The 1964 Tokyo Summer Games were the first to be broadcast live around the world (and the first to be held in Asia), and the 1968 Grenoble (France) Winter Games were the first to be broadcast in color.

The Olympics returned to Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Games. More countries than ever took part – 140 – despite a boycott by the Soviet Union and its satellite nations, in retaliation for a US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.

Opening day ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics

Opening day ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics. Herald-Examiner Collection

In 1994, the IOC ended the tradition of having the Summer and Winter Games take place in the same year. The 1994 Lillehammer (Norway) Games took place only two years after the previous Winter Games, and there is now an Olympic competition every two years, with Summer and Winter alternating.

There was some hope that the Olympics would return to Athens for their centennial in 1996, but the city was unable to prepare in time, and it was not until 2004 that Athens hosted its second modern Olympic Games.

Progress continues on various fronts in the Olympic movement. The 2012 London Summer Games was the first at which every competing nation included both male and female athletes on its team. Rio de Janeiro became the first South American host with the 2016 Summer Games. No African city has yet hosted the Olympics.

A total of 225 nations, including 19 that no longer exist, have participated in the Olympic Games; France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom are the only nations to have participated in every Olympic Games.

David Goldblatt offers a history of the modern Olympic movement in The Games (e-book | e-audio | print). Jules Boykoff's Power Games (e-book) focuses on Olympic history and its intersection with politics; Andrew Zimbalist reports on the financial challenges of hosting the Olympic Games in Circus Maximus (e-book | print).

Several books focus on one particular Olympic Games. Clare Balding's The Ration Book Olympics looks at the challenges of hosting the 1948 London Summer Games, the first to be held in twelve years after the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled because of World War II. Harry Blutstein explores the 1956 Melbourne Games as a tool for East-West politics in Cold War Games (e-book), and David Maraniss calls Rome 1960 (e-book | e-audio | print) "the Olympics that changed the world."

Politics are the focus in Aaron J. Klein's Striking Back (e-book | e-audio | print), which focuses on the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Games; in Boycott (e-book | print), Tom and Jerry Caraccioli examine the global politics that kept the United States from attending the 1980 Moscow Games.

There are more biographies and memoirs about Olympic athletes than we could possibly list here, so we'll highlight just two: Richard Askwith's Today We Die a Little! (e-book) is the story of Emil Zátopek, the Czech runner who had already won gold in the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter races at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games when he decided at the last minute to run his first marathon, where he won a third gold medal; and Jack McCallum's Dream Team (e-book | e-audio | print) looks at the American basketball team that competed in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games.

Also This Week

April 5, 1827

Joseph Lister was born. Lister was a British surgeon who pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery. Building on the observations of Louis Pasteur, Lister began using carbolic acid to clean surgical instruments, wounds, and doctors' hands, and the number of infections after surgery dropped dramatically. He published his findings in 1867; they were widely ridiculed at first, but gradually accepted. The mouthwash Listerine, originally used as a surgical antiseptic, is named after Lister. In The Butchering Art (e-book | print), Lindsay Fitzharris tells the story of Lister and how he changed medicine.

April 4, 1928

Maya Angelou was born. Angelou was an author of poetry and memoirs, a civil rights activist, and on occasion, an actress. Early in her life, she worked as a nightclub entertainer, recording an album of calypso songs. Her writing includes seven volumes of memoirs, collections of personal essays, film and television scripts, and several volumes of poetry. Angelou's Complete Poetry is available as an e-book or in print.

April 7, 1928

James Garner was born. Garner was an actor best known for starring roles in two television series. He appeared in the first two seasons of Maverick from 1957 to 1959; the show was a Western with comic overtones, in which Garner was a charming gambler whose ethics always got in the way of his money-making schemes. From 1974 to 1980, Garner starred in The Rockford Files, which was designed (by the same producer) to deliberately echo the tone of Maverick, but with the character updated to a modern-day private eye. Garner shares stories from his film and television career in The Garner Files (e-book | e-audio | print).

April 3, 1968

Sebastian Bach was born. Bach is a singer and guitarist who was the front man for the band Skid Row from 1987 to 1996. The band had its biggest success with its first album, which featured the hits "18 and Life" and "I Remember You." After leaving Skid Row, Bach appeared in several Broadway musicals and did some film and television acting. He continues to record and perform as a solo act. Several of Bach's albums, both with Skid Row and as a solo performer, are available for streaming; his memoir, 18 and Life on Skid Row, is available in e-book, e-audio, print, and audio formats.