Greece has always had a special place in Olympic history. Between 776 BC and 393 AD, it hosted the ancient Olympic Games in Olympia. Then, more than 15 centuries later, it hosted the first edition of the modern Games in Athens, in 1896.
Despite the evolution of the Games over the years, some things have remained constant. Today, Olympism is still a philosophy of life that combines the qualities of body, will and mind. It seeks to create a way of life based on the pleasure that comes with effort, the educational value of good example, and respect for universal ethical principles.
As the world marks the 125th anniversary of the 1896 Games on 6 April this year, it will also celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. Celebrated annually since 2013, the day is a recognition that sport can contribute to making the world a better place. The decision made some years ago to have the International Day on 6 April is recognition of Athens’ place in Olympic history.
“We are celebrating this anniversary at a time when the Olympic values of excellence, friendship, respect and solidarity are more relevant than ever,” said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. “The values that unite us today are the same that brought us together 125 years ago. The Olympic Games remind us that we can build a peaceful and better world through sport, and that we are stronger if we act together. The Games have this unique unifying power which remains as true today as it was back in 1896.”
The 1896 Games nearly did not happen. When a young Pierre de Coubertin first voiced the idea of reviving the Olympic Games in 1892, he had many critics.
But his determination and resilience were rewarded at the “International Paris Congress for the Re-establishment of the Olympic Games”. More than 15 centuries after the Games had been discontinued in 393 AD, delegates at the 1894 Paris meeting agreed to revive the Games, selecting Greece, the birthplace of Olympism, to host them.
In Greece, the reception was ecstatic. Writing about themes that have continued to this day, Greek journalists noted the potential impact of the Games on education, sport, economy, tourism and more. Articles ran with titles such as “How international sports may promote peace among the nations”, and pointed out that “a new era of healthy internationalism” was beginning.
“All of Greece is moved by the news of the planned resurrection of the Olympic Games,” wrote the Hestia newspaper.
The Olympic Games Athens 1896
At the time, the Olympic Games Athens 1896 were the largest international sporting event to date, with some 241 athletes competing from 14 countries. About two-thirds of the athletes were Greek and – with the exception of the Americans and Edwin Flack of Australia – the others were from Europe too. Their stories have entered Olympic legend.
On 6 April, James Connolly from the United States became the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years, winning the triple jump, before finishing third in the long jump and second in the high jump too.
Greek runner Spyridon Louis made his country proud by winning the iconic marathon. Four kilometres from the finish line, he took the lead to win by more than seven minutes.
And Hungarian swimmer Alfréd Hajos, 18, overcame the Mediterranean’s freezing waters and four-metre-high waves, though his greatest victory may have been to survive. For the 1200 metre race, the swimmers travelled out by boat, then swam their way back to shore. The thick layer of grease smeared on Hajos’ body was little protection against the cold.
“My will to live completely overcame my desire to win,” he recalled.
Today’s modern Games have evolved greatly since Athens 1896, becoming increasingly inclusive. Women made their debut in Paris in 1900; and the upcoming Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are expected to be the first gender-balanced Games in history. More than 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, which were also the first to welcome the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. And in 2010, Singapore hosted the first Youth Olympic Games.
The first summer Paralympic Games took place in Rome in 1960, followed by the first Paralympic Winter Games in 1976 in Sweden. Since the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 and the Olympic Winter Games Albertville 1992 the Paralympic Games have taken part in the same cities and venues as the Olympic Games, due to an agreement between the IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
But huge similarities remain between Athens 1896 and now. The Games are an opportunity to engage with young people, while promoting health, education and community participation. And in a world where complex challenges require international collaboration, the Olympic Games remain the only event on the planet to welcome athletes from so many different nations, in peaceful competition.
Since 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) has been regularly recognising the role that the IOC, the Olympic Games, and sport can play more generally in contributing to a better and peaceful world, with the adoption of a Resolution on the Olympic Truce before every edition of the Olympic Games. Furthermore, it granted Permanent Observer status to the IOC in 2009.
“Olympic principles are United Nations principles,” said Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General at the time.
This idea has been growing ever since. In August 2013, a UN General Assembly Resolution established the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on 6 April, a date suggested in commemoration of Athens 1896.
Soon after the adoption of Olympic Agenda 2020 in April 2014, the IOC and the UN Secretariat signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), resulting in cooperation at the highest level. The agreement underlined that the IOC and the UN “share the same values of contributing to a better and peaceful world through sport.” It also called for respect of the autonomous organisation of sport.
Since then, several UN resolutions have stressed the autonomy of sport and the leadership role of the IOC.
In 2015, in a historic moment for sport and the Olympic Movement, sport was officially recognised as an “important enabler” of sustainable development and included in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Most recently, on 1 December 2020, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the “Sport as an enabler of sustainable development” resolution, calling on the Member States to include sport and physical activity in their recovery plans post-COVID-19, and in their national development strategies.
“This anniversary year holds a special meaning as the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are taking place this summer, once again spreading the Olympic values revived in Athens in 1896,” said IOC President Bach.