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The Making of the Modern Olympics


A Look Back at the First Modern Olympics Games via The New York Public Library’s Research Collections 

The modern Olympic Games are largely the result of the personal crusade of one man, Pierre de Coubertin. A French aristocrat and educator, de Coubertin was convinced that including organized sports in schooling was essential for creating well-rounded individuals. This fervor led him on a worldwide crusade to promote and organize sporting events. 

Pierre de Coubertin
Baron Pierre de CoubertinNew York Public Library Digital Collections Image ID: 101290

In the late 19th century, de Coubertin became enthralled with the idea of staging a modern olympiad. In June 1894, he convened an International Athletic Congress in Paris to organize what would become the modern Olympics in Athens, Greece schedule to be competed in 1896. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was officially created at the June Congress, with the conviction and foresight that the Olympic Games would be a success and the IOC would endeavor to organize their contest every four years. Pierre de Coubertin served as the IOC’s second president when Greece’s Demetrios Vikelas stepped down after the Athens Games. He served in that role until 1925, helping to shape the games into the spectacle they still are today. 

"OLYMPIC GAMES AGAIN." San Francisco Chronicle Dec 09 1894: 1
Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers 

The success of the Athens Games were due in part to de Coubertin’s tireless marketing efforts. Fundamentally, he saw the games as a way to promote sport, and to inspire individuals to take up sport. To this end, he personally promoted the games through collaboration with the contemporary media. He worked closely with the Century Illustrated Magazine to write an article that was featured in the November 1896 issue, which expounded on the importance of sports and the Olympics for society. 

Century Letter
Pierre de Coubertin writes to the editor of the Century Illustrated MagazineNew York Public Library Digital Collections Image ID: 56933065


Century November 1896
Pierre de Coubertin promotes the Modern Olympic Games in the Century Illustrated Magazine


It is my belief that no education, particularly in democratic times, can be good and complete without the aid of athletics; but athletics, in order to play their proper educational role, must be based on perfect disinterestedness and the sentiment of honor. If we are to guard them against these threatening evils, we must put an end to the quarrels of amateurs, that they may be united among themselves, and willing to measure their skill in frequent international encounters. But what country is to impose its rules and its habits on the others? The Swedes will not yield to the Germans, no the French to the English. Nothing better than the international Olympic games could therefore be devised.” “The Olympic Games of 1896.” Century Illustrated Magazine Vol. 52, no. 1, (Nov 1896): 53. 

The events contested at the first Olympiad included: Athletics (Track & Field), Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Weightlifting, and Wrestling—and 122 medals were awarded to the all-male field of competitors. Spyridon Louis, a native Greek, took home the gold in the first marathon. 

New York Times Rendering of the Stadium in Athens
Artist rendering of Marathon Day in Athens at the 1896 Olympic Games
via The New York Times

And, if you are annoyed with the number of ads that NBC runs during its primetime broadcast of the games in Pyeongchang, take solace in the fact that advertisers were capitalizing on the Olympic Games even from their inception. 

New York Times Bicycle Advertisement
Bicycle Advertisement in The New York Times capitalizes on the Olympic Fervor


Pierre de Coubertin’s lasting impact on the Games can be seen in many different aspects. The official languages of the Olympic Games are French and English. If you attend the games as a spectator, all announcements, signage, and programming are given in French, English, and the language of the host country. As a Frenchman, de Coubertin certainly influenced this convention. 

In addition, Baron de Coubertin has a unique award named after him that has only been awarded 17 times since its inception in 1964. The award recognizes an individual who exemplifies sportsmanship and dedication to the Olympic Movement. In 1988, it was awarded to Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux who abandoned first place position and a gold medal victory to rescue two Singaporean sailors who capsized during the race. 

Pierre de Coubertin Medal
Pierre de Coubertin Medal


Further Reading

Interested in a broad overview of the Olympics since their inception? Goldblatt’s The Games follows the Olympics chronologically through the years, providing insight to each contest and documenting their evolution through the years. 

Goldblatt's The Games
The Games - David Goldblatt


Resources Referenced

This blog post was researched entirely using NYPL's electronic resources. With more than 500 online research options available, many accessible from home with a library card, we challenge you to go beyond the search engine and dig deeper online with NYPL. 

"OLYMPIC GAMES AGAIN." San Francisco Chronicle Dec 09 1894: 1. Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

“The Olympic Games of 1896.” Century Illustrated Magazine Vol. 52, no. 1, (Nov 1896): 39-54. Accessed via American Periodicals Series. Print issues available; search the Catalog

"WINNERS IN THE STADIUM." New York Times (1857-1922) May 03 1896: 16. Accessed via New York Times (1851-2013) w/ Index.

"Display Ad 18 -- no Title." New York Times (1857-1922) Apr 19 1896: 13. Accessed via New York Times (1851-2013) w/ Index.



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