Winter 1893: Greece is bankrupt. Summer 1896: It hosts the first modern Olympics

The same spirit that allowed a troubled nation to stage the first international sports festival can rescue it again.

There may have been a few times in the past when Athenians were as unpopular as now – during the Peloponnesian War, for instance, or the plague in 430BC – but not many. Their generous retirement benefits and reluctance to pay taxes, plus the almost heroically irresponsible lending to them by Western banks, have made nearly everyone full of resentment at the huge debts the Greeks owe us.

Next year, however, the entire planet will have a chance to appreciate instead what we owe them. It will come with the 2012 Olympic Games, the 30th celebration of an event which the Greeks conceived in ancient times, and were crucial in reviving in the modern era. And the story of how – against ludicrous odds – they did so is one that might not only diminish our resentment, but also perhaps inspire them to believe their present difficulties can be overcome.

December 1893 was the previous nadir of Greek finance. On the 10th of that month, Prime Minister Trikoupis rose in parliament and uttered the words: "Regretfully, we are bankrupt." In a dash for modernisation and growth, Greece had woefully over-borrowed. Repayments might have proved troublesome even if the economy had been buoyant, but state revenues stuttered, and overseas earnings sagged alarmingly. Currants made up nearly three-quarters of the country's exports, and the collapse in demand for them, and so prices, was devastating. By mid-1893, more than half of the Greek budget was being used to service existing loans. It couldn't last, and it didn't. The country had to cede control over its finances to a commission of officials from Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere.

Seven months later, an event took place in Paris which led to Greece proving it was a great deal more than a mere bankrupt state. It was the Congress for the Restoration of the Olympic Games, and was organised, only after considerable difficulties, by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a determined French educationist and sports enthusiast. From first to last, the event was saturated in reverence for Ancient Greece, so much so that, instead of awarding the first modern Olympics to France, Sweden, or Hungary, all of which were willing to host them, the delegates gave them instead to Greece – a very reluctant Greece, as far as its government was concerned.

Trikoupis was privately opposed, yet publicly non-committal. But the body which controlled nearly all serviceable sports facilities in Athens was run by an old ally of his, and this, to the horror of Coubertin and chums, met and declined to stage the Games while Greece was "in the throes of a great economic crisis". Coubertin hurried off to Athens, and was told by Trikoupis that Greece "does not have sufficient funds to accept the mission you wish to entrust to her".

But the little Frenchman (he was only 5ft 3in tall) was not to be beaten. He knew the Greek royal family were on his side (being transplanted Danes, they were anxious to bang the patriotic drum whenever they could), and he called a public meeting. His speech was a verbal tour of Greek achievements over the centuries, referred to the formidable challenge of Greece staging the games, and then added: "The dishonour here would consist not of being beaten; it would consist of not contending." Thus did the familiar Olympic slogan "not the winning but the taking part" begin life not in reference to an athletic event, but to the very staging of the Games themselves.

Before King George returned from abroad, to declare the royals four-square behind the Games, Trikoupis resigned, and the Crown Prince was put in charge of the Athens Organising Committee. It met for the first time on 13 January 1895 to devise a detailed schedule of events, cultural as well as athletic, to ensure all who were expected could be accommodated, get existing venues up to scratch, build new ones, and, most pressing of all, to turn the derelict Panathenaikon Stadium into a fitting arena for the world's first international sports festival. To do all this they had precisely 14 months, and no funds. In a bravura act of faith for a bankrupt nation, they decided that not a penny, cent, or franc would be accepted from foreign sources. Every drachma would have to come from Greek sources.

What now followed was one of the most remarkable examples of peacetime mobilisation in modern history. Round went the begging bowl. Municipal authorities organised collections within the country, embassies and consulates dealt with expatriates, and, in places, the effort took on the fervour of a crusade. Donations came in from all over Greece, and from Greek communities in the Balkans, London, Copenhagen, Ireland, Boston, Cairo, Vienna, Odessa and Marseilles. Individual merchants gave as much as 10,000 drachmas, and even the monks of Mount Athos sent cash. Within a month, more than 130,000 drachmas had been given. But all this paled into insignificance compared with the generosity of a shy, but rich, Greek merchant living in Alexandria, Egypt. Georgios Averoff agreed to underwrite the entire cost of restoring the Panathenaikon Stadium. It would cost him more than one million drachmas.

Averoff's generosity, once broadcast, inspired a further flood of giving and, in the end, donations by his fellow Greeks totalled more than 332,000 drachmas. To this sum, in due course, would be added 400,000 drachmas from the sale of the first Olympic stamps, more again from selling commemorative medals, and, finally, the gate receipts of 200,000 drachmas. All told, Averoff's gift apart, the Greeks raised more than 1.5 million drachmas. It was 10 times Coubertin's back-of-the-envelope estimate and an heroic effort from an impoverished nation then still stuck in the age of the donkey and cart.

At the ancient Panathenaikon Stadium – plundered for its stone for the past two centuries – 500 labourers worked day and night, and by April 1896, all was ready for the opening of the first Olympic Games in 1,500 years. They were, necessarily, a homespun affair in a country which was then a sporting backwater. But, personal squabbles apart, they were a successful experiment in friendly international competition. Despite bankruptcy – or maybe even because of it – Greece had given birth to the modern Olympics. As the athletes were seen off at Athens station, they stuck their heads out of the train windows and shouted "Zito Hellas!" ("Long live Greece!").

It's a sentiment worth remembering not only next summer, at the opening of London 2012, but today, as the land that has given the world so much struggles with debts again. It beat them back then. It surely, somehow, deserves to do so again. Zito Hellas!

David Randall's 1896: The First Modern Olympics is published by Black Toad as an ebook. Details at www.1896Olympics.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

    £21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent