What If the Olympics Were Always Held in the Same City? – The Atlantic

In the late 19th century, the French intellectual Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics, which had lapsed in the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned “pagan cults.” Coubertin’s intention was to rotate the competition among European and American cities, in an effort to promote “peace” and an “international” spirit.

Initially, things didn’t go to plan. As the first modern Olympic Games wound down in Athens in 1896, King George of Greece gave a speech in which he called for permanently stationing the event in his country. Athens, he said, could become the “peaceful meeting place of all nations.” The American delegation penned a letter of support. “The existence of the stadium as a structure so uniquely adapted to its purpose; the proved ability of Greece to competently administer the games; and above all, the fact that Greece is the original home of the Olympic Games; all these considerations force upon us the conviction that these games should never be removed from their native soil,” the athletes wrote.

Coubertin wasn’t persuaded. “I decided to act as if I were stupid, pretending not to understand” the king’s speech, he recalled in his memoirs. The Greeks were overcome by “nationalistic fervour” and not being practical, he argued: “No one could seriously believe for a moment that Athens would be able to go on indefinitely every four years making the supreme effort required for the periodic renewal of the organisation and the financing.” Coubertin sent the king a letter, specifying that the second Olympics would be held in Paris.

The Greeks held out for several years, even hosting parallel games to the roving Olympic Games, but they were soon distracted by a series of wars, and Coubertin’s vision won out. “The ancient games had an exclusively Hellenic character; they were always held in the same place, and Greek blood was a necessary condition of admission to them,” he wrote in 1896. The modern games were different: “[E]very country should celebrate the Olympic games in turn.”

King George of Greece presents awards at the 1896 Olympics in Athens. (Wikimedia)

King George’s idea resurfaced in 1980, in the throes of the Cold War, as the United States planned a boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Games, many argued, had become too politicized. The Olympic historian John Lucas proposed establishing a fixed “Olympic Games Center” for the summer contest—a United Nations of sport, housed in a neutral country like Switzerland or Finland—and a limited rotation of locations for the smaller winter event. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which Coubertin had founded in the 1890s to administer the competitions, studied the feasibility of creating a perennial Summer Olympics site on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, where ancient Olympia once stood. The location, like the Vatican, would be granted neutral status, the Greek government would provide territory and infrastructure, and the IOC and its member states would fund construction.


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