The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start

As London gets set to host the XXXth Olympiad, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford connects the modern Games to their unlikely origin—in rural England

As the Games return to London, it's worth remembering that they may not exist at all were it not for the perseverance of the Brits. (John Ritter)
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Alas, Penny Brookes died in 1895, the year before de Coubertin had persuaded the Greeks to hold the first modern Olympics. Those Games were popular in Athens, too, but little attention was paid them elsewhere. Despite all his schmoozing in England, the baron hadn’t been able to break into the Oxford-Cambridge inner circle, and only six British athletes entered the lists at Athens. Moreover, when two servants working at the British Embassy registered for a bicycle race, English society really looked down its noses at this Much Wenlock knockoff. There goes the neighborhood.

The Greeks urged de Coubertin to make Athens the perennial Olympic home, but he foresaw, correctly, that the Games needed to be a roadshow to gain any sort of global foothold. But beware what you wish for; the next two Olympics were nothing short of disaster. First, as a prophet without honor in his native land, de Coubertin could only get Paris to accept the 1900 Games as part of its world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle Internationale. The events were scattered over five months and were barely recognized as a discrete tournament. Included was a competition for firemen putting out a blaze, ballooning and obstacle swimming races.

If it is possible, though, the subsequent ’04 Games in St. Louis were even more a travesty. Again, the Olympics were subsumed by a world’s carnival—the Louisiana Purchase Exposition; “meet me in St. Loo-ee, Loo-ee, meet me at the fair”—and about the only competitors to show up were homebred Americans. Mud fighting and climbing a greased pole were highlighted Olympic events. Three strikes and de Coubertin would’ve been out after 1908, so he reached back into Classical history and bet it all on the Eternal City. Explained he at his oracular best: “I desired Rome only because I wanted Olympism, after its return from the excursion [italics mine] to utilitarian America, to don once more the sumptuous toga, woven of art and philosophy, in which I had always wanted to clothe her.” In other words: SOS.

But the Italians began to get cold feet after they heard about the Missouri farce, and when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, they used the disaster as an excuse to beg off. The baron had only one card left to play, but, mercifully, all the years of kissing up to the Brits paid off. On November 19, 1906, London accepted the challenge to host the IVth Olympiad, which would open in July of 1908, only 19 months hence. There was no stadium, no plans—not much of anything but Lord Desborough, the intrepid Willie Grenfell, knight of the Order of the Garter, member of Parliament, squire of stupendous Taplow Court—a man who had climbed the Matterhorn, swum the Niagara rapids and rowed across the Channel. Now he volunteered to take charge of the floundering Olympics.

At 6-foot-5, Lord Desborough was a giant for that time. If he didn’t know everyone worth knowing, his wife did. Ettie, Lady Desborough, was the queen bee of what was described as “The Souls” of London society, entertaining at Taplow in an arc from Oscar Wilde to the Prince of Wales to Winston Churchill. Ettie’s biographer, Richard Davenport-Hines, also describes her as at once a prude and an outrageous flirt (adulteress?), especially with gorgeous younger men who were referred to as her “spangles.” Her favorite word was “golden.”

And why not? In 1906, when Lord Desborough took on the rush job to save the Olympics, Ettie was at the height of her social powers and her beautiful children—Julian and Billy and the girls—were curly-haired, blond angel dolls, as was their London still the largest and most influential city in the world. Britannia ruled the waves. And Lady Desborough had the time for her soirees and her spangles because her husband was invariably otherwise occupied. It was said that once he sat on 115 committees, simultaneously.

No doubt the main reason Lord Desborough managed to get London to help him save the Olympics was simply that everybody both liked him and appreciated his devoted efforts. The beau ideal of the English athlete at that time was not to concentrate on one sport (for goodness’ sake, it’s just a bloody game), but if you do chance to succeed, appear to do so effortlessly (gentlemen do not strain). With his rowing and swimming and fencing and tennis, his Lordship was, as Gilbert and Sullivan might have had it, the very model of a modern English Olympian. Empire magazine summed him up as “tall, well set up, a commanding presence, yet utterly devoid of arrogance or side, which frequently causes Englishmen to be detested by the foreigner.” Certainly (not unlike de Coubertin) it was his dogged personality more than his charm that trumped. When the quick-witted Ettie had chosen Willie Grenfell over other younger, more socially eligible rivals, her cousin observed: “He may be a little dull, but after all, what a comfort it is to be cleverer than one’s husband.”  

On Lord Desborough pressed. His most magnificent achievement was the construction of the Olympic stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. From scratch, he raised the funds, and, for £220,000, had a 68,000-seat horseshoe ready for track, cycling, swimming, gymnastics and sundry other events in barely a year and a half’s time. So, on July 13, 1908, before a packed house, more than 2,000 athletes of 22 nations marched—and athletes marched in file, then, “formed up in sections of four,” eyes right—past King Edward, dipping their flags before the world’s grandest monarch in what was simply called the Great Stadium. All else had been pre­­­lude Only now had the modern Olympics truly begun.

Medals were presented for the first time. All measurements (except for the marathon) were made metric. Regulations for all entrants—and all, by god, true-blue amateurs—were strictly defined. Even the first Winter Olympics were held late in October. The Baron de Coubertin’s buttons burst. Stealing the words from an American clergyman, he made the sappy declaration—“The importance of the Olympiads lies not so much in winning as in taking part”—that has evermore been trumpeted as the real meaning of the movement, even if nobody this side of the Jamaican bobsled team really believes it.

There was, however, one sticky wicket: The British forced the Irish to be part of their team. Since there were a great many Irish-Americans on the U.S. team, some Yanks came over carrying a chip on their shoulder for their cousins from the ould sod. Anglo-American relations were further aggravated because a prickly Irish-American named James Sullivan had been appointed by President Roosevelt as special commissioner to the Olympics, and Sullivan was convinced that the referees, who were all British, must be homers. Then, for the opening ceremony, someone noticed that of all the nations competing, two flags were not flying over the Great Stadium—and wouldn’t you know it? One of the missing standards was the Stars and Stripes.


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