Paris Is Preparing for the Summer Olympics With a New Exhibition at the Louvre

“Olympism” explores the history of the ancient Olympics and France’s influence on the modern games

Bréal Cup
The Bréal Cup, designed by French scholar Michel Bréal, was awarded to the winner of the first Olympic marathon. Stavros Niarchos Foundation

As Paris prepares to host the upcoming Olympic Games, officials at the Louvre are taking a deep dive into the storied event’s beginnings.

This spring, a new exhibition, “Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy,” will examine the birth of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 through the lens of history, art, archaeology and more. It will also touch on the games’ roots in ancient Greece and their evolution up through the present day.

“Visitors will discover how and in what political context the first modern Olympic Games came into being in the late 19th century, the iconographic sources on which they were based and how the organizers set out to recreate the sporting competitions of ancient Greece,” says the Louvre in a statement.

Paris has hosted the Olympics twice before, in 1900 and 1924. The new exhibition will emphasize France’s role in Olympic history, commemorating the many French trailblazers who have shaped the modern games.

Euphronois, Red Figure Krater
An ancient Greek vessel by the artist Euphronios depicting Heracles and Antaios RMN Grand Palais / Louvre Museum / Stéphane Maréchalle

One of those figures is Michel Bréal, the French linguist responsible for organizing the first marathon during the 1896 Olympics. Bréal’s design for the race took inspiration from the Greek legend of Pheidippides: As the story goes, in 490 B.C.E., Pheidippides ran 25 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. Once he had delivered his message, he collapsed and died.

At the center of the show is an artifact known as “Bréal’s cup,” which “has become the most famous Olympic trophy, imbued with historical and symbolic meaning,” per the Louvre. Bréal commissioned an anonymous silversmith in Paris to design the cup, which went to the winner of the first marathon: Spyridon Louis, a 24-year-old Greek shepherd. The cup has never been exhibited in Paris before.

A number of items from the early days of the modern games, such as historical postage stamps and promotional posters, will be on view. The show will also feature ancient artifacts, like pottery and sculptures sporting images of disc throwers, runners and other athletes, which “further illustrate how Olympic sports have captured the creative imagination through the ages,” according to Artnet’s Verity Babbs.

“Olympism” will spotlight the so-called “father of the modern Olympic Games,” the French educator Pierre de Coubertin, who played a pivotal role in reviving the ancient Greek games. He also created the original design for the five Olympic rings, which he drew by hand for the first time at the top of a letter in 1913. The five rings represent Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

Olympic postage stamps
Commemorative Olympic postage stamps created by Émile Gilliéron in 1906  The Postal & Philatelic Museum of Greece

“These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism and ready to accept its fertile rivalries,” he wrote in the Olympic Review in 1913. “Moreover, the six colors thus combined reproduce those of all the nations without exception.”

The Louvre will also highlight several lesser-known figures, including Dimitrios Vikélas, the first president of the International Olympic Committee, and Émile Gilliéron, the Olympic Games’ first official artist.

Officials are making other efforts to use the Olympics as a vehicle to celebrate French culture and history: The opening ceremony—and some of the swimming events—will take place in the river Seine. Additionally, organizers recently announced that this year’s Olympic medals will feature pieces of scrap iron from the Eiffel Tower.

Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy” will be on view at the Louvre in Paris from April 24 to September 16.

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