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The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history. Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general). Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil. Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse? Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro? Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future. But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past. The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules). Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics. The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.
On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars. As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity. The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit]. The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing. The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory. The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday. The event was very popular with the public and the press.
There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798. The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason. Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports. However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games. As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy. The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe. As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.