By Aris Michopoulos, Ph.D.
For over a thousand years (776 BC – 394 AD) the Olympic Games were the premier event of Greece that was uniting the Metropolitan and Diaspora Hellenism. Thus we had participants and Olympic winners from various parts of Italy and Sicily, called also Magna Graecia at that time, as well as from other Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. The prime requirement for participation was the Greek origin of the athlete. Thus, when in doubt an identity check would follow. And we have an interesting case, when King Alexander I of Macedon (r. 498-454) came to participate in the games he was asked to prove his Greek identity. So he told the Committee he was a descendant of Perdikkas that originated from Argos and was descendant of Temenos the Heracleid conqueror of Argos and the Committee accepted him as Greek. And his testimony and proof have been used in our time to disprove the claims of the Skopje propaganda that the Macedonians were not Greeks.
When Greece fell to Rome in 146 B.C. there were certainly political changes, but not cultural ones. The Romans were aware of the superiority of the Greek civilization, the history of Alexander the Great and of the Greek advances in all fields of arts and sciences. Thus the Roman elite would come to study Rhetoric at the famous School of Rhodes and many other would attend the various philosophical Schools in Athens. With the time the two cultures fused and created the Greco-Roman civilization, which later on evolved into the Byzantine Civilization.
The Olympic Games were not affected during this period. The only difference was that much later the participation may have expanded to include Roman citizens. The first documented case of a non-Greek participant is that of the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero was fluent in Greek and loved Greek mythology and culture. Thus in 67AD he visited Greece and participated in the Olympics with a ten-horse chariot and although he was thrown off his chariot, he declared himself the winner!
So the games continued to take place without any serious government interference for three centuries after Nero’s “victory.” Things changed, however, under later Emperors. It was the time that the Eastern Roman Empire was evolving into the Byzantine Empire, whose main characteristic was its Christian identity and abolition of many pagan elements. And since the Olympic Games were the first and foremost religious celebration of the Greeks dedicated to Zeus, Emperor Theodosius decided to abolish them by decree in 393 or 394 AD. And a glorious tradition of over a thousand years came to an abrupt and inglorious end.
THE RECENT PAST
More than five hundred years passed without any Olympic Games. But their lure and luster was still galvanizing the mind and imagination of many athletes around the world and people steeped in Greek history and culture. One of those noble souls aspiring to the revival of the Games was the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). Pierre de Coubertin wanted to turn his dream into reality and utilized all his means and connections to achieve that. To this Herculean task he found a great supporter in Demetrios Vikelas (1835-1908), a literary man, who happened to live in France at that time. The two joined their efforts and attracted similar zealots from other countries and finally turned their dream into reality with the first revival of the Olympics in the country of their origin, i.e. Greece, in 1896. Indeed, two other extremely wealthy Greeks of the diaspora, i.e. Evangelos Zappas (1800-1865) and George Averoff (1815-1899), who amassed their immense fortunes in Romania and Egypt, respectively, financed the reconstruction, expansion and completion of the majestic marble stadium in Athens, where most of the Olympic competitions took place in 1896. We are now in the second century of the new Olympic Games. Greece was fortunate enough to host two (1896, 2004) of those Games. In the beginning there was a stiff competition among wealthy countries to host the Games. Sometimes they used them as a display of their wealth and power, as was the case of the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
With the passing of the time some of the weaknesses of the Games started to appear. One of them was that they were becoming costly and many countries and especially the host cities would complain that they were a financial burden than a benefit. Then other factors would appear from time to time, as for example the terrorist attack at the Olympics of Munich in 1972. And we now have the case of coronavirus with the Games of Tokyo. They were delayed for a year and when the discussion to take place this year came up the majority of the Japanese people were against them. The government insisted otherwise and the games will take place with many modifications and no attendance by spectators. And the government expects that they will be a financial failure. As a result of all the above there have been many discussions of having the games come home, i.e. to Greece, again. As a matter of fact this idea had been proposed by the Olympic Committee itself in recent years.
As we saw above the Olympics have a history of over two thousand years. They have gone through many changes in the names and kind of sports, the race and creed of the participants, as well as to their gender, language and culture. We also witnessed recently the reluctance of many cities and countries to host the games and an inclination of the Olympic Committee itself to support their return to Greece. Greece experiencing at that time an economic crisis and having the recent memory of the costly Olympics of Athens in 2004 did not show a keen interest in espousing the idea. The time has come, however, to reexamine this stand and come to a cooler and imaginative conception for the solution to the economic problems associated with such a decision.
First and foremost the Greek problem was the financial burden that a permanent Olympic infrastructure will cost to the country. It will certainly be in the billions, but we have to take a longer view of the problem. A thousand mile journey starts with one step. Whatever is a huge amount today, will not be such a huge amount tomorrow. Inflation is always taking care of such problems. Just think that the purchase of Alaska in 1867 cost the USA 7.2 million dollars! And the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 cost $15 million! So, Greece could easily float the cost of all needed infrastructure in 50-year bonds and put as collateral the various buildings that will be built and/or the collection from future ticket sales in various Olympic venues, etc.
Another way with great appeal could be the erection of various buildings financed by various wealthy countries, utilizing an ancient Greek precedent. Both in Delphi and Olympia the visitor could see some very elegant buildings built by various wealthy Greek city-states. They were usually carrying the name “Θησαυρός”, i.e. treasury, of Athens, Corinth, Cnidus, etc. And they would be the Depository of valuable votive offerings and other valuables, dedicated to the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. A similar concept was also implemented in Olympia. We could “resurrect” this custom and offer the rich countries the opportunity to show off their wealth by building various structures for their own use during the Olympics and leasing or renting them out to big leisure companies to utilize them during the off-Olympic years. Disney, big Hotel chains, and many other similar companies would certainly be interested in such a proposal.
And if the above are not enough to address the finances we could also turn to the international “masters of financial engineering” in Wall Street, who could come up with some novel ideas. Even the EEU itself might be interested in backing a 50-year bond. And let us not forget Emperor Nero! He was a lover of the Greek culture, he was speaking Greek, playing the kithara and loving Greek mythology. There are many billionaires around the world today, over 2,750 at last count, and over 20 of them are Greek Americans and another 20 Greeks from the rest of the world. All of them are worth over $13 trillion and some of them might be flattered to finance a building or a highway or some other edifice that will bear their name! And we could reward them with an Honorary Greek Citizenship! Let’s not forget the ancient Greek saying: «Πολλοί τον πλούτον εμίσησαν. Την δόξαν όμως ουδείς» i.e. “Many despised wealth, but none glory!” Let’s also not forget that a MIT graduate gave $400 million to his Alma Mater to name a building after him. Even if 1% of the billionaires, i.e. 27 billionaires, shows an interest to share our “dream” we have solved our problem!
Thus, in final analysis the financial problem of the Games is not really a problem, when human ingenuity, imagination, magnanimity, and great vision are at work. As for the benefits to Greece and the world are concerned there are too many to present in this short writing. For sure this undertaking will change Greece with its financial, cultural and other results. In the long run, it will bring prosperity, political and other stability and will enhance her profile in the world. It will change her image as a needy and perennially in financial trouble country; instead she will become a quite wealthy and respected country like Switzerland and some Scandinavian countries. And this will be good for the world, too. Many people will combine tourism with the Olympics visiting Greece and their countries will not have the headache associated with holding the Olympics themselves. And there will not be a fear of visiting the country, since it will be one of the most peaceful and safest countries. Thus it will be a win-win situation for all and we should GO FOR IT!
LONG LIVE THE GAMES!