This is the second in a planned series – read Part I here.
By SHARON K. GILBERT
THE GAMES of the IV Olympiad opened in London on April 27, 1908. Though this marked the fifth time that ‘the world’ had gathered in the modern recreation of the ancient Greek competition, the International Olympic Committee had determined that the 1906 Games in Athens had not met their measurement for a proper Olympic venue. Therefore, Olympic committee chair, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (whose name may not be familiar to you, but it will become so as we progress), declared that the 1908 gathering would be numbered as IV and would take place in the ‘eternal city’, Rome.
Geopolitically, the whole of Europe and Asia Minor sat poised upon a precarious mountain of uneasy treaties. The 19th century had brought wars between Russia, Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and England—horrendous forays into what would become a mechanized and monstrous form of warfare that included air travel (via hot air balloons, dirigibles, and even modestly designed ‘flying machines’). Great Britain had even devised a means to employ a rudimentary version of chemical warfare during the Crimean War through ‘chlorine shells’ or a thick, noxious and probably lethal fog of sulfur+coke.
Aging empires ruled by interbred and inbred bloodlines carved out dynasties with little regard to mere mortal claims. The royal houses of Europe, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire each traced their ‘right to rule’ to divine proclamation, which—so believed these monarchs—the bigger their empire, the greater their divine rights. Nationalism, however, proved to be a thorn in the paws of these great lions and lionesses. Though emperors might invade, the ‘little people’ living within the invaded nations would inevitably fight back.
As 1908 dawned, a fitful peace hovered over both the Eurasian Empires and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Baron Pierre de Coubertin, heralded as the founder of the modern games (at least at the time, an honor which he now shares with Dr. William Penny Brookes of Shropshire, England—more on that later) believed the ‘friendly competition’ provided not only a peaceful way of defusing geopolitical rivalries, but also encouraged strength, agility, and proper hygiene. In fact, it was war—or rather losing a war (a memory from Coubertin’s childhood when France suffered a rounding defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870) that galvanized the young nobleman toward a career to improve the species through physical education.
Small for his size, Coubertin’s parents enrolled him in a prominent Jesuit school, where the boy excelled, reveling in the strict atmosphere and physical education (typical for the Jesuit academies). Rather than choose a political or military career as presumed he would (being a child of noble blood), Pierre threw his energies into improving France’s school systems, particularly with regard to physical education. At age 20, he visited England, inspecting and admiring the British inclusion of ‘sport’ in all school curricula. Coubertin concluded that it was the daily regimen of exercise and team play that built not only a superior body, but also a superior mind—and a superior soldier.
Preaching his philosophy of training up the body as well as the mind took Coubertin on a tour of Europe, but he found no greater support than in the counties of England, particularly in Shropshire, where he visited a country surgeon named William Penny Brookes. Dr. Brookes, you see, had run ahead of Coubertin. Thirteen years before the French aristocrat’s birth, the robust physician had formed the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS–and ironic and perhaps ‘telling’ acronym), which encouraged literacy amongst county farm hands and their families, a curriculum which included an ‘Olympian Class’.
If ‘Wenlock’ sounds familiar to some, it is because the London Olympics used the name as one of two characters employed to draw children’s imaginations into the Olympic ‘fever’ in the lead up to July 27, 2012. Wenlock and Mandeville starred in several commercials and even have their own Facebook pages! A short film tells the story of how the pair were created out of scrap metal leftover from building the Olympic stadium—and how an incoming rainbow gave them spectacular coloring and brought them to life. (You can watch that short film here)
In 1860, the Olympian Class of WARS had changed to the Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS). When Baron de Coubertin visited Brookes in 1890, WOS staged an Olympian Games event just for the baron. The two educationists became fast friends, and Coubertin returned to Paris with a head filled to the brim with how to better not only the mind but also the body—the International Olympic Committee was born. In 1896, Greece hosted the first IOC event, followed by two lesser ‘games’ hosted by Paris in 1900 (during the Exposition) and in St. Louis in 1904 (during the World’s Fair).
Bible prophecy scholars might make a swift connection to the proposed 1908 gathering of ‘the world’ in Rome as a foreshadowing of things to come, but in fact Italy did not host the games that year. Instead, the lot fell to London at the last minute while Italians dug out from the debris of a volcanic eruption—Mount Vesuvius had cast a vote against Rome. Because of this ‘last minute’ venue switch, London is the only city to host three Olympiads in the history of the modern games.
The first decade of the 20th century poised not only on a geopolitical ‘knife’ but also on a social one. As an uncomfortable and perhaps spiritually influenced parallel to the secretive meetings and useless treaties involving diplomats, spies, and politicians, there arose three movements that would soon merge into a dangerous synthesis of backroom charlatanism and elitist philosophies. This unholy trio consisted of a Ukrainian mystic, a Suffragette, and a ‘scientific’ movement whose proponents not only believed in war as a solution but would come to inspire one of the most heinous figures in all of history: Adolf Hitler.
Next time: Part III—Theosophy, Sanger, and the Progressive Movement