Full Circle: The Olympic Heritage in Coins and Medals

by Peter van Alfen

In the summer of 2004, the Olympic Games return to Athens, Greece, where the first modern, international Olympics were held in 1896, 1,500 years after their ancient namesake had faded from view. Significantly, it is the land that nourished both the birth and rebirth of the Olympic festival that welcomes the first summer Games of the 21st century, a new era in the history of the spectacle. To mark this historic event, the ANS has opened a new exhibit entitled Full Circle: The Olympic Heritage in Coins and Medals. The exhibit is on display at the Federal Reserve Bank in Lower Manhattan and will remain open through the Athens Summer Games, closing on October 1, 2004. Thanks to some extraordinary loans from ANS Members and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition features a full range of Olympic coins, medals, ancient sports equipment and modern memorabilia, all of which will be discussed more fully in our upcoming exhibition catalogue. All these artifacts provide a unique and timely overview of the Olympic movement, and help to elucidate the origins of the spectacle, both in its ancient form and its modern reincarnation.

(1896.HJ.01) 1896 first place winner’s medal, silver, by Jules-Clément Chaplain. View of the Athenian acropolis (Harmer Johnson collection).

The Full Circle

“And far shines that fame of the Olympic festivals won in the racecourses of Pelops, where competition is held for swiftness of feet and boldly laboring acts of strength. And for the remainder of his life, because of the Games, the victor enjoys a rest as sweet as honey” (Oly. I.94-8, trans. Race). Pindar, the famed poet, composed these lyrics in an ode celebrating an Olympic victory nearly 25 centuries ago. His words are as fresh today as they were when he wrote them. But a hundred years or so ago, only Classicists and school boys studying Greek would have been fully attuned to the implications of what Pindar was saying. At the end of the 19th century, the Olympics Games were mostly unknown, simply part of a long-dead ancient Greek festival. The fact that the Olympics today is a such renowned, world-wide phenomenon is due primarily to the efforts of the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who announced in 1892 the ambitious idea to revive a festival that had not been celebrated for a millennium and a half. Coubertin’s efforts were clearly successful, but in retrospect it took decades before the idea fully caught the world’s attention. And although he called it the “Olympics” the spectacle that Coubertin bestowed upon the modern age was considerably different from its ancient predecessor.

The Birth Of The Olympics

This is clear enough when we consider for a moment the circumstances of Pindar’s ode written in the 5th century BC: the victor Pindar celebrated was Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse, who was the owner, but not the jockey, of the steed that won the Olympic horse race in 476 BC. As was common for a wealthy victor, Hieron hired a poet to compose a song for a chorus that would sing his praises. This tradition may have already been centuries old by the time the chorus raised its collective voice for Hieron; already in 476 the Games were celebrating their 300th anniversary. The Greeks of Pindar’s generation believed the date for the first Olympic Games was 776 BC; some claimed that the great hero-god Herakles (Hercules in Latin) was the founder. These first “Games,” however, were according to tradition nothing more than a single foot race along the Alpheios River near the sanctuary for the god Zeus at Olympia. In fact, this footrace which was to become the Olympics was a sideshow in the festival honoring Zeus, the King of the Gods. Like at all such festivals in antiquity, in addition to the animal sacrifices and subsequent banquets, there were numerous diversions, such as dances, songs, stories and athletic displays, all for the entertainment of the festival-goers and the attendant gods. The foot race that began so humbly in 776 had become by Pindar’s day an extended, multi-day sporting contest and the major attraction of the festival honoring Zeus Olympios.

Stater of Olympia, with Zeus’ bird, the eagle, in flight on the obverse; Nike, the goddess of victory, on the reverse (ANS 1969.30.21, gift of B.Y. Berry).

As time wore on, more athletic events were added to the program. The week-long Olympic Games in the 5th century generally opened with the most pompous, splendid and dangerous event: the chariot race. Immediately following the chariot race, single horses were raced along the same course with the jockeys riding bareback without stirrups. Both of these equestrian events were a way for wealthy people to participate in the Games without undergoing the training and ordeals of a typical athlete; because of the expense of raising and training horses the equestrian events were the sport of only the most well-off contestants. And since the charioteers and jockeys were mere hirelings, the owner of the horses was always considered the victor. In the Classical period it was only through this indirect participation that women were allowed to take part in the Games, since as a rule they were otherwise barred from competing in and even watching the Olympic Games (there was, however, a sequestered 160m sprint for girls in honor of Zeus’ consort, Hera). A few women sponsored chariots to compete on their behalf, as did Kyniska, the daughter of King Aigisilaos of Sparta, a two-time Olympic victor in 396 and 392 BC, and thereby achieved a distinction generally reserved for men.

(ANS 1967.152.465): Obverse of a tetradrachm of the island of Cos, c. 450 BC. Discus thrower arched over tripod. From the 8th century BC onwards, tripods were often awarded to victors at Panhellenic athletic contests.

The events of the festival continued with the pentathlon, which included discus and javelin throwing, a standing long jump, running and wrestling, although if one person won the first three contests, he was simply declared the overall winner without having to do the others. The running events of the first Olympic Games were expanded beyond the stadium race of around 200 meters to include a double stadium of 400 meters and the long distance run of 24 stadia or about 4800 meters. The body contact sports, like wrestling and boxing, were rather gruesome, and at times even lethal, in part because the contestants followed only a few rules and wore only simple protection for their hands. The pankration, a vicious form of wrestling with only one rule—no eye-gouging—was a contest still more bloody than boxing. None of these contact events had rounds or weight classes; the fight continued until one person dropped. Of course, at times, an opponent might be beaten to death, but anyone who killed his challenger was banished from the stadium for the rest of the Games. The last event was the 400-meter race in armor, with contestants carrying a shield and wearing a helmet and greaves. This was the one non-equestrian contest where the participants were at least partly clothed, as almost every other event took place in the nude.

The ‘Discus-Thrower’ or ‘Diskobolos’ by the Athenian sculptor Myron, ca. 450 BC. One of the most famous and copied statues ever made, particularly in Olympics-related art. The motif of the Discus-Thrower was heavily used in media relating to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics especially.

While these events formed the traditional program, from time to time new events would be introduced and eventually dropped, as sometimes happens today. One such short-lived event was the mule car race, introduced in the Games of 500 BC and discontinued a few decades later. Neither as dignified nor as exciting as the chariot race, the event was still expensive and limited to elites. One victor, Anaxilas, the tyrant of Rhegion, commemorated his win in the Games of 484 BC by issuing a coin depicting the mule car and driver.

Tetradrachm of Messana in Sicily, c. 400 BC. Anaxilas, the tyrant of Messana and Rhegion, first issued this type of coin to commemorate his mule-car victory in either 484 or 480 BC (ANS 1997.9.8, John D. Leggett, Jr. bequest).

Part of Coubertin’s idealization of the ancient Games stemmed from their Panhellenism, meaning they were open to contestants from any of the Greek city-states (poleis) around the central and eastern Mediterranean. In the Age of Nations, Coubertin translated this Panhellenism into Pan-Nationalism; Coubertin also hoped that, as was the case in antiquity, temporary truces would be enacted between warring poleis/nations so all could compete in peace, a dream that is still pursued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) today. Panhellenic and local games in general multiplied in the 6th century BC, as various regional and city festivals honoring patron deities began to attract participants from all over the Greek-speaking world, and began to add athletic contests to their own festival programs. At Athens, for example, games were added around 566 BC to the Greater Panathenaia, a festival honoring Athena, the city’s patron deity. Some of these local contests attracted greater esteem than others; by the end of 6th century four Panhellenic Games were considered the most prestigious: the Isthmian Games honoring Poseidon, the Nemean Games for Zeus, the Pythian Games at Delphi for Apollo and, still the pinnacle of all the Panhellenic competitions, the Olympic Games at Olympia. The circuit for the “big four” was so arranged that one set of Games took place every year; on this cycle an Olympiad was every four years, a cycle replicated today.

When victory was declared, the greatest prize an Olympic winner could take away from the Games was kleos, the fame that attended his name for generations afterwards, and sometimes was immortalized in the words of paid poets like Pindar. But tangible symbolic prizes were given as well: at Olympia the prize was a crown of sacred olive leaves; at the Pythian Games, a crown of laurel leaves; at the Nemean Games, a crown of wild celery; and at the Isthmian Games, pine branches. By contrast, at lesser Games—like the Panathenaic Games in Athens—the cities offered cash prizes or other valuables (perhaps in order to attract “big-name” contestants). Competitors at Athens, for example, won both money and large so-called Panathenaic vases filled with oil made from the olives in Athena’s sacred grove. For the first modern Games, Coubertin’s desire was to follow the example of those at Olympia, Nemea, Isthmia and Delphi, by awarding the winners simple wreaths and diplomas. But in addition, following modern practice, winners were also awarded a victory medal, an object unknown in antiquity.

The ancient Games continued uninterrupted for a thousand years. But as Christianity began to spread across the Mediterranean in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, pagan festivals like the Olympics lost their charm. Whether by edict, like that of Theodosius I in 393 ordering all pagan cults and centers closed, or simply a lack of interest, the Games faded away.

The Olympics Reborn

Coubertin’s push to breath new life into the Olympics—15 centuries later—was due partly to his desire to invigorate the young men of France with a healthy dose of athletic exercise and competition, which was all but lacking in their curriculum. Inspired in part by the role that sports played in British and American education, Coubertin spent time in both England and the United States touring schools and attending sport matches. He was convinced that such competitions encouraged “clean living, courageous actions, physical proficiency, mental agility, and good sportsmanship” (Weyland 1952: 3). Around this time, the German-led archaeological excavations at the site of Olympia in Greece aroused considerable interest in the ancient Games in educated circles; Coubertin hit upon the idea of a cultural, religious, and athletic festival of such spectacular proportions that it would stimulate the youth, not only of France but of all the world, to higher ideals. In 1894, he announced in Paris that the first modern, International Olympiad would commence in two years.

The Baron’s tenacity in promoting his project saw success in Athens in 1896, when the first international Olympic Games to be held in Greece since the 4th century AD opened to great local fanfare (although few others in the world paid attention!). Despite this initial success, it took several decades before the Olympic Movement spread across the globe and the Games settled into a familiar and accepted routine. In fact, the period between 1896 and 1936 was the most crucial for the establishment of the modern IOC Olympic tradition; for this reason this period is the primary focus of our exhibit. While the Athenian Games of 1896 were the first international Olympics to be held in the modern era, it was in fact the Games of 1936, the so-called “Nazi Olympics” held in Berlin, that have, for better or worse, rightly been styled the first truly modern Olympics. It was the Berlin Games that reached for the first time the levels of outlandish opulence that we have come to expect from the spectacle. Moreover, the 1936 Games were the first to be broadcast on a primitive form of television, an indispensable component of the Games of recent years.

Olympiad I, Athens, 1896

The efforts to draw international attention to the revived Olympics were largely ignored: representatives from only fourteen nations participated in the first Athenian Games. There were no national teams at this time and those who participated did so either as members of a collegiate or athletic club team, or as private individuals. Despite the lukewarm response from the international community, the enthusiasm of the Greek hosts ensured that the Games were a remarkable success. Relying primarily upon a series of commemorative stamps and the goodwill of philanthropists, like the Alexandrian merchant Georgios Averoff who financed the rebuilding of the 4th-century BC Panathenaic stadium of Lykurgos in downtown Athens, the financially-strapped Greeks were able to secure the funds necessary to inaugurate the Olympic spectacle in a way worthy of Coubertin’s vision. King George I of Greece presided over the opening and closing ceremonies and presented the prizes to the victors: an olive branch, diplomas, and silver medals. The athletes from the US, most from Princeton and Harvard universities and the Boston Athletic Association, took nine first places and five second, far more than any other country. This overall US victory was to set a trend for decades to come. But the hero of the 1896 Games was Spiridon Louis, who won the marathon, the only Greek victory, to the excited cheers of his countrymen.

Special-issue 1 drachma stamp depicting both the Athenian acropolis and the rebuilt 4th century BC stadium of Lykurgos where the 1896 Olympics were held.

Olympiad II, Paris, 1900

The success of 1896 inspired the Greeks to lobby vehemently for the Games to stay permanently in Athens. But this was not the desire of Coubertin, who wanted a changing venue with every Olympiad. War in Greece quieted the demands from Athens and the Games for the second Olympiad went to the Baron’s home city of Paris. The French Games, however, were destined to be the most miserable of all the modern Olympics, notable only for the first appearance of women in the Games. Consumed by their preparations for the Exposition Universelle Internationale, the Paris World’s Fair that was to take place in 1900, the officials of the Fair were indifferent to the Games and thought to use them as entertainment scattered among the various exhibits of new art and technology; in fact, the program included such “Olympic” events as checkers, leapfrog, fire-fighting and life-saving. Pressure from Coubertin changed this—at least for the track and field events—and a separate schedule and venue, in the Bois de Boulogne, was obtained. But preparations for the Games did not start until the 11th hour, and little information was sent overseas. As a result, only 13 nations participated on a poorly laid-out field, where the athletes outnumbered the spectators. Missing too was the grand procession and ceremonies of 1896. It was also in Paris that the Olympic ideal of harmonious competition was challenged for the first time when the French insisted on holding finals on a Sunday. University regulations made it impossible for many of the US athletes to compete on the Christian Sabbath, thus many lost their standing in the Games. By the second Olympiad, the idea of the modern Olympics already seemed doomed to obscurity.

1900 winner’s plaque for firemen and fire-engine competition, silvered bronze, by Frederic C.V. de Vernon. Victorious athlete/angel scattering laurel branches over Paris (The Lighthouse collection).

Olympiad III, St. Louis, 1904

Coubertin’s idea somehow survived Paris, only to have its resolve tested again in St. Louis. As in Paris, the Games were relegated to side-show status at a World’s Fair—this time, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Unlike the French, the US officials were more organized in their preparations, but were perhaps too methodical and stale in their approach, so much so that Coubertin was overly disappointed and did not attend. There were no elaborate opening ceremonies for the Games, and while Alice Roosevelt, the president’s daughter, was on hand to pass out the winners’ medals, the whole affair was more business-like than Olympian. The 94 events were spread over four and a half months, and many were simply lost in the chaos of the Fair. European participation was also negligible. In fact, France and England to all purposes boycotted, leaving a meager eight nations and the US to compete.

Cover of a daily program from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (The Lighthouse collection).

Athens, 1906

The Games in Paris and St. Louis had drained out of Coubertin’s Olympic Movement its solemnity and symbolism; both sets of Games were merely another series of international competitions. Already it was time for a fresh start. In the years that had passed since the 1896 Games, the Greek yearning to have the Games remain in Athens had not abated. Coubertin proposed holding quadrennial Games in Athens in the intervals between the Olympiads, and suggested commencing the cycle in 1906, but political unrest in Greece in 1910 forced the idea to be abandoned forever. Nevertheless, the unofficial Games of 1906 rejuvenated the flagging Olympic spirit, attracting as many participants as there were in the Games ten years before. The pageantry of the Olympic Games was also restored, again by the efforts of the Greek king and crown prince. King Edward VII of England and a handful of lesser European dignitaries also attended and paraded with the Greek royals, cinching international attention. Despite the fact that these Games were in retrospect never recognized as officially Olympic by the IOC, the American Olympic Committee took pains to solicit nation-wide contributions to send a selected US team to Athens. This was the first team to a wear a distinctive uniform, one with the US flag emblazoned on the chest.

Reverse of souvenir medal from the 1906 Games depicting the Olympic stadium in Athens (The Lighthouse collection).

Olympiad IV, London, 1908

With Coubertin’s vision once again on track, following a second joyous success in Athens, all seemed to bode well for London in 1908. The Olympics had finally, of themselves, garnered international attention and were attracting participants from more than the original dozen or so countries; 22 nations were to compete in London. For the IV Olympiad, the newly organized British Olympic Committee took diligently to the task of hosting the Games and erected at Shepherd’s Bush, in London, a great stadium, the first constructed specifically for the modern Olympics. The Committee also was determined to imbue the Games with the grandeur and pomp of the British Empire, and thus made sure that the smallest details of the program were in order, including the use for the first time of gold, silver and bronze medals denoting first, second, and third place. In spite of the careful preparations, however, the Olympics of 1908 were not a happy set of Games. Many contestants, especially those from the US, felt that the British were poor referees and purposely insulted the competitors. There was so much bickering, in fact, that the London papers called the Games a fiasco, and quite seriously sugested that they be stopped forever. The international cordiality and goodwill that the Games were intended to foster were lost under the stormy skies that summer. For the future, the IOC subsequently made drastic changes in the way the Games were handled. No longer would the host city or country be responsible for setting the program and the rules of competition; for 1912, all such rules would be standardized and there would be a new corps of international officials and a jury of appeal.

Third place winner’s medal from the 1908 London Games by Sir Edgar Bertram MacKennal. The obverse depicts a victorious athlete being crowned while the reverse shows St. George, patron saint of England, slaying a dragon (The Lighthouse collection).

Badge for services rendered from the 1908 London Games (The Lighthouse collection).

Olympiad V, Stockholm, 1912

Once again, the future of the modern Games seemed to hang in the balance; failure in Stockholm would seal the fate of Coubertin’s well-intended plans formed two decades before. But King Gustav V and the Swedes were determined to make the Games of the Vth Olympiad the best yet, and they succeeded. A national lottery was held to raise the growing sums needed to host the Olympics, which, following the model of London, meant that new stadiums and extensive entertainment programs were de rigeur. To Coubertin’s great pleasure, the Swedes also extended the program to include competitions in the fine arts of literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and music, competitions in which the Americans faired poorly (Coubertin himself, under the pen name Georges Hohrod, found success in the fine art competition, winning a prize for his “Ode to Sport”). In stark contrast to the gloom of the London Games, those of 1912 were described as a exceedingly joyful, which no doubt helped the Olympic Movement to survive the long interruption caused by the brutality of the First World War. Because of the war, for the first time in Olympic history, modern or ancient, the Games were cancelled; Berlin was to host the Games of the VIth Olympiad in 1916.

Participation medal from the 1912 Stockholm Games by Erik Lindberg. Obverse, Zeus seated on Ionic column holding a figure of Nike; Reverse, quadriga with charioteer and victorious athlete (Harmer Johnson collection).

1912 Olympic poster by Olle Hjortzberg.

Silver competitor’s badge from 1912 Stockholm Games (Harmer Johnson collection).

Olympiad VII, Antwerp, 1920

Once the smoke of battle had cleared following the Armistice of 1918, there was talk already of resuming the Olympics. Antwerp was awarded the Games, partly in recognition for what the Belgians had suffered during the war. Given only a year’s notice to prepare for the Games, the city did the best it could, despite the fact that Belgium had been devastated by bombs and trench warfare. The results were well received, and the Games once again helped to encourage international cordiality, although Germany and the other Central Powers were excluded from the event. A couple of major innovations made their appearance in the opening ceremonies of the 1920 Games: the first was the oath of amateurism sworn by one of the competitors on behalf of all the others. The second was the unveiling of Coubertin’s latest creation, the Olympic flag with its five rings symbolizing the union of the five continents, Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

First place winner’s from the 1920 Antwerp Games by Josué Dupon. Obverse, victorious athlete; Reverse, view of Antwerp (The Lighthouse collection).

Participation medal from the 1920 Antwerp Games by Pierre Theunis. Obverse, female crowning athlete; Reverse, athlete in biga (The Lighthouse collection).

Olympiad VII, Paris, 1924

Paris was afforded the chance to redeem itself for its Olympic sins of 1900 when Coubertin announced his retirement from the IOC, and announced too his wish that the 1924 Games go to his native city. The Baron’s perseverance over three decades had succeeded in installing the idea of the Olympic Movement firmly into the minds of the post-war generation. The Olympics were now big business, with cities vying fiercely for the honor of hosting them. Perhaps also the First World War had helped to spread Coubertin’s gospel of athletics, since 1924 saw the largest turn-out of competing nations to date: 44. (A significant increase over the 29 nations at Antwerp; Germany was still not invited, however). As expected, the Parisians fully redeemed themselves by hosting Games that reflected the recently adopted Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger”). They also introduced the concept of the Olympic Village to house the athletes, although the group of wooden shacks they provided was quickly out-done by the more elaborate villages in the years that followed. This too was the Olympics fictionalized in the 1981 Hugh Hudson film Chariots of Fire.

Second place winner’s medal from the 1924 Paris Games by André Rivaud. Obverse, naked victorious athlete helping rival off the ground; Reverse, harp as symbol of the fine arts program and different sports equipment (Harmer Johnson collection).

1924 Olympic poster by Jean Droit.

Participation medal from the 1924 Paris Games by Raoul Bernard (ANS 1937.161.1, gift of D.M. Bullowa).

Olympiad IX, Amsterdam, 1928

By 1928, the Olympic festival had settled into a familiar, amicable routine. Moreover, the Games of the IXth Olympiad were marked by an aura of peace and harmony; for the first time in 16 years, the Germans were once again invited to participate. There were a number of other firsts as well: the first Olympic flame was lit atop a tower next to the stadium; the program contained the first full set of track and field events for women (much to Coubertin’s consternation who was opposed to idea of women participating in the Olympics); for the first time too Asian contestants won gold medals. In fact, athletes from 28 of the 46 nations won gold medals, a record that was to stand for four decades. This strong international display also aroused considerably more world-wide enthusiasm for the Olympics than in previous years. A nod to the Greek heritage of the Games was also codified in the 1928 Games: during the Parade of Nations in the Opening Ceremony, Greece marched first, while the host country, Holland, marched last, a protocol repeated to this day.

Participation medal from the 1928 Amsterdam Games by by Johann Cornelius Wienecke (ANS 1942.129, gift of Mr. and Mrs. S.H.P. Pell).

Olympiad X, Los Angeles, 1932

With the world mired in the Great Depression, the prospects for the Los Angeles Games did not seem rosy. There was concern that some nations could not afford to send their teams to a place as far away as Los Angeles, and indeed financial problems were partly to blame for the drop in participating countries to 37 from the 46 of the previous Olympiad. Those countries that did attend, however, found to their delight that more effort and money went into the preparation of the Games then ever before: over three million dollars had been raised for the Los Angeles Games, a princely sum at the time, especially in light of the country’s financial woes. The impressive cash flow ensured that the first US Olympics in nearly 30 years would be a showcase of American hospitality, ingenuity, and national goodwill. To be sure, cities had early on recognized that the honor of playing host to the Olympics also allowed a certain degree of national posturing and propaganda. As today, well-conceived and -presented Games could give a city and country international distinction of the highest order. While some earlier host cities had been roundly applauded for their efforts, none had yet attained the spectacular levels of Los Angeles’ preparations, a new benchmark that was too short-lived. The massive proportions of the Coliseum Olympic stadium impressed the world, as did the 321 acre Olympic Village, complete with its own post office, movie theatre, and international cooking staff. Los Angeles’ investment certainly paid off, both in terms of international reputation and financial returns: the Games were near perfect, with numerous records broken on the field and in attendance. But perhaps even more remarkable was the continuously sunny California weather; never had the Games been so sun-kissed.

Participation medal from the 1932 Los Angeles Games by Julio Kilenyi (The Lighthouse collection).

Car plaque from the 1932 Los Angeles Games (The Lighthouse collection).

Olympiad XI, Berlin, 1936

In 1931, when the Games of the XIth Olympiad were awarded to Berlin, Adolf Hitler was not yet in power; had he been, the IOC might have reconsidered the German bid. A shrewd judge of propagandistic possibilities, Hitler soon recognized the potential that hosting the Games offered as a tool for promoting his political and racial agenda. While the preparations for Los Angeles had been monumental, Berlin’s would be inconceivable: 30 million dollars were spent to host the 1936 Games, ten times the expenditure in Los Angeles. Four stadiums were built within the 325 acre Reichssportfeld. The Olympic Village, constructed entirely of stone, easily eclipsed in grandeur that of 1932; the Germans even imported one of Los Angeles’ wooden bungalows to set in the center of the Village so the point would not be missed. But while the Nazis toiled to build their Olympic vision, the opposition to sending teams to the Berlin Games grew stronger in many countries, even though the Germans had pledged—disingenously—that there would be no discrimination against non-Aryan athletes. In the US especially there was tremendous resistance, so much so that fundraising for the US team made virtually no progress. In fact, it was only by a narrow, last-minute vote that the decision was made to send the seriously underfunded US team to Berlin to join 48 other nations. But despite Hitler’s attempt to co-opt the Games for his own agenda, the efforts fell flat. This was due mostly to the remarkable performance of the US African-American sprinter and long jumper, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. Several lasting contributions did, however, come out of the Berlin Olympics. The first torch relay was run in 1936: a torch lit by magnified sunrays in the sacred precinct of Olympia was then carried by over 3,000 runners through seven countries to Berlin arriving during the course of the Opening Ceremony. With its technological and visual modernism, the Berlin Games also provided a glimpse of what was in store for the future Olympics. Television cameras for the first time sent live pictures of the events to spectators miles away. Moreover, Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part movie of the 1936 Games, Olympia: Fest der Voelker and Olympia: Fest der Schoenheit, helped to define the way we look at the modern athlete both as a cultural icon and as a performer, albeit within the context of Nazi symbolism and propaganda.

Participation medal from the 1936 Berlin Games by Otto Placzek. Obverse, five athletes representing the five continents pulling the ropes of the Olympic bell; Reverse, Berlin Olympic motto (The Lighthouse collection).

(1936.HJ.03) Proposed participant’s badge. A splendid example of the Nazis’ attempt to use the Berlin games as a propaganda vehicle: the IOC flatly objected to this design and had a new one be prepared—without the swastika (Harmer Johnson collection).


Baron de Coubertin did not live to see the XIIth Olympiad, nor did he live to see the Games of that Olympiad cancelled because of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. By the time he died in 1937, the Olympic Movement had become so well rooted in the modern psyche that not even another World War could disrupt permanently the modern Olympic cycle. After the Second World War, the Games quickly resumed; London, once again, was the host in 1948.

1974 Canadian commemorative by A. Mann depicting the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (ANS 1995.109.523, gift of Dr. Jay M. Galst).

In the years after the war, coins, and not just medals, began to play a more important role in the modern Olympics. Both winner’s medals and participation medals have been a staple feature of the modern Olympics from its inception; they have also served as an important measure of contemporary artistic expression. The nascent IOC’s decision to include medals among the winner’s rewards meant that the commissions for the designs would inspire their own form of competition. The first commission was from the famed French sculptor Jules-Clément Chaplain, who designed the stunning winner’s medal for the 1896 Athenian Games. In subsequent years, the design of the winner’s medals changed with every Olympiad until Guiseppe Cassioli’s design was adopted as the permanent summer Olympic winner’s medal beginning with the 1928 Games. In contrast, Olympic participation medals have been ever-changing. The host cities of each the Games have decided the commissions for these medals, both as souvenirs to be sold and as awards themselves to be given to individuals benefiting the city’s efforts.

1988 US five dollar gold commemorative by E. Jones (ANS 1988.167.1).

But while medals have been an important part of all the modern Games, coins have not been, which is odd considering the numismatic heritage of the Olympics. For centuries, coins had been a feature of the ancient Games—both the official coinage of Olympia, for example, which provided currency for pilgrims and participants, and celebratory issues from elsewhere, like those of Anaxilas of Rhegion. In the modern era, it was Finland that reestablished the minting of Olympic coinage to welcome the Helsinki Games of 1952, over half a century after the first modern Olympiad. Still it was not until the 1964 Games that the tradition, as it were, of striking commemorative coinages for every Olympiad began. Since 1976, these issues have not been intended as actual circulating currency but rather as official numismatic souvenirs. Increasingly popular as collectors’ items, Olympic-themed coins have also been issued by other non-host countries due to the appeal of such pieces for generating revenues. Mint surcharges and seigniorage fees from these coins are used to support both the Games and governments, incentives which have led to a dramatic increase in the number and types of Olympics-related coins now available. Indeed, this plethora of Olympic coinage and the scores of winner’s medals and participation medals from the last century of the Olympic Games illustrates the central role that numismatics have played in the presentation of this modern spectacle, a role that freely draws upon its ancient heritage.

The ANS is deeply grateful to the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation for their generous underwriting of the exhibit, and to the following individuals and institutions for the generosity of their loans: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Bernth Ahlstroem (Keeper of the Lighthouse Collection), Dr. Jay M. Galst, and Mr. Harmer Johnson.

Bibliographical Note: much of the section here on the ancient Olympics is heavily based on Finley and Pleket (1976), while the modern section draws mostly from Weyland (1952). Both these works present rather traditional views of the anicent and modern Games that have been challanged by more recent studies, such as those by Young (1996) and Golden (1998). The divergent and more controversial views of the Olympics will be addressed more fully in our upcoming exhibition catalogue.

Further Reading and References

M.I. Finley and H.W. Pleket, The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years (New York 1976).

Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge University Press 1998).

Alexander Weyand, The Olympic Pageant (MacMillan 1952).

David C. Young, The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival (John Hopkins University Press 1996).

Nobert Mueller, ed., Pierre de Coubertin, 1863-1937. Olympism: Selected Writings (International Olympic Committee, Lausanne 2000).