Full Circle: The Olympic Heritage in Coins and Medals

An Exhibition by the American Numismatic Society at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

October 21, 2003 through October 1, 2004

This is a text-only version of the exhibition brochure, which is also available as a pdf file.

Press Release is posted.

An exhibition catalogue is available: A Simple Souvenir: Coins and Medals of the Olympic Games, by Peter van Alfen

The Birth of the Olympics

A century ago, the Olympic Games were for most of the world a long-dead and obscure part of an ancient Greek festival. The fact that the Olympics today are so well known is due to the tireless efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who announced in 1892 his curious idea to revive a pagan festival that had not been celebrated for 15 centuries. De Coubertin’s efforts were clearly successful, although the idea took some time before it caught the world’s attention fully. The modern Olympics, however, were not an exact recreation of those in antiquity. The first Olympic “Games” believed to have been held in 776 BC were nothing more than a single foot race along the Alpheios River near the sanctuary for the god Zeus at Olympia. This footrace was merely an aside in an extended multi-day festival honoring Zeus, the King of the Gods. As at all such festivals in antiquity, there were numerous diversions, such as animal sacrifices, dances, songs, stories and athletic displays, all for the entertainment of the festival-goers and the attendant gods. As time wore on, more athletic events were added to the program. The week-long Olympic Games in the 5th century opened on the first day with the most pompous event, the chariot race, which was followed by a horserace 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 ordeals of an athlete. And since the charioteers and jockeys were mere hirelings, the owner of the horses was always considered the victor. Even women, who otherwise were not allowed to participate in or even watch the Olympic Games, could sponsor chariots to compete on their behalf, as did the daughter of King Aigisilaos of Sparta, Kyniska, a two-time Olympic victor in 396 and 392 BC.

The events of the festival continued with the pentathlon, which included discus and javelin throwing, a standing long jump, running and wrestling. The running events of the first Olympic Games were expanded beyond the stadium race of around 200 m to include a double stadium of 400 m and a long-distance run. The body contact sports, like wrestling and boxing, were gruesome and at times even lethal. The boxers followed only a few rules and wore 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. The last event was the 400-m race in armor, with contestants carrying a shield and wearing a helmet and greaves. This was one non-equestrian contest where the participants were at least partly clothed, as almost every other event took place in the nude. The Games at Olympia were a Panhellenic festival open to contestants from all of Greece. Panhellenic Games multiplied in the 6th century BC, as local festivals honoring various deities began to attract participants from all over the Greek-speaking world, and began to add athletic contests to their own festival programs. Some of these local contests attracted greater esteem than others; by the 5th century four major 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 game 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, an Olympic cycle replicated today. The Games in antiquity continued for a thousand years. But as Christianity began to spread across the eastern Mediterranean in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, pagan fes-tivals like the Olympics were not as cherished as they once had been. Whether by edict, like that of Theodosius I in 393 ordering all pagan cults and centers closed, or simply a lack of interest, the ancient Games faded away.

The Olympics Reborn

The modern reincarnation of the Olympic Games was the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman who sought 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, de Coubertin spent time in both England and the United States touring schools and attending sport matches, convinced that such competitions encouraged clean living, courageous actions, physical proficiency, mental agility, and good sportsmanship. 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; de Coubertin’s imagina-tion was lit by the idea of a cultural, religious, and athletic festival so magnificent and so glorious that it would stimulate the youth, not only of France but of all the world, to higher ideals. In 1892, he announced in Paris that the first modern Olympiad would commence in four years. The Baron’s tenacity in promoting this idea saw success in Athens in 1896, when the first Olympic Games since antiquity opened to great local fanfare (although few others in the world paid attention). Although the Games in Athens in 1896 were a success, it took several decades before the Games settled into a familiar and widely accepted routine. It was during the next 40 years that the Games attained the stature and world-wide acclaim for which we know them today. While the Athenian Games of 1896 were the first Olympics to be held in the modern era, it was in fact the Games of 1936, held in Berlin, that have rightly been called the first truly modern Olympics, in the sense that these Games achieved for the first time the 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.

Olympiad I, Athens, 1896

Baron de Coubertin’s efforts to draw international attention to his revived Olympic Games were largely ignored: representatives from only fourteen nations participated in the first modern 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. King George I of Greece presided over the opening and closing ceremonies and presented the prizes to the victors: diplomas, silver medals and an olive branch. 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. But the hero of the 1896 Games was the shepherd from Maroussi, Spiridon Louis, who won the marathon, the only Greek victory, to the excited cheers of his countrymen.

Olympiad II, Paris, 1900

The success of 1896 inspired the Greeks to lobby for the Games to stay permanently in Greece. But this was not the desire of de 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 sorriest of all the modern Olympics, notable only for the first appearance of women competitors. Consumed by their preparations for 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 light entertainment scattered among the various exhibits of new art and technology; in fact, the program included such Olympic events as checkers, leap frog, and fire-fighting. Pressure from de Coubertin changed this at least for the track and field events and a separate venue in the Bois de Boulogne was obtained. Only 13 nations participated on a poorly laid-out field, where the athletes outnumbered the spectators. By the second Olympiad, the idea of the modern Olympics already seemed doomed to obscurity.

Olympiad III, St. Louis, 1904

De Coubertin’s idea somehow survived Paris, only to have its resolve tested in St. Louis, again relegated to sideshow status at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The 94 events were spread over four and a half months, and many were simply lost in the chaos of the Fair. France and England to all purposes boycotted, leaving a meager eight nations and the US to compete.

Athens, 1906

The Games in Paris and St. Louis had drained out of de Coubertin’s Olympic Movement its unique message and symbolism; both sets of Games were merely another series of international competitions. 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. De 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 never to be revived.

Olympiad IV, London, 1908

With de 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 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 IVth Olympiad, the newly organized British Olympic Committee took the task of hosting the Games seriously 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 advised that they be stopped forever.

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 de Coubertin’s Olympic vision. But 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 meant that new stadiums and extensive entertainment programs were de rigueur. To de Coubertinís pleasure, the Swedes also extended the program to include competitions in the fine arts. In stark contrast to the gloom of the London Games, those of 1912 were described as a prolonged love fest, which no doubt helped the Olympic movement to survive the long interruption caused by the First World War. For the first time in Olympic history, modern or ancient, the Games were cancelled on account of war; the Games of the VIth Olympiad, 1916, had been scheduled to be held in Berlin.

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 of the Belgian initiative were well received, and the Games once again helped to encourage international cordiality, although Germany and the other Central Powers were deliberately excluded.

Olympiad VII, Paris, 1924

Paris was afforded the chance to redeem itself for its Olympic sins of 1900 when de Coubertin announced his retirement from the IOC, and announced too his wish that the 1924 Games go to his native city. As expected, the Parisians fully redeemed themselves by hosting Games that reflected the recently adopted Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger”). Both the sports and art competitions were widely recognized as the best ever; both were well attended and covered by hundreds of journalists from around the globe.

Olympiad IX, Amsterdam, 1928

By 1928, the Olympic festival had settled into a familiar, amicable routine. It is fitting, then, that 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. The first Olympic flame was lit atop a tower next to the stadium; the pro-gram contained the first full set of track and field events for women, much to de Coubertin’s consternation; for the first time, too, Asian contestants won gold medals. 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.

Olympiad X, Los Angeles, 1932

With the world plunged into the Great Depression, the prospects for the Los Angeles Games did not seem rosy. When the Games opened, however, those attending found to their delight that more effort and money went into the preparation of the Games than ever before: over three million dollars had been raised for the 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. As today, well-conceived and well-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. The quality of the equipment the Americans provided and the massive proportions of the Coliseum Olympic stadium astounded the world, as did the 321-acre Olympic Village, complete with its own post office, movie theater, and cooks from every nation.

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 quickly recognized the potential that hosting the Games offered as a tool for demonstrating to the world his theories of racial superiority. While the preparations for Los Angeles had been monu-mental, Berlin’s would be inconceivable; 30 million dollars were spent to host the 1936 Games. Not one but four stadiums were built within the 325-acre Reichssportfeld, the finest ath-letic grounds yet envisaged. The Olympic Village, constructed entirely of stone, easily eclipsed in grandeur that of the earlier Games. But despite Hitler’s attempt to co-opt the Games for his own symbolic purposes, his efforts fell flat, with a resounding thud. This was due mostly to the remarkable performance of the US African-American sprinter and long jumper, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the course of the Games.


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 1939, the Olympic Movement had become so well rooted in the modern psyche that it would take far more than another World War to disrupt permanently the modern Olympic cycle. After the Second World War, the Games quickly resumed; London, once again, was the host in 1948. Since their rebirth, the modern Games have endeavored to adhere to de Coubertin’s ideal, but in many ways they have grown beyond it. In little over a century the Olympics have become, as John MacAloon has remarked, “a crucible of symbolic force into which the world pours its energies, and a stage upon which it plays out its hopes and terrors, every four years.” If we bear in mind the universal symbolic force of the Games in ancient times, the significance of these Greek Games has indeed come full circle. n the summer of 2004, the Olympic Games return to Athens, Greece, where the first modern 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. Although the modern Games share little besides their name and Greek origins with their ancient counter-parts, still, a line of continuity can be traced through the symbolic importance that the Games have provided competitors and audi-ences through the centuries.

Ancient Olympic Web Sites

Olympic Materials from the Perseus Project
“The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games” from the University of Pennsylvania Museum


The American Numismatic Society is deeply grateful to the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation for their generous underwriting of this exhibition.

This brochure has been generously underwritten by:

R. M. Smythe & Co., Inc.
Coins, Paper Money, Autographs, Photographs, Stocks, Bonds
2 Rector Street, 12th Fl., New York, NY 10006
1.800.622.1880 ° http://www.smytheonline.com/


Stack’s Rare Coins
Retailers, Numismatists, Auctioneers, Appraisers
123 West 57th Street, New York, 10019
212.582.2580 ° http://www.stacks.com/

The American Numismatic Society is grateful to the following individuals and institutions for their generosity in lending to this exhibition:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mr. Bernth Ahlstrom Keeper of the Lighthouse Collection
Dr. Jay M. Galst
Mr. Harmer Johnson