The Olympian Games in Athens, 1896


Burton Holmes

Originally published in 1920 and featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 108 in 2004.

It is a mistaken belief that he who knows not ancient Greece, as revealed in the immortal works of poetry, philosophy and art, he who has not spent his life in the companionship of the Greek classics, he who cannot in his own soul realize the Greece of old, is not fitted to approach her shores. The Olympian Games were the excuse for my intrusion into the land of the scholar and the archaeologist. I knew too well that I would bring to Greece only a love of travel, an eye not wholly blind to beauty, and a deep respect for the history, the letters, and the art of Greece.


The discus throwing is announced. For this, the most truly Greek of all the contests, no American had originally been entered. The discus is familiar to us only in connection with statues of old athletes in our art-museums. Our men can put the shot or throw the hammer, but not one of them has ever seen a discus, much less tried to hurl one. The Greeks, upon the other hand, have long been practicing their antique game, and one of their number has acquired a remarkable proficiency, equaling the best recorded throws of old Olympian victors. Nor was he less beautiful of form or graceful of gesture than the model who served as inspiration for the sculptor Myron, hundreds of years ago. Those, who watched him in practice affirmed that in the grace of his poses and gestures and in the accuracy of his delivery he could not have been surpassed by the famous statue itself had it come to life. Remembering this we are not surprised at the hesitation of one of our boys, a member of the Princeton team, when requested at the last moment to enter the lists and, all unprepared, meet the Greek champion in an unfamiliar game. But although he hesitated, he did not decline the challenge. With the same undaunted spirit which has ever characterized the Anglo-Saxon race, Robert Garrett, of the Princeton team, took up a discus for the first time in his life, and stood before the thronging thousands ready to do at least his best for the honor of the Orange and Black and the Stars and Stripes. Our chance of victory seems ridiculously small; we can but hope that our defeat will not call down the laughter of the Greeks.

The first efforts are merely tentative on the part of our champion. Then with that infinite capacity for "catching on," which seems to be the birthright of every Yankee, Garrett improves, and in his final throw wins more than he or his friends dared to hope for: the right to retire gracefully and without ridicule. Then Gouskos, the Greek, certain of victory, comes forward. With classic gestures he picks up his discus, and with the grace of an animated antique statue launches it into space. His final throw is marvelously artistic, the heavy discus soars away, descends-then drops. Scarcely has it touched the ground ere all the Stadium is on foot, shouting and waving hats and flags. Delirious with delight, Greek gentlemen embrace each other. For the first time the victory seems theirs, and we may readily imagine their great joy - and then their bitter disappointment almost despair, when instead of the Greek flag the Stars and Stripes is again hoisted to the victors' mast! In their enthusiastic admiration for the grace and beauty of their champion's delivery the Greeks had failed to note the very important fact that Garrett's discus, although launched by an unpracticed hand, had touched the earth just seven and one-half inches beyond that which the Greek had artistically thrown!

All were stupefied.The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise.They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they never before seen.


The fifth day is the day of the great race from Marathon. On this event the Greeks founded all their hopes. "If we but win the prize for Marathon, we shall forget all our defeats," was the cry which went up from the vast Hellenic majority of the audience which on Friday fills the Stadium, they had almost said to suffocation. On the surrounding walls, on the hill which dominates the Stadium, on the banks of the Ilyssos, in the gardens of the Zappion, on the boulevards, are massed the thousands who could not force their way into the amphitheater. Never has such a sight been witnessed since th days of antique Athens.

Meantime, we must not forget the events transpiring far away on the Marathon road. There Greeks and barbarians are running with grim determination. They know that he who wins the race from Marathon will gain more than ephemeral honor; thatthe story of his victory will be recited admiring generations long after the other contestants have passed into oblivion. artistically thrown!

The suspense is almost painful. All eyes are gazing westward, when at last a cannon-shot is heard. It means that the first runner has reached the outer boulevards, that in a moment he will be here. Who or what he is no one can tell until the crowd outside thunders its joy in a great roar, "A Greek! It is a Greek! Zito, Loues!" And young Greek peasant, Spiridione Loues, all dust and perspiration, staggers into the Stadium, where a hundred thousand people acclaim him as thehero of the hour.

Then, while from the sloping sides of the Stadium avalanches of applause come crashing down ; while the King of Greece so far forgets his royal dignity as to rip the visor from his royal cap in waving it like mad ; while staid and proper citizens embrace each other frantically; while tears of joy are shed ; while doves, to which long white ribbons are attached, are loosed and flutter in the air ; while all Athens utters a triumphant shout, Loues, the simple peasant, the farmer from the little hamlet Amarousi, is escorted by two Princes and a Russian Grand Duke - all three embracing, even kissing , him-from the entrance to the far end of the Stadium where he is greeted by a royal hand in the midst of such a scene as Athens has not witnessed in a thousand years. All the other runners who arrive in quick succession are, with one exception, Greeks. The native cup of happiness is full. The innate endurance of the Greek peasants prevailed in the great test, over the scientific training of the American Invincibles.