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Demetrios Vikelas

Biographical information

TypeIOC member
SexMale
Full nameDemetrios•Vikelas
Used nameDemetrios•Vikelas
Original nameΔημήτριος•Βικέλας
Born6 June 1835 in Ermoupoli (GRE)
Died7 July 1908 in Athina (Athens) (GRE)
NOC Greece

Biography

Demetrios Vikelas was the first IOC President (1894-1896), and with a two-year reign, the President who has held the office for the shortest period of time. It has been written that “of all the IOC Presidents, Vikelas was without question the most learned, the most international, the most cosmopolitan.”

Vikelas was born in 1835 on the Aegean island of Syros in Greece, but his family soon returned to Constantinople (Istanbul), where they had lived before fleeing the Greek War of Independence. In 1851, he left Syros and moved to England, where he became fluent in English and joined two of his uncles in the merchant business, in which he prospered financially. He worked during the day but also studied at the University of London at night, learning German and Italian and studying botany. He also published his first book, a translation of the works of the 17th century playwright, Jean Racine.

While in England, Vikelas furthered his education at the University of London, where he studied architecture, German, Italian, and French. At the age of 30, he married a wealthy Greek heiress, Kalliopi Yeralopolou, and shortly thereafter became a full partner in his uncles’ business. This allowed him to become an extremely wealthy man by the time he was 35, having made his fortune in the London, Athens, and Paris mercantile and banking industries.

After only a few years of marriage, Vikelas’s wife developed a serious illness that disabled her for the rest of her life. To help care for her, Vikelas retired, and the couple moved to Paris. In Paris, Vikelas dedicated himself to his wife’s comfort, but he also found the time to rediscover his first love, literature. His work in this field consisted of, among other topics, translating many of Shakespeare’s works into Greek.

In 1893, Vikelas created the Institut Melas, which was formed to help with pre-school education in non-Athenian parts of Greece. He was a loyal Greek, and he sent money to nationalist insurgents on Crete, and collaborated in the founding of a Greek school in London. His knowledge of and devotion to Greece and Greek culture were influential and important in regard to his handling the negotiations and organizing the details of the 1896 Athens Games.

Vikelas was little known in the sporting world but he earned the friendship of Pierre de Coubertin during his days in Paris. This brought him an invitation to the 1894 Sorbonne Congress in Paris, representing Greece and the Pan-Hellenic Gymnastic Society, at which Coubertin formulated the plans for the Modern Olympic Games. After the Congress had agreed to hold Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 it was left to elect a President of the nascent Olympic Movement. Early Olympic thinking considered it important that the IOC President should come from the country hosting the next Games, and Vikelas was thus appointed President. Despite his lack of experience in sports administration, he proved an able and enthusiastic President before handing the office over to Coubertin at the successful conclusion of the 1896 Games.

Until recently, little has been written about Vikelas’ presidency. But Professors David Young, a Classics and Olympics scholar, and Olympic historian John Lucas, both devoted journal articles to depicting Vikelas’s life, especially with regards to his work concerning the Olympics. Per both Lucas and Young, Vikelas was not a figurehead president and did almost all the work to organize the 1896 Olympic Games, not Coubertin as is often written. It was Vikelas who met with officials in Athens, Vikelas who got them to agree to host the first “modern” games, when the entire idea was in jeopardy, and Vikelas who tended to the public relations, sent out invitations and made arrangements to use various facilities in the city. They also concluded that Vikelas was responsible for the Olympic tradition and the Olympic spirit of good will that still exists today.

Many historians have given Coubertin all the credit for the success of the early Modern Olympic Games, including those of 1896. But Coubertin was only minimally involved in 1896, due to other issues in his life, including his own wedding. Young and Lucas believe that Coubertin may owe his success as le rénovateur of the Olympic Games to Vikelas. In early 1895, Coubertin’s interest in the Olympic Movement waned and he submitted his resignation to the IOC; Vikelas refused to accept it.

Vikelas deserves recognition for his role in organizing these Games. Except for a brief absence, in which he returned to Paris to bury his wife after her death, Vikelas was the instrumental figure throughout the planning of the 1896 Olympic Games. The only controversy encountered during Vikelas’ tenure as IOC president was a disagreement with Coubertin in regard to future Olympic Games. The Greeks wished to hold all future Olympic Games in Athens and Vikelas supported this claim, but Coubertin insisted that the Games become international in scope. A compromise was offered by Vikelas in which he offered interim Games to be held in Athens every two years between the period of the international Olympic Games. This did occur one time, in 1906, but Coubertin rejected all of Vikelas’ other proposals, and the two had heated debates on the matter, causing their relationship to become strained. In late 1896, Vikelas resigned as President of the IOC, although he remained active in the organization until his death, and he and Coubertin later resumed their friendship.

In his post-Olympic life, Vikelas returned to the cause of Greece, then locked in seemingly endless conflict with Turkey and the Balkan nations. He also remained active in the literary field, writing and editing several books, and he continued to be involved with activities which promoted education. In 1905, he served as the Greek delegate to the Olympic Congress in Brussels. Demetrios Vikelas, 1st President of the International Olympic Committee, died on 7 July 1908 in Athens.

Organization roles

Role Organization Tenure NOC As
President International Olympic Committee 1894—1896 GRE Demetrios Vikelas
Member International Olympic Committee 1894—1897 GRE Demetrios Vikelas