Numerous attempts at revival of the Olympic Games occurred prior to the successful efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Perhaps the most significant of these were the Zappas Olympic Games. They are today usually called by this name, although in the 19th century, the Greeks termed them “Olympic Games for Greece.” The Zappas Olympic Games were conducted four times, in 1859, 1870, 1875, and 1889. They were held in Athens. The Games were the brainchild of Panagiotis Soutsos, but were sponsored by Evangelos Zappas, a wealthy Greek who then lived in Romania.
In 1856, he wrote to King Otto and offered to fund the entire Olympic revival himself. In early November 1859, a series of three festivals was conducted. The first was a series of agri-industrial contests. One week later, chariot races were conducted for professionals and laymen (the word “amateur” in reference to sports had not yet been invented). On 15 November 1859, the athletic Games were conducted at Plateia Loudovikou, a city square on the edge of town. There were sprint races, a 1,500 metre race, two javelin throws (one for distance, the other for accuracy), and two discus throws (one for distance and one for accuracy). The winner of the 1,500 metres was Petros Velissariou, who came from Smyrna, and won a first prize of 280 drachmas, the largest prize of the first Zappas Olympics, because William Penny Brookes’ Much Wenlock prize of £10 was included.
In 1870, the Zappas Olympics were moved to the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in the center of Athens. The stadium had been restored at Zappas’ expense, although he had died in 1865. These Games, held on 15 November 1870, were the most successful of the Zappas Olympics, with the newspapers calling them a resounding success. Over 30,000 spectators attended these Games. The 1875 Zappas Olympics are termed by classics scholar David Young a “disaster.” In 1870, the winner of the 400 metres had been Evangelis Skordaras, a butcher, and the wrestling winner was Kardamylakes, a manual laborer. Several of Athens’ elite then suggested that the Games be restricted only to athletes from the upper class and that the general public be banned, which led to the disaster.
This early attempt at elitism and using the early British concepts of amateurism proved highly detrimental to the Zappas Olympics. Only 24 athletes took part in 1875, with a small crowd that left large sections of the stadium empty. The 1889 Zappas Olympics took place in May in a small gym, rather than in the stadium, and were not well organized. In fact, they were scheduled, begun, canceled, and then conducted again a few days later. Again, only a few privileged, upper-class athletes competed, and the crowd was much smaller.
In 1891 and 1893, Panhellenic Gymnastic Society Games were contested, which were not organized by the Zappas Committee. Interestingly, several Greek athletes who competed in 1893 also competed at the 1896 Olympics. The Zappas Olympic Games rank with the Much Wenlock Olympian Games as the most significant attempts to revive the Ancient Olympic idea. They probably surpass the Much Wenlock Games because they were national sporting contests. Though he later denied any knowledge of them, Coubertin was keenly aware of the efforts of the Zappas Committee to hold Olympic Games, having been told of them by Demetrios Vikelas, who would later be the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) president. The Games themselves were fairly successful in 1859, and especially in 1870, but were “ruined” by elitism, anti-athleticism, bigotry, and attempts to apply an amateur-type code imposed on the athletes. The Zappas Olympics never had the international flavor that Coubertin would instill in the modern Olympic Games, but they were the closest attempt yet to a true Olympic revival.