Eben Alexander and the Revival of the Modern Olympic Games

Crowds entering the Olympic stadium, Athens, Greece, April 8, 1896. Eben Alexander Papers, Southern Historical Collection.

A few days ago we published a blog post looking at the history of UNC athletes in the summer Olympics, beginning with Harry Williamson’s participation in the 1936 summer games. It turns out the Carolina connection to the Olympics goes back even further than that.

When the Olympic games were revived and the first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, in 1896, UNC faculty member Eben Alexander was there. Alexander was a professor of Greek at Carolina and served as the United States ambassador to Greece and Serbia from 1893-1897.

Eben Alexander, 1907 (Yackety Yack)
Eben Alexander, 1907 (Yackety Yack)

When Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator who is credited with creating the modern Olympic movement, began to talk about reviving the Olympic games, he found an eager ally in Alexander, who was one of the first contributors to the committee assembled for the Olympics. Alexander spread news about the games back in the United States and helped to recruit a large contingent of athletes to come to the Athens for the games. The presence of American athletes and fans ensured that the games would not be dominated by Greece and other European countries and helped to build support for the Olympics as a truly international competition.

There is a small collection of Alexander’s papers in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library. These include a few letters related to the first Olympics and the photo shown above.

Alexander’s influence in convincing American athletes to come to Greece is evident in a letter from Princeton University listing the athletes they were sending to the games (most of the first American Olympians were college track stars from Ivy League schools). Even more interesting is a transcript of a letter from Alexander’s wife, Marion Howard-Smith Alexander, describing the scene at the Olympic stadium during the games.

On April 14, 1896, Marion Howard-Smith Alexander wrote a letter to her sister, Eleanor Howard-Smith, describing the scene in Athens at the first modern Olympic games. She wrote:

I must begin by telling that the stadium with the thousands of people & the beautiful views about it was a sight to remember for life. Many people will regret bitterly that when they hear from their friends how entirely successful & interesting the games have been. Our boys who have nearly swept the fields of honor each day, are great favorites with the Greeks. One fellow in particular when he went out on the streets would be followed by an admiring crowd shouting “NIKE” which means victor.

In 1897, following the election of William McKinley, Alexander left Greece and returned to teaching at Chapel Hill. He remained on the faculty until his death in 1910. In many obituaries, Alexander’s role in helping to revive the Olympic games was held up as one of the most significant achievements of his career.