Let the Games Begin

by Jim Reisler ’86JRN
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Prince Constantine of Greece, in his martial mustache and uniform, was easy to spot on the dusty terraces of Argos. The archaeologist approached with characteristic eagerness: he had a mission. It was April 1894.

The archaeologist was Charles Waldstein 1873CC, a classical scholar of astounding range. He had written books on psychology and sculpture, and even a study of John Ruskin. Born in New York in 1856, Waldstein went on from Columbia to earn a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg before beginning a career teaching classical archaeology at Cambridge University. It was there, in 1886, while also serving as director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, that he met the Baron de Coubertin, of France. The two men, fused by a passion for education and athletics, became friends.

In early 1894, Coubertin asked Waldstein for a favor. For several years, Coubertin had been promoting the creation of a new, international Olympic Games in the model of those staged in ancient Athens. But support had so far been lukewarm: Coubertin had scheduled an International Athletic Congress for Paris in June, but virtually no delegates had yet consented to attend. Coubertin asked Waldstein to intercede with the Greek royal family on his behalf. Waldstein, who had temporarily relocated to Athens to become the director of the American School of Classical Studies there, agreed to seek out the prince.

As Waldstein and his colleagues excavated the great temple at Argos, Prince Constantine and other members of the Greek royal family toured the site. Waldstein buttonholed the prince and described a plan for Greece to host a competition of the world’s best athletes on the site of the ancient games. By the time the royal family concluded its four-hour stay in Argos, the prince had promised to serve as an honorary member of the Olympic Congress.

Though Coubertin would earn rightful credit as the founder of the modern Olympic Games, it was Waldstein’s intervention in Argos that was the project’s turning point.

In the end, Waldstein, too, became an honorary member of the Olympic Congress. In Athens, at the inaugural 1896 games, he helped to organize the gymnastics event and refereed cycling and tennis. Ever the man of action, Waldstein was also a member of the US Olympic delegation, a distinction that guaranteed him a list of firsts: Columbia’s first Olympian, New York’s first Olympian, and America’s first Jewish Olympian.

He competed as a marksman, joining John and Sumner Paine, brothers from Boston who would become Olympic champions. Waldstein’s event was the 200-meter military rifle, at the shooting range at Kallithea. Forty-two shooters from seven countries competed in the event, but only the scores of the top twelve finishers were recorded, and Waldstein was not among them.

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