Philip Barker ©ITG

Today the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the most powerful job in sport. But 125 years ago when Dimitrios Vikelas of Greece was elected as the first President of what was then known as the International Committee for the Olympic Games, the post did not carry anything like the same influence.

Vikelas had been chosen to lead the Committee, partly because Greece was the birthplace of the ancient Olympics Games and because Athens was to host the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The problems in preparation proved to be such that at one stage, Vikelas was moved to write, ‘"What a task you make me carry out. I understand why Presidents resign"’. He stuck to his task, however, and Tthat they were a success owes much to his efforts.

Vikelas was born on this very day in 1835. It was a world of no electronic communications and where very few people travelled widely, Vikelas was one who did. As the son of a merchant, his family were often on the move.

He later wrote of "the streak of looking for adventure" and spent time in Russia, Turkey and travelled to Scandinavia and a dozen European countries. Even so, he would have been amazed by the modern day travels of IOC Presidents across all continents..

Vikelas was a remarkable scholar and a skilled linguist who learnt French, English Italian and German. He was still at school when he translated the French classical poet Jean Racine’s work Esther into Greek.

He moved to London when still a teenager. The gifted boy developed into a man of letters. He was later responsible for translating Shakespeare, Milton and even Hans Christian Anderson into Greek. He also wrote Loukis Laras, a novel with a historical basis which was widely translated into other languages.

In his early thirties, Vikelas moved to Paris where he joined a society for the encouragement of Greek Studies in France.

What he did not have was a sporting pedigree, although he talked of "an inclination to bodily exercise" during his school years. "Have mind and body well," he said.

By the early 1890s, Vikelas was living at Rue de Babylon in Paris. It was in this city that an international Congress on Sport was planned by French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin who hoped to revive the Olympic Games of antiquity in a modern setting.

Dimitrios Vikelas, the first President of the International Olympic Committee, was born on this day in 1835 ©Wikipedia
Dimitrios Vikelas, the first President of the International Olympic Committee, was born on this day in 1835 ©Wikipedia

Coubertin cast his invitations far and wide. He wrote to the President of the Panhellenic Gymnastic Society Ioannis Fokianos. This was an organisation which enjoyed excellent contacts with the Hellenic royal family. "’it would be extremely pleasant if your society were to be represented," Coubertin told him.

Fokianos was unable to attend in person, but he responded that, "Since we should be very sorry not to take part in the Congress, we have already asked one of our members best fitted to do so."

Their choice fell upon Vikelas, conveniently living in Paris. He recalled receiving the letter "asking me to represent it at the International Athletic Congress. It was an official documents accompanied by letters of friends of mine, members of the society requesting that I say yes. My first impulse was to say no. What did I have to do with athletics?"

Eventually for fear of letting his friends down, he agreed to take on what he described as "this unfamiliar role".

Coubertin had ensured that the Congress would be a gathering of some splendour. It was to be held at the Sorbonne. For the occasion Gabriel Faure had set to music a newly discovered poem which was a hymn to Apollo. Coubertin felt this lent "a spirit of Hellenism" ’to the proceedings. He described Vikelas as a man "who shared my hopes and fears".

The delegates elected a man to lead them. "’Imagine my surprise when many of those present proposed my name as President," Vikelas wrote later. In the early days it had been decided that the President would always come from the nation which provided the host city.

Ioannis Chrysafis, coach of the Greek gymnasts in 1896 insisted it "was only natural that he should be elected since he was held in such general esteem".

Coubertin, for his part, became general secretary of the organisation.

Vikelas had written to Fokianos in Athens, "I am inclined when the time comes to include the name of Athens in the list of capital cities in which the Olympic Games are to be held."

The restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 helped gain support for the event in Greece after many had been opposed to the plan ©ITG
The restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 helped gain support for the event in Greece after many had been opposed to the plan ©ITG

Although other cities were considered and the initial date proposed was 1900, eventually agreement was reached that the first Games should take place in 1896. Scholars still debate exactly how the final choice of was made and some had even suggested there may have been some prior secret agreement with the Greek Royal family.

"After consulting with Mr Vikelas about the resources which the Greek capital might present, we resolved he and I to propose it as the first site," Coubertin said later.

When the delegates met in full session, it was Vikelas who rose to speak.

"I claimed Greece’s right with the regard to the re-establishment of a Greek institution," he said. "As Victor Hugo, put it, the whole civilized world has a common grandmother in ancient Greece but we have her as a mother."

Vikelas promised, "We do not have the means to hold splendid celebrations, but the warmth of our welcome will make up for our many deficiencies.’"

One French delegate, Rene Raoul Duval had reservations that "Athens is a bit outside the centre of Europe, especially for the first Games." But the die was cast.

Vikelas himself spoke of "a new bond between Greece and Europe".

Before the delegates left Paris, they also considered what was described in French as the "qualification morale" of competitors.

The minutes of that first meeting record that President Vikelas "called attention of the Commission to the fact that in the ancient Olympic Games, there were 24 competitions and all were restricted to young men".

All the competitors at the 1896 Olympic Games were men.

All the competitors at Athens 1896 were men after Dimitrios Vikelas drew attention to the fact that this was how it was during the anicent Olympic Games ©Getty Images
All the competitors at Athens 1896 were men after Dimitrios Vikelas drew attention to the fact that this was how it was during the anicent Olympic Games ©Getty Images

When Vikelas travelled to Athens he found great enthusiasm but he had a difficult relationship with the Greek Prime Minister Charilous Trikoupis, who was concerned about the cost and, therefore, opposed the idea .

Vikelas was now forced to return to Paris. His wife Calliope had mental health problems and was now very seriously ill. He returned to Paris to be with her. There was time for a meeting with Coubertin. Vikelas then raced to his wife’s side and Coubertin headed to Athens clasping a letter of introduction from Vikelas.

Coubertin had meetings with some of the key personalities in Athens but, as he made his way back to Paris,news came through that the Organising Committee had dissolved.

Before the year was out, Calliope had died and Vikelas returned to Athens and set about encouraging support for the Olympic Games. There was just over a year until they were due to be held. He met Crown Prince Constantine and was able to announce his backing for the venture.

Vikelas set about his work with great energy and told the Athenians, "The Games will have great impact on the future of the Greek nation. Foreigners will find the Greeks much better people than they thought them. Secondly, the Games will assist the spread of physical exercise and mental elevation in our country."

There was support from the press. "Athens will enjoy the privilege of welcoming visitors to the international Games," said the Athenian newspaper Asty.

Gradually the tide turned and donations came in to support the organisation of the Games. The restoration of the main Panathinaiko Stadium itself was bankrolled by business tycoon Georgios Averoff.

Vikelas was also responsible for the oldest Olympic symbol. He suggested that the poet Kostis Palamis be asked to write the words for an Olympic hymn to be composed by Spiros Samaras, a celebrated musician from Corfu.

When it was played at the Games. the King himself demanded an encore.

More importantly, he recruited Charles Perry, the groundsman of the London Athletic Club to lay the track.

A bust of Dimitrios Vikelas sits in the Hellenic Olympic Committee which is located in a road named after him ©ITG
A bust of Dimitrios Vikelas sits in the Hellenic Olympic Committee which is located in a road named after him ©ITG

A dozen nations took part in the Games. The majority were from Europe but there were also American and Australian competitors.

When the Games were over there was a strong desire to keep them on Greek soil, although Coubertin was keen to see them move from one city to another.

Vikelas went half-way. He proposed an international Olympic Games to be held in Athens in the mid-years between every Olympiad.

In fact, these took place only once in 1906. Some call them the Interim or Intercalated Games but many campaign for them to be recognised as part of the official Olympic cycle. So far the IOC have not agreed.

Vikelas had been in charge of the Committee for only three years but his tenure was now at end, the shortest of any President. He was succeeded by Coubertin because Paris were the next hosts in 1900.

Cosmopolitan though he was, Vikelas would surely have been amazed by the expansion of the Olympic Movement.

When Vikelas died in 1908, Coubertin paid tribute to "one of the most noble figures of contemporary Hellenism. Nobody ever had a warmer heart, or more generous intentions or truer dedication."

His name is remembered in Athens in a road opposite the Olympic Park where so much of the 2004 Games took place. Dimitrios Vikelas Avenue is where the Hellenic Olympic Committee now have their headquarters. His bust sits proudly alongside that of Coubertin in the entrance to the building.

The International Society of Olympic Historians have also named their annual award in honour of the first IOC President.