Reading the Olympics 2: the Discobolos Redivivus (1896)

Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics
Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics

After the set up in the first part of this talk, here, surprise surprise, is a photograph of a discus thrower of the 1896 Olympics. It is the celebrity victory photo of Robert Garrett, who won the discus event on the evening of the 1st day of the first modern Olympics , 6 April 1896. An American athlete, Garrett – so goes the founding myth – had originally not intended to enter the competition at all. Indeed, the American contingent – all from Boston Athletics Association and Princeton University – had almost not been able to go. Senior students from their University – who would have been of the appropriate age – could not attend because they had finals to sit, and the expense of travelling to Greece was high. But Garrett’s father coughed up the funds and in March Princeton University Track Athletics Association sent 4 men, including Robert.

Now discus throwing  was not internationally practised at this time – it was pretty much a reinvented sport by the modern Greeks in imitation of the discobolos statue that Curtius had unearthed. It was a sport that they had designed so that they could win. But Professor Sloane of Princeton, a future IOC member and friend of the driving force behind the 1896 Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, suggested to Garrett that he enter the discus competition anyway. Not short of funds, Garrett commissioned a Princeton blacksmith to replicate the discus of the Discobolus – it weighed 9 kilos, and was just too heavy to throw in a discus-like way, so Garrett decided that he wouldn’t go ahead and enter.

But, so the story continues, Garrett picked up a  discarded discus used by Greek competitors that he found on the track the morning of 6 April – the very day of the first modern Olympic Games. It was much lighter than the discus he had had made back in Princeton, and there and then he decided to enter after all. Clearly, things were much simpler back then! The Games hadn’t become the highly mediated and orchestrated event it has today – Gale NewsVault for example gives only 145 mentions of the Olympics in its corpus of British newspapers throughout April and May 1896, many of them, as was usual for the time, duplicates of London newspaper commentary on the idea of the games themselves.

But to return to the story of Garrett.

Discus throwing was the last event of the day. After the King of Greece had formally opened the Olympic Games at 2.15pm, there had followed the 100m heats followed  by the long jump  and the first medal of the games – won by a Bostonian – and then there were the 800m heats. Now the sun was going down and the air was cooling. It was time for the discus. The Greeks, unsurprisingly, were considered elegant: they were being measured by Myron’s discobolos and in turn had used it as their measure. It was, as so often, a self-confirming evaluation. The English entrants were apparently nothing short of ludicrous. Nonetheless, in true heroic style, Garrett won the discus event after a couple of false starts. Later in the Games, he came second in the long jump to the Harvard athlete Ellery Clark, and went on to win the shot put. Garrett went on to become a very successful  investment banker – and collector of Egyptian manuscripts (which he donated to Princeton in 1942). He is the very type of ancient Greek athletic aristeia, perfect in body and mind, on the field and in society, who wins and offers a sacrifice (his manuscripts) to the organisation that nurtured him. He is indeed the discobolos redivivus, the Winkelmanian mortal embodiment of the divine, a wonderful extension into sport of the Paterian ideal of the artistic god descended to earth that is explored in Pater’s essay on Pico della Mirandola. Even more, Garrett is the perfect student, the product of University-as-Pygmalion+Inspiration. As a student he is a statue moulded and brought to life and inspired by his institution.

Yet pause for a moment – look at this photograph again. The US flag is the wrong way round. The American hero was left-handed!

Garrett did not therefore accord with the classical precedent of the right-handed discobolos. In ways quite typical of late nineteenth-century celebrity photography, trickery was involved to make the reality conform to an idea. The photograph was turned round so that in this case  the celebrity could be attributed more easily an illustrious classical ancestry. I don’t think we can say this is just an American trick, a US claim on the authority of the classical, a simple usurpation of the ancient Greek ideal or effacement of modern Greek claims to it. It’s not just national propaganda so much as conformity to media propriety. Of course the discobolus redivivus had to come to life from the ancient pattern, and therefore he had to be right handed. This was one of the rules of what was by now the dominant pop-classical discourse about aesthetics that classically derived sport incorporated. We can see its roots in Winkelmann and Pater extended by 1896 to become demotic and general, a notion spread far and wide by an ever more intense celebrity culture: by this stage it’s tacitly accepted that celebrities have something divine about them, as Barthes, 60 years later, was to explore when discussing Greta Garbo.

But clearly, Garrett’s photographer was not entirely in change of the technology: it was in change of him. Unlike so many better celebrity photographers (such as Queen Victoria’s as explored by John Plunkett), he forgot about the details, reminding us all too clearly that the divine is moulded from the same flesh and clay as us. 40 years later, another visual artist will not allow such slips, with more sinister results.

Published by

Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *