The French connection: Paris flame to make first stop in Greece at heart of modern games' founder

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — Just outside the site of the ancient Olympic Games, hooting owls break the nighttime silence at a white marble monument containing what’s left of a singular Frenchman’s heart.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the driving force behind the modern Olympics, and as head of the International Olympic Committee oversaw the last Games to be held in Paris, exactly 100 years ago.

On Tuesday, the flame that will burn at this summer’s Olympics — the French capital’s third — is to be lit among the ruined temples and sports venues of Olympia in southern Greece.

And its first stop on the relay that culminates in the July 26 opening ceremony will be at this cypress-ringed memorial to Coubertin, where the torchbearer will light an altar in his honor.

That happens at every lighting ceremony, but this year it will have a special resonance, according to Spyros Capralos, head of the Greek national Olympic committee.

“We pay respect to the (monument) of Coubertin every time … the flame goes first there,” Capralos told The Associated Press. “And now, 2,800 years after the first Olympic Games, we are happy that the (Games) are returning to Paris, birthplace of Pierre de Coubertin.”

The French aristocrat’s efforts, inspired by the ancient games and his wish to invigorate a contemporary sports culture, led to the inaugural modern Games being staged in Athens in 1896.

The seat Coubertin used at the renovated ancient marble stadium in the Greek capital is still preserved, with his name carved on it.

Before he died in 1937 and was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland, Coubertin left special directions for his heart: It was to be removed and placed inside the monument erected in his honor ten years earlier just outside the ruins of ancient Olympia.

The future King Paul of Greece performed the ceremony in March 1938, following a blessing by black-robed Greek Orthodox priests. The grove is now part of the International Olympic Academy, an institute established to promote education on the history and principles of the modern Games.

Born in 1863, Coubertin was the second president of the IOC — after Greece’s Demetrios Vikelas — serving from 1896-1925. His tenure included the games held in Paris in 1900 and 1924.

On a personal level, his life was marred by family tragedy that might explain his single-minded dedication to the Olympics. His son suffered severe brain damage at a young age, and his daughter struggled with mental health issues throughout her life. Coubertin had no other children, and two close nephews were killed in World War I.

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