Citius, Altius, Fortius – The Bents at the Olympics, 1896.

Poster for the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in April 1896 (Wikipedia).

Our last post was a tennis party but now it’s the Olympics – not the tearful affair that is Tokyo today (July 2021), but a much happier time, 6th – 15th April 1896, in Athens, Greece, and the first Games staged in the modern era – for there were to be no tiddlywinks, table-football, cat’s cradle, or wife carrying, no scooter racing, just classic events – athletics, cycling (the Bents were very keen), fencing, swimming, no-nonsense, that sort of wholesome thing. (Incidentally, tennis, a sport much enjoyed on the front lawns of Mabel Bent’s Wexford family home,  was also included, the Olympics’ singles being won, fittingly enough for us, by Dublin-born John Boland.)

And, needless to say, Theodore and Mabel can cry out – “We too! We were there!”

Constitution Square, in the era of the Bents, and their base in Athens. Their hotel was located here (private collection).

But let’s travel back a few weeks and months first. On 2nd December 1895, the Bents had set off to explore along the Sudanese coast, reaching as far as Suakin, and en route finding traces of old gold mines. By the end of March 1896 the couple are more than ready to return, leaving Alexandria to spend a few days in Athens – a city much loved by the pair since the early 1880s – before their journey back to their London townhouse near Marble Arch. In the Greek capital, by the way, Theodore is serendipitously recruited by the British School to supervise archaeological excavations at the ancient gymnasium (Kynosarges), before he and Mabel joined the crowds to go watch some events on the opening day of the above-mentioned first modern Olympics, 6th April 1896.

Here is Mabel’s diary for the end of March 1896, abridged somewhat:-

We remained in Cairo till Friday 26th [March]… and embarked on the Khedival steamer for the Pireas… The steamer was most crowded. Theodore had a cabin with 5 Greeks and I was one of 5, for 2 nights. We arrived at the Grand Hotel, Athens, Sunday 28th March. Iannis, the proprietor, Spiro, and the other waiters were warm in their welcome. The town was gayer than I have ever seen a town in Holy Week, as it was being all beflagged and illuminated for the Olympic Games, which were to take place on Easter Monday… We left on April 7th, via Corfu, having seen the first day of the Olympic Games.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, p. 325, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford)

Calendar of events at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896. The Bents attended Day 1, 6th April (Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia entry for the 1896 Games in Athens has an informative  calendar/table detailing all the events over the ten days they were staged. The chart shows us that Day 1 (April 6th) witnessed an exciting, if short, programme of athletics. There seems to have been a brief opening ceremony before George I, the Greek king, at 3 in the afternoon. Two first-place medals were awarded that Monday – the 1500 metres, won by Australian Edwin Flack, and the discus, an American winning, Robert Garrett. (They both received silver medals, the iconic gold not appearing until later Games apparently.)

An artist’s impression of the 100 m at the 1896 Games in Athens (Wikipedia).

Mabel, sadly, gives very little away in her account, she can’t have been much impressed and obviously knew no one there – not even the debonair Dubliner John Boland.  Perhaps in the crowds she could see little:  as well as the discus and the 1500 metres, there were also the heats of the 100, 400, and 800 metres to be savoured.

It seems most unlikely, therefore, that Mabel would have bothered much when the Games ultimately reached London for the first time in April 1908, Theodore having died in May 1897, a year after the events in  Athens referred to above – Citius, Altius, Fortius… indeed.