Friday 23 June 2023

Olympic Day: The First of Three Firsts

Note: As more research is undertaken and new information is made available, the information below may be subject to change. The information is as correct as possible on the date of publication. This article has been amended since it was first published.

In January 1948 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to create an annual day on which National Olympic Committees (NOCs) could celebrate the founding of the modern games and promote its ideals through sport. The date chosen for this special day was 23rd June, and today is its 75th anniversary.

This date was chosen because it was the last day of the Congrés International de Paris pour le Retablissment de Jeux Olympique, during which the IOC is recognised as being founded.

My continuing research into lgbt+ participation in the Olympic Games has brought to light three individuals who are pioneers in a particular aspect of the Olympic movement. Over the next three months I will feature them individually.

Today we look at the man who was the first lgbt+ member of an organising committee, a member of the committee which organised the very first modern Olympics in 1896. He was Prince George of Greece and Denmark (1869-1957).

HRH Prince George of Greece and Denmark

Last year I mentioned that the first lgbt+ member of an NOC was Prince Aribert von Anhalt (1864-1933). He was appointed to the Komitee für die Beteiligung Deutschlands an den Olympischen Spielen zu Athen (Committee for the Participation of Germany at the Olympic Games in Athens) on its formation on 13th December 1895. Prince George of Greece and Denmark predates Prince Aribert, because the Greek NOC was founded on 3rd February 1894, even before the IOC’s first congress mentioned above, and the NOC appointed Prince George to the organising committee of the Athens Olympics in January 1895.

But why is George a prince of both Greece and Denmark? Well, George’s father was a brother of the king of Denmark who was offered (and accepted) the throne of Greece by the Greek people. His descendants are still princes and princesses of Denmark as well as Greece. King Charles III’s father was born one of them before adopting his mother’s name. In fact, Prince George was one King Charles’s godparents, and represented the King of Greece at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. But I digress.

Although Prince George married and has two children he is widely believed to have been gay. There’s some circumstantial evidence for this in a couple of recent books about Sigmund Freud, to whom George’s wife turned for therapy.

Prince George and his brothers Crown Prince (later King) Constantine and Prince Nicholas were heavily involved in the organisation of the Athens Olympics. Constantine was President of the organising committee, and when other duties prevented him from attending, Prince George deputised for him. George was appointed President of the Sub-Committee for National Sports, which included sailing and rowing. Unfortunately, bad weather and a mix-up over the supply of proper boats saw the sailing abandoned. George was also appointed an umpire and final arbitrator in the swimming events, and as chairman of the judges for the weightlifting events.

The one-hand weightlifting contest provided Team GB with its first ever Olympic champion, Launceston Elliott. But the weightlifting events provided an incident that has gone down in Olympic history, and it involved Prince George. The incident could have come straight out of a comedy film, or at the very least be considered apocryphal, if it wasn’t recorded in the official report of the games that was published in 1897. Here is what the report says:

Apart from his duties as a sports official Prince George also performed several civic duties as well as a member of the royal family. He took part in official receptions, visited sports events he was not directly involved with, and supported his father, the king, in royal engagements associated with the games.

In 1906 Athens hosted what is now referred to as the Intercalated Olympics. The Greek Olympic Committee had the idea of holding an Olympic games in between the main 4th-yearly events, but various circumstances led to this being the only one ever held. They were regarded as full Olympic Games until 1948 when the IOC decided to remove it, its results, and medals from their records. However, most Olympic historians, myself included, still give the Intercalated games full Olympic status.

What makes the IOC’s decision even more ridiculous is that the 1904 Intercalated Olympics were the first ones we would recognise as an Olympic Games today. They introduced the opening and closing ceremonies, an athlete’s parade, flag-raising for the medallists, an Olympic village, and athletes registered under their National Olympic Committee rather than athletics club. It was also the first Olympics to be concentrated within a short time period and not spread out over several months.

Prince George was, again, appointed as President of the judges and games referee, and he and his brother Nicholas were heavily involved in the organisation of the sports. He also fulfilled his royal responsibilities at receptions for the athletes.

The prince’s athletic abilities gained more recognition at these games. During the marathon Prince George awaited at the stadium entrance for the arrival of the first runner. That runner was Canadian Billy Sherring. As he entered the stadium Prince George ran along side him, applauding and encouraging him, on the final lap around the stadium. It should be pointed out that Prince George was in full military uniform and the lap was 400 metres in distance.

Prince George was often referred to as the Prince of Crete. He became involved in the political conflict on Crete, an island that remained in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire after Greece gained its independence from it in 1830. After several Greek-Cretan insurrections the Ottoman Empire declared war on Greece in 1897. The major European powers sent a multinational force to defend Greece.

This force set Crete up as an autonomous state and in 1898 appointed Prince George of Greece and Denmark as High Commissioner of the Great Powers, the de facto head of state. The Ottomans were finally expelled from the island later that year. Prince George remained in office until 1908 when the Cretan assembly declared unilateral union with the Greek crown. Crete was fully incorporated into Greece in 1912. The full history of Crete between 1897 and 1912 is a lot more complicated than this and cannot be recounted with enough justice here.

There is still so much to tell about Prince George – how he saved his cousin, the future Tsar Nicholas II, from being assassinated in Japan, and how he lived with his bachelor uncle for most of his life despite never divorcing from his wife. But all that can wait for another time. On this Olympic Day, we only needed to look at his Olympic involvement.

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