A Colossus, a Genius and an Icon: The Eiffel Tower and the Olympics

A Colossus, a Genius and an Icon: The Eiffel Tower and the Olympics
On Easter Monday, the 6th of April, 1896, seven years after the completion of the Eiffel Tower, Pierre de Coubertin realized his dream of resurrecting the Olympic Games, a legendary tradition that had disappeared for over 15 centuries. As a gesture of respect to the ancient games held long ago in Olympia to honor Zeus, the king of Greek gods, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, which had become the capital of the recently established Greek nation. Since then, France has hosted the Olympic Games five times. This year, the sixth will be held in Paris, against the dominant backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. For the opening ceremony, the different national teams will sail spectacularly down the River Seine to disembark opposite this quintessential symbol of French culture. As tourists scatter around the foot of the Herculean structure, heads tipped back to gaze up into its intricate framework, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s description of Caesar standing astride the world, “like a Colossus,” while ordinary men “walk under his huge legs and peep about.” Colossus of Rhodes, artist’s impression, 1880. Woodcut by Sidney Barclay, digitized via Google/Wikimedia Commons If anything reflected a culture, it was the Colossus of Rhodes. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it was constructed from iron and bronze, and was dedicated to the sun-god Helios, the patron god of Rhodes. It was honored by the Panhellenic games, of which the ancient Olympics was one of four sporting events held at different venues in Ancient Greece.  It is believed that centuries after it was destroyed in an earthquake, the metal used in its construction was melted down and used in coins, foreshadowing the use of discarded metal from France’s very own Wonder of the Modern World being used in the 2024 Paris Olympic medals. One of the many myths attached to the Colossus is that it held a torch, much like the Statue of Liberty, whose iron framework happened to be designed and engineered by Gustave Eiffel. The Statue, sometimes known as the Modern Colossus, and the Tower, raise their creator to mythical proportions. And this year will see the Eiffel Tower, representing everything French, standing astride the Olympic Games. The Olympics medals contain a piece of original metal from the Eiffel Tower. © Paris 2024. The constructions of France’s own Colossus, Gustave Eiffel, truly do span the world. A legend of his time, more of a David than a Goliath, standing at just over 165 cm, he was one of the most important people of the 19th and 20th centuries. Born in Dijon on December 15th, 1832 as Alexander Gustave Bonickhausen, he did not adopt the name Eiffel until 1880, in honor of the Eiffel mountains, the area from which his family came. By this time, like the mountains of his ancestors, he was reaching for the stars. As a tribute to the accomplishments of this mental giant, pieces of metal from the Eiffel Tower, which were removed and stored during renovation, have been incorporated into the Olympic medals. An Eiffel Tower image is featured in the scene on the reverse side. By integrating this historic iron into the medals, Paris 2024 celebrates athletic excellence and pays homage to a piece of French heritage. The medals honor both Gustave Eiffel and another icon of the age, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French genius of sport, founder of the modern Olympic games. 

Lead photo credit : The park fountains and Eiffel Tower seen from the Place du Trocadéro. Photo credit: Nick Loyless / Wikimedia commons

More in 2024 Olympics, Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, Olympics, Paris Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, sport

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I have spent my life traveling the world with my husband and family, teaching English in places as diverse as Wales, Zambia, Iran, Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa and Ukraine, meeting many wonderful people along the way. I love words which means I read a lot and talk too much. My earlier studies in Literature, Classics and Art History have at last found an outlet in my writing. I now live with my husband in the beautiful Creuse countryside where we are regularly visited by our children, grandchildren and friends.