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At the Louvre, the Olympics Are More French Than You Might Think

“The flame is coming home,” the director of the Paris Olympics, Tony Estanguet, told a crowd of reporters and critics gathered in the Louvre’s interior sculpture garden on Tuesday. The sun streamed through the vaulted glass roof, lighting up a bronze sculpture of a discus thrower installed beneath a lapis blue arch emblazoned with “L’Olympisme” — “Olympism.”

Estanguet, a former Olympic champion, might have been describing the Games’s centennial return to France. After the Olympic flame makes its way from Athens to Paris, via a handful of French overseas territories, it will be installed in the Tuileries Garden just beyond the Louvre, whose grounds will also be part of the marathon route this summer. But the museum itself holds a special connection to the birth of the modern Olympics, a relationship that is explored in the exhibition “Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy,” running through Sept. 16.

The show brings together 120 artworks and artifacts that show how the quadrennial sporting events of 8th century B.C. Greece, devoted to the worship of Zeus, influenced the late-19th-century development of the modern Games. The first iteration of these new competitions took place in Athens in 1896, but Frenchmen and a French fascination with antiquity played a large role, and in 1900, the Games moved to Paris.

A wall of photographic portraits at the Louvre identifies six men, four of them French, who envisioned the revival. For the aristocratic Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, it was about sporting education; for his Greek counterpart, Demetrius Vikelas, it was a mix of business and history. This slightly dry introductory display gives way to a series of rooms that focus on the art of the Olympics: a mix of antique veneration and turn-of-the-century innovation.

Greek vases, plates, and cups from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. illustrate the classical imagery, deeply rooted in mythology, that was associated with ancient Games. On the “Lambros Cup” (540-520 B.C.), nude runners — black figures on red clay — race around the ample vessel, their muscular legs frozen mid-stride. A cup from around 490 B.C. shows a discus thrower encircled by a decorative motif.

Many of these objects are from the Louvre’s collection, and it was one of its own curators, Edmond Pottier, who pioneered the study of ancient Greek pottery around the time that de Coubertin and his peers were seized with Olympic fervor. Pottier’s profile features on a giant 1934 bronze medallion that hangs above a copy of his “Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum” — a definitive catalog of Greek vases in collections around the world that began as an index of Louvre artifacts.

Herakles, the divine warrior credited with founding the ancient Olympics, also looms large in the exhibition as an embodiment of preternatural strength. A calyx krater (a tall bowl for mixing water and wine) from 515-10 B.C. shows Herakles, a son of Zeus, fighting the giant Antaois. On the black vessel, Herakles is a taut nude figure in red clay against black, wrestling his burly opponent into submission. Elsewhere, he is a portly infant struggling against a snake that coils above him, in a statue admired by Émile Gilliéron, the official artist of the inaugural modern Games.

Gilliéron’s drawings for Olympic brochures, commemorative albums and posters hang alongside his sketches and studies for medallions, plaques and trophies. The artist also produced images of wrestlers, discus throwers, torch bearers and weight lifters for special-edition stamps whose colored sheets are on display in vitrines, as well as blown up on the gallery walls behind the statues that inspired them. Unlike the ancient ceramics, however, these are 20th-century replicas made to aid study: What is new can seem old, and vice versa.

Amid these elegant but somewhat staid arrangements are hints at the more idiosyncratic aspects of the Olympic Games as reimagined by the French. A contact sheet produced by the photographer (and rival of Eadweard Muybridge) Étienne-Jules Marey shows how the technology of chronophotography, which captures frames of movement in quick succession, was used to reconstruct the movements of ancient Greek athletes, based on the still postures seen in relics. In Marey’s stills, a nude man spins around and around, disc in hand, gathering speed, until he flings it into the distance.

Nearby, Jean Rovéra’s 1924 film “The Olympic Games as They Were Practiced in Ancient Greece” stages the act of discus throwing as a slow-motion pantomime in which an artfully dressed modern-day Adonis theatrically lobs his disc with the elegance of a dancer. Another shot shows a still-life tableau of six spear throwers paused mid-movement, elapsing time from left to right, their arms shaking with effort as they hold their unmoving posture.

An attempt at including women in the history of the Games doesn’t really work, mostly because they were hardly permitted to compete in the 1896 Athens Olympics, or those that followed in Paris in 1900 and 1924, London in 1908, Stockholm in 1912 and onward. While other international sporting competitions evolved, the Olympics continued refusing full participation to women until 1928. (London 2012 was the first time every participating country sent women to the Games, and this summer in Paris there will be quotas to ensure an equal number of female and male participants.)

There was one video of women competing in the 1896 Games on display, but it was broken, so I don’t know what it showed: perhaps croquet or sailing, two of the sports available to female athletes. Elsewhere — a curatorial stretch — were some films of Isadora Duncan, the late-19th-century choreographer who admired neoclassical traditions, dancing in her garden. A few drawings and plates of Greek heroines hung in the same display — Nike the winged goddess flying, or sowing seeds over a stadium — but female allegories are not women.

An 1869 painting, “The Soldier of Marathon,” depicts the famous messenger who ran home — shedding all extraneous objects, including clothes and shoes, along the way — to announce the triumph of his compatriots over the invading Persians. As soon as he delivered the news, he dropped dead.

This legend inspired the French linguist and educator Michel Bréal to conceive of the 26.2-mile marathon race as the ultimate physical test and a cornerstone of the 1896 Games. In a darkened Louvre walkway filled with relics and replicas of gleaming trophies, “Bréal’s Silver Cup,” which he designed himself, is spotlit on a small plinth. It is a sparkling object, pure silver, but modest and slender. Reeds and flowers swirl around its base, just like the Marathon marshlands that foiled the Persian attack.

“Olympism” tells us much about the ancient history admired by the modern Frenchmen whose games return to Paris in July. During the ancient Games, it was decreed that all hostilities must cease for their duration. It is this sentiment, however utopian, that we still see in the Olympic emblem, with its five interlocking rings, designed by de Coubertin over a century ago. “These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to Olympism,” he wrote in 1913 in the Olympic Review. At the Louvre, you may be won over, too.

Olympism: Modern Invention, Ancient Legacy
Through Sept. 16 at the Louvre in Paris; louvre.fr.

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