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.

Tony Estanguet, the president of the Paris Olympics and Paralympics organizing committee, at the exhibition opening.Credit…Mohammed Badra/EPA, via Shutterstock

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 and 1904, 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.

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