The Swedish Olympic Games Revivals of 1834, 1836 and 1843

Pierre de Coubertin was by no means the first person to revive the ancient Olympic Games. The idea was born much earlier in the Renaissance period, with its great interest in the classical world. Thus the first Cotswold ‘Olimpick Games’ were held annually in England from the early 17th century, apart from the Cromwellian period, and there were many similar events in other countries well before the first of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

An Olympic Association formed in southern Sweden arranged its Games at a racecourse in Ramlösa (Helsingborg) in 1834, with four series of events that included jumping over a horse and climbing a mast, as well as running various distances. They were all held on the same fine summer’s day in July.

The first event was a kind of gymnastics competition, in which there were seven competitors. It was won by a student from the old university of Lund. He was awarded not a laurel wreath, but a gold ring. This was followed by a race in which an apprentice blacksmith finished ahead of nineteen other runners, he being similarly rewarded, while the winner of the wrestling tournament, in which seven men took part, was given a silver jug.

Competitors in the final event had to climb a slippery pole some 10m (33 ft) high, with a silver cup going to the first person to bring it down from its perch at the top. As this favoured the first ones to try, lots were drawn to decide the order. However, the hearts of the crowd went out not to the winner, but to a young boy who later shinned up the soapy pole in great style, and they made a collection for him.

The prime mover behind the Helsingborg Games was Gustaf Johan Scharteau, a gymnastics and fencing master at Lund University. He originally intended to hold the Games every year, but waited until 1836 before trying again. The events were the same, with the addition of a writing competition in which those who entered had to compare the ancient Olympics with medieval tournaments and the usefulness of reviving combat sports.

Scharteau later turned to Stockholm, where similar Olympic events were scheduled for 1843 in the large open area known as Gärdet. Unfortunately, they proved to be a dismal failure, not because of a lack of public support, but the reverse. They were too popular! Far more people came than the officials expected or could cope with. Tickets had been sold, but there were thousands of gatecrashers and all ended in chaos. Moreover, the winner of the slippery mast-climbing event had only just received his prize when it was snatched from him by one of the spectators, whereupon a new event was added to the schedule, a great chase after the culprit, who turned out to be a 14-year-old boy.

Scharteau did not try to hold his Olympics again and sixty-nine years were to pass before Stockholm was the host city for Olympic Games once more. This time, however, they were on a much grander scale and enjoyed much greater success.