French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) was the founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, was born to a wealthy family in Paris on New Year's Day of 1863. He was raised with the notion that the French people had been humiliated by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War. Coubertin believed this defeat came about because the French were weak, not educated to deal with current life, and untrained in physical sports. The French educational system emphasized the life of the mind exclusively, and many people believed that physical activity would take energy away from mental growth. Coubertin felt this was an unbalanced approach, and that excessive intellectualism had led to the defeat of his country.
As the member of a wealthy family, Coubertin did not face the pressure of having to make a living as a young man. He rode horses, rowed, boxed, fenced, and circulated in high Parisian society. Despite his easy life, (or because of it), he was haunted by the need to create some meaning, to have some greater purpose than merely chatting with other aristocrats or attending parties.
During his early teens, Coubertin had read a great deal of English "schoolboy" novels, in which the heroes were rugged, vigorous youths who excelled in sports and were admired by all. As J. A. Lucas noted in Olympism "Baron Pierre de Coubertin was convinced that the sports-centered English public school system of the late 19th century was the rock upon which the vast and majestic British empire rested." He was fascinated by the image of such hardy people. In 1883, against his parents' wishes, Coubertin traveled to England to visit such schools and to learn about the British attitude toward sports and physical conditioning. It would be the first of twelve such visits, during which he would develop his lifelong philosophy on physical education.
Coubetin also traveled to the United States, studied physical education there, and wrote and spoke to American, British, and French audiences about his interests. He was a prolific writer, producing over 20 books and hundreds of articles during his lifetime. As Richard D. Mandell wrote in The First Modern Olympics, most of his writing was dry and repetitive, and he had to use part of his vast fortune to pay for its publication. His works on the early Olympics have survived because of their historical interest.
Coubertin's grandiose plans for wholesale reform of the French educational system never came to pass; not did his desire to revitalize all of French culture. However, he will be remembered forever as the founder and organizer of the modern Olympic Games. The Games, originally celebrated in ancient Greece as part of ancient religious beliefs, had not been held for almost 1500 years.
As Mandell pointed out, Coubertin had little contact with athletes, but he was superb at convincing bureaucrats and wealthy supporters that the Olympics were a worthy cause. The fact that he was an energetic and optimistic member of the nobility made it hard for them to refuse. He organized banquets and assemblies at which he prodded them to take action. He presented his new Olympic Committee as a strong and growing organization worthy of their support. However, as Mandell noted, "His ' Comite international olympique'-confidently referred to at the front of brochures, listed at the top of letterheads, and accompanied by the five interlocking rings in the common colors representing those on all the national flags-was for many years the frailest of paper structures."
Coubertin became established as an expert on physical education. He began a campaign to convince French authorities that a program of physical education, more organized amateur athletic opportunities, and a reform of the educational system, were necessary, and that he should be placed in charge of such a program. Some bureaucrats were convinced, to the extent that they commissioned him to hold a "Congress for Physical Education in June 1889. Although he was empowered to charge admission to the congress, Coubertin distributed free tickets instead, and held exhibitions of horse riding, fencing, and track and field. He also arranged for a soccer game, rowing, tennis, and other events.
Surprisingly, Coubertin was attacked by many for holding this congress. His attackers felt that his methods were too British, and that he was turning his back on the French way. However, the criticism brought him a great deal of publicity. In the next few years, he continued to write, speak, and hold athletic events. In 1892, at a "jubilee" of the French Union of Athletic Sports Societies, according to Mandell, he made his first proposal for the institution of the modern Olympic Games: "I hope you will help us in the future as you have in the past to pursue this new project. What I mean is that, on a basis conforming to modern life, we reestablish a great and magnificent institution, the Olympic Games."
His proposal did not meet with much enthusiasm, since most of those present had no idea what he was talking about. The original Olympic Games were part of ancient Greek religious ritual, and athletes customarily competed without clothes. Was this what Coubertin meant? Coubertin himself was unsure what form these new games would take, or what countries would be involved, but he was undeterred by the lack of support. In 1894, he held an international congress of athletic associations.
Seventy-nine delegates from 12 countries attended. Coubertin had written on the invitations, "Congress for the Reestablishment of the Olympic Games," and planned the event to be as lavish and momentous as possible, so that those attending would believe they were now a part of history. The congress divided into two committees, one of which was to discuss the issue of amateur athletes versus professionals-a debate that continued throughout the twentieth century-and the other of which was to discuss the revival of the Olympics. Before the congress was over, this second committee had agreed on the basic structure of the games. They would take place every four years, just as the ancient Olympics had. They would be international in scope, and involve modern sports. They would be for adult athletes only. Athletes who made money from their sports would not be allowed to participate. Different nations would host the events, rather than being held in the same nation repeatedly. The committee also established the first International Olympic Committee (IOC), composed of members who would represent the Olympic Games to the leaders in their home countries. The committee agreed that the first modern Olympics would take place in Greece, the ancient home of the Games.
As Jeffrey Segrave and Donald Chu pointed out in Olympism, "The choice of Athens for the new world Games was unfortunate. Greece was in political and military turmoil, and utterly bankrupt." Coubertin, however, visited Athens and became convinced that the Greek people truly wanted to host the Games. Crown Prince Konstantine of Greece took the helm of the Games Committee, and Greek fundraisers came up with $100,000. A merchant, George Averoff, donated $300,000 more. The city was renovated and decorated, and the Games began on April 5, 1896. Segrave and Chu wrote, "The 33-year-old Baron saw a life-dream fulfilled. The years ahead were filled with crisis and a halting progress. On this day, however, he was radiant with joy."
Later Olympics, in Paris and St. Louis, were not as positive, as these events were nearly eclipsed by world's fairs; the IOC and Coubertin were nearly displaced. However, the Games of 1912, held in Stockholm, hewed more closely to Coubertin's ideals. Mandell wrote that these Games "were independent of any other distracting public festival and took place in facilities especially designed and built for the occasion." In addition, after these Games, Coubertin began to achieve recognition as the founder of the modern Olympic movement.
During World War I, Coubertin moved the headquarters of the IOC to Lausanne, Switzerland. He continued to promote his idea that the Games encourage peace and communication among nations through nonviolent competition in sports. He had volunteered to serve in the military, but instead, was assigned to oversee the physical education programs in French provincial schools. By this time, Coubertin had spent most of his formerly large fortune to promote the Games. What was left disappeared in the rampant inflation that took place during the war. Impoverished, he dismissed his servants and sold his family home. His sister-in-law was killed when the Germans bombed Paris, his two nephews were killed in combat, and his beloved son suffered severe sunstroke at the age of two, became catatonic, and never recovered. Coubertin's daughter, was mentally ill and required care. Coubertin's wife, in response to these tragedies, became compulsive and controlling, and refused to give any of her own money to support the family. Coubertin was penniless during the last years of his life, but his wife refused to give him any spending money.
After the 1924 Olympics in Paris, which were very successful, Coubertin retired from his post as president of the IOC. In his later years, he became isolated and bitter. However, the international tradition he created was now strong and full of life. He died in Geneva, Switzerland on September 2, 1937. After his death, one final Olympic ritual occurred. In his will, Coubertin left directions that his body should be buried in Lausanne, but his heart should be removed and buried in holy soil amid ruins on the site of the ancient Olympic Games. These wishes were honored.
An Encyclopedia Britannica article noted that "Coubertin's extraordinary energies, his taste for cultural symbolism, his social and personal connections, and his willingness to exhaust his fortune in pursuit of his ambitions were critical to launching the Olympic Movement."
Coubertin left influences on the Olympic Games that endure today. The vast pageantry, and the ceremonial and ritual opening and closing of the games, began with him. Because French people at the time were not interested in sport for sport's sake, and enjoyed elegant, artistic spectacles, he accompanied the events he organized with speeches, banquets, and solemn assemblies, often including displays of fireworks and torch-lit parades. He believed that sports should incorporate elements of theater and ritual in order to captivate the minds and hearts of participants and spectators.
Coubertin also contributed the paradoxical notion that the Olympics can intensify national pride and patriotism of individual nations, and at the same time, prevent conflict between nations because all the nations are involved together: that "the mixing of patriotism and competition will somehow further universal peace," as Mandell noted. He quoted Coubertin, who wrote in 1896, "The Olympic Games, with the ancient [Greeks], controlled athletics and promoted peace. Is it not visionary to look to them for similar benefactions in the future?"
Kanin, David B. A Political History of the Olympic Games, Westview Press, 1981.
Mandell, Richard D. The First Modern Olympics, University of California Press, 1976.
Olympism, edited by Jeffrey Segrave and Donald Chu, Human Kinetics, 1981.
"Coubertine, Pierre, Baron de," Britannica.com, http://www.britannica.com(January 5, 2001).