BARON PIERRE DE COUBERTIN, FATHER OF THE MODERN OLYMPICS | Sunday Observer

BARON PIERRE DE COUBERTIN, FATHER OF THE MODERN OLYMPICS

Pierre and Marie de Coubertin – Married for 42 years
Pierre and Marie de Coubertin – Married for 42 years

Olympism, as a panacea for promoting peace and harmony, as the instrument to inspire youth, as the means to define and describe the essence of competition, and as the method to discover the depth, dimensions and dedication of human endeavor and endurance, continues to be the core of philosophy preached by the educational theorist, historian and sports aficionado, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, when he launched the first Modern Olympic Games – Athens 1896.

More than a century (1896-2020) has rolled by, confirming the resilience and resonance of a great concept, the vibrancy of which continues to enthrall humanity.

The ‘Father of the Modern Olympic Games’, Baron Pierre de Coubertin who made it all possible and stamped that “for every man, woman and child, it (sport) offers an opportunity for self-improvement quite independent of profession or position in life. It is the apanage of all, equally and to the same degree, and nothing can replace it.” His enthusiastic endeavor not only revived a tradition dormant for nearly 1,500 years but also flourished it spearheading six editions - Paris 1900, St. Louis 1904, London 1908, Stockholm 1912, Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924, as the second President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1896 until 1925.

An Indescribable Spectacle

On June 23, 1894, some 79 delegates from 12 countries assembled at the Sorbonne in Paris and unanimously acclaimed Coubertin’s proposal to revive the Olympic Games. It was also decided to set up a body, the IOC to oversee the Games. Pierre de Coubertin knew that the younger generation represented the future hopes of mankind and that peace and civilization in the modern world depend on the careful upbringing of young people.

The long history confirms the success of de Coubertin, who with his belief in Hellenism and his boundless enthusiasm, set in motion the Olympic Movement. For de Coubertin, “Olympism was a philosophy of life, exalting and combining the body, will and mind, blending sport with culture and education, creating a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

Background and Origin

For countless centuries, the basic urge to run faster, jump higher and throw further than one’s contemporaries has ensured that sports, in its many guises, has evolved and flourished. The ancient Games at Olympia began simply with foot races, only occasionally complicated by dressing the runners in infantry armour. Following the footsteps of Aristotle and Pindar, Homer and Plato is a daunting task for any sports writer. These giants of classical philosophy and literature had authored some of the earliest texts, and today’s researchers must study their work to illumine the birth of Olympism.

We can trace the efforts made by mankind between the Bronze Age and the time of the miracle of Greek civilization to achieve a delicate but necessary balance: the happy co-ordination of body and mind, an ideal of co-operation which was extended to relationships among human beings and their communities. From competitors travelling, ad hoc, to Athens in 1896, simply turning up to compete at the first Modern Olympics, teams are now selected through rigorous government-bankrolled systems and science. Elite performance is a multi-million industry and governments seduce competitors from other nations with financial incentives to deliver elite medals.

The search for harmony, which opens the gate of paradise, leads to competition. It is here that all the creatures find their true position, that our existential fears discover firm ground, that our dreams can blossom and that our abilities can become the streams which water our sprouting ambitions and keep them fresh.

Victory in the Olympic Games proved that renown could be won by the very best at man’s disposal, and that success depends on the proper use of man’s capacities. For the athlete, what is important is “bliss in his own toil and honour”, as Pindar sang in his victory odes and it was the athlete’s city, his mother community, which reaped the glory.

Spectators were rewarded with the sight of strong, harmonious bodies which confirmed and fuelled their pride in the capacity of humans - a model of life in which human endeavour was recognized by a wreath of wild olive. It was in this background that Baron Pierre de Coubertin understood that “the practice of sport is a human right.”

Birth and Growth of the Founder

Charles Pierre de Fredy, better known as Baron de Coubertin was born in Paris on January 1, 1863 to an aristocratic family.  He was the fourth child in the family and was educated at Saint Ignatius College, a school run by the Jesuit Priests in Paris. His father, the well-known painter Charles Louis Baron de Coubertin and his highly-educated mother, Agathe Gabrielle de Criseney cultivated a love of classical education in him from a very early age.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and its unfortunate outcome for France stimulated his patriotism and his country’s defeat was humiliating for him.  His studies of the educational systems of Europe and America led him to the conclusion even before the age of 25 that athletic exercise was of great value in the intellectual development and upbringing of worlds young athletes. He graduated with a degree in law and public affairs from the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

The Catholic religion was apparently natural for Coubertin’s family. About the mother is said that she was “extremely pious.” Pierre had once said: “For me sport was a religion with religious sentiment.” He studied fine arts, science and law, and became involved in the theory of education and educational systems. He was known as a sport enthusiast and he was practicing boxing, fencing, rugby, rowing and horse riding.

He had a special attachment to pistol shooting and earned the title of French Champion seven times. At 32, Pierre de Coubertin married Marie Rothan (1861-1963), the daughter of a family friend in the year 1895. Their son Jacques (1896–1952) became ill after being in the sun too long when he was a little child. Their daughter Renee (1902–1968) remained a spinster. Pierre was the last in his lineage as his two nephews were killed in  World War I.

As an aristocrat, de Coubertin had a number of career paths from which to choose, including potentially prominent roles in the military or politics. But he chose instead to pursue a career as an intellectual, studying and later writing on a broad range of topics. In addition to numerous publications devoted to the technique and teaching of sport, he was the author of important historical, political and sociological studies totaling over 60,000 pages.

Influence on Sport Education

The concept of Olympic philosophy has always been strongly linked with education. De Coubertin was working towards an educational reform in collaboration with the French government. While he travelled to England, Germany, USA and Canada, he was visiting educational institutions and was inspired by sport education in England and the intercollegiate competitions in the USA and Canada. Time and again there is reference to his audience with Pope Pius X in 1905, who gave his “blessings” to the Olympiad and to de Coubertin’s conceptions.

De Coubertin viewed education as ‘the key to human happiness’ and was convinced that education should be the response ‘to the accelerated pace of change in the world’. He compared the educational systems of the various countries and determined that the purpose of his life should be the development of athletics.  He engaged in impassioned efforts to make it clear to all that athletics is essential for the general education of young people. His biographers suggest that de Coubertin, after years of study and research, developed his project for the Olympic Games as a response to political and social crises in his country.

De Coubertin was deeply concerned with the rapid industrialization and urbanization which resulted in poverty and conflict. His travels showed him that interest in athletics was gaining ground in many countries.

With his faith in the idea of Olympism now firmly founded, he launched a movement which was to embrace the whole of humanity. Romantic and realist at the same time, he took note of the technological developments of his time and the changes in the way of life brought about by the great inventions of the railway and telegraphy. The peoples of the world were coming closer together and so internationalism gradually made its way into his vision.

Birth of Modern Olympism

The revival of the Olympic Games was an educational project that blossomed in the mind of the determined de Coubertin. Several factors triggered his thoughts towards the idea of an international sports event. The poor physical condition of his generation appalled him. At the same time, the structured athletic programs in British schools impressed him. His fascination with the ancient Greek philosophy and lifestyle became another key towards the rebirth of the Olympic Games. 

Pierre de Coubertin cultivated in his mind for quite a number of years the idea of a Greek-styled Olympic Games.  It was not a fantasy; it was the logical termination of a great movement.  The 19th century saw the birth everywhere of the idea of physical exercise.  In the dawn of the century, the idea was born in Germany and Sweden and by the middle of the century it reached the United Kingdom and as the 1800s drew to a close, it flourished in the USA and France.

De Coubertin came to Athens and strove to gain acceptance for the IOC’s proposal.  Together with other foreign philanthropists and humanists, de Coubertin, the great fighter, managed to persuade Crown Prince Constantine and the royal family to help in implementing the plan.  The organizing and executive committees were set up and Athens began preparations so that everything should be ready for the opening ceremony in March 1896.

The Olympic Values

The establishment of the Olympic Movement in 1894 coincided with the increased number of a broad range of international organizations, sharing humanistic and universal values. These organizations were products of the late 19th century liberalism, which emphasized values of equality, fairness, justice, respect for persons, rationality, international understanding, peace, autonomy and excellence. When de Coubertin re-introduced the celebration of the Olympic Games, he considered it essential that they should have, for the first time, an international character.

The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organized, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents and reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. This world-wide scope of the Games, leaving aside their humanitarian, fraternal and peace promoting aspect, was the basic characteristic of the Olympic spirit revived in 1894.

Olympism has been referred to as a social philosophy which emphasizes the role of sport in world development, peaceful co-existence, international understanding and social and moral education. It has also been defined as “sport in the service of man everywhere”, “the pursuit of excellence in a chivalrous manner” and “a nebula of speeches, a sea of myths, ideologies and prejudices” by renowned scholars. As of today, the Olympic values are made of three Olympic values - Friendship, Respect and Excellence along with the four Paralympic values – Determination, Inspiration, Courage and Equality. The values underpin the Games as a set of universal principles, but they can be applied to education and our lives, as well as to sport itself.

The Olympic Charter

The Olympic Charter is the codification of the fundamental principles of Olympism, of which the first version would have been published around 1898 by Pierre de Coubertin and stands as the best testimony to his life. It has been the official Rule Book and constitutes the codification of the Fundamental Principles, Rules and By-Laws adopted by the IOC.

The Olympic Charter (2017) recognize that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organizations, enjoying the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied. The enjoyment of the rights and freedom set forth shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The Marathon

The creation of the Marathon itself was a master-stroke. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, following a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris, France in 1894, asked his historian and linguist friend, Micheal Breal to suggest an event for the first modern Olympics, in Athens two years later. Looking for something which would synthesise the history, tradition and legends of ancient Greece, he came up with a stroke of genius – the Marathon.

The Olympic Symbols

The Olympic Motto is the hendiatris, “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “Faster,  Higher, Stronger”. It was proposed by de Coubertin after borrowing it from an athletics enthusiast and Dominican priest, Rev. Fr. Henri Didon, whom de Coubertin followed closely. These three words encourage the athlete to give his or her best during competition and to view this effort as a victory in itself. The sense of the motto is that giving one’s best and striving for personal excellence is a worthwhile goal. It can apply equally to athletes and to each one of us.

The Olympic Anthem was first played at Athens 1896. Baron Pierre de Coubertin created the Official Olympic Flag containing five interconnected rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red on a white background in 1914. The five interconnected rings symbolize that “every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

The Olympic flag and oath-taking came into Olympic protocol at Antwerp 1920. The Amsterdam 1928 edition witnessed the Olympic Flame. The Los Angeles 1932 saw the Olympic Village while the Torch Relay was introduced in Berlin 1936.

Inspiration

In 2012 and 2013, I became a beneficiary of Pierre de Coubertin’s educational efforts and his values in the milieu of sport, having been selected to read the university degree, the International Executive Master in Sport Organisations Management (MEMOS), under a scholarship offered by the IOC and Olympic Solidarity. During my attachment to IOC Headquarters, I never failed to visit the tomb of and pay homage to the ‘Father of the Modern Olympic Games’.

The imposing photograph of the ‘Tomb of the Coubertin’ shared in this article was captured by my wife Carmel during one such visit in 2013. The impressive and colourful, ‘Participation Certificate of Athens 2004 Olympic Games’ adulates the famous quote of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. “The important thing in life is not victory but struggle. The essential is not to have won but to have fought well.” These words must reverberate in the minds of the world’s youth.

Conclusion

At the age of 62, Baron Pierre de Coubertin officially resigned from his position as the President of the IOC at the eighth Olympic Congress in Prague in 1925 and gracefully passed the baton to the next generation setting an example that in sports there is a time to enter and time to leave. In recognition of his colossal contributions, he was bestowed the title of Honorary President of the IOC until the end of his life. He strove constantly to consolidate the idea of Olympism and to aid the development of young people all over the world.

In his Memoires Olympiques (1931), de Coubertin interpreted Olympism as a “school of nobility and of moral purity as well as of endurance and physical energy, but only if honesty and sportsman-like unselfishness are as highly developed as the strength of muscles”. Thus, for de Coubertin “the goal of Olympism was to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” through athletic competition.

At 74, de Coubertin ceased to strive for the ideals of Olympism on September 2, 1937 as he strolled in the Langrage Park in Geneva. His heart rests in Olympia, the “most beautiful place in Athens” – in accordance with his last wishes in a marble monument at the International Olympic Academy - a place which belongs to him. Marie and Pierre de Coubertin now rest in peace at the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery in Lausanne, the home of IOC Headquarters since 1915. The earthly marathon of Pierre and Marie Coubertin as husband and wife lasted 42 eventful years. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the last of his lineage, whose fame would outlive him.

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, IOC and Sports; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits; his byline appears regularly since 1988)

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