Pierre de Coubertin
1863 – 1937
French Educator and Sportsman
Sports Ranking 1st of 12
Overall Ranking 48th out of 500
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, reviver of the Olympic Games, on a French stamp issued in 1956.
The Greeks invented the Olympics, an event featuring various athletic competitions, around 1,000 B.C.E. and held it in Olympia, Greece every four years until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I ended it in 393 C.E. Pierre de Coubertin was primarily responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, after nearly 1,500 years of abeyance. The revived Olympics was the genesis of modern sports history and the greatest single factor behind the development of almost every one of the sports which form part of the current daily activity, interest, and entertainment of the peoples of the world.
Coubertin was the architect of the modern Olympics. He spent seven years (1887-1894) preparing public opinion in France, England, and the United States to support his plan for reviving the ancient Olympic Games. In 1894, at an international congress, his plan was accepted and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded.
He played a major role in the Olympic organization – serving as the IOC president from 1896-1925; writing the Olympic Charter and Protocol, the athletes’ oath, and the protocol for the opening and closing ceremonies. He took part in all decisions and devoted much of his energy to developing the spirit of the modern Olympics according to his ideals. For him, the athletes’ commitment to convey, through competition, “their concept of honor and impartiality regarding sport to the same degree as their physical training” provided an example of the kind of harmony that would transcend narrow nationalism and individual glory.
The Olympic symbols and ceremony protocols that de Coubertin created include: (1) The Olympic motto: Citius (swifter), altius (higher), fortius (stronger). Borrowed from a French cleric, the words refer to the struggle to outdo oneself, the desire and courage needed in competition, and the three basic activities in track and field: running, jumping, and throwing. (2) The Olympic emblem, which appears on the Olympic flag. There are five interlocking rings, which symbolize the five largest continents and the friendship that unites all people on Earth. Every nation in the world has at least one of the colors (blue, yellow, black, green, or red) of the Olympic flag on its own flag.
The Olympic motto on a 1963 stamp honoring De Coubertin’s birth anniversary. Issued by the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany).
Coubertin was raised with the notion that the French people had been humiliated by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War. He 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.
During his early teens Coubertin became convinced that the sports-centered English public school system of the late 19th century was the foundation upon which the vast and majestic British Empire rested. In 1883 (at age 20) Coubertin, against his parent’ wishes, 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. Coubertin also traveled to the United States, studied physical education here, and wrote and spoke to American, British, and French audiences about his interests.
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 (Coubertin is 26). Although he was allowed 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 author Richard Mandell of The First Modern Olympics, 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 (at age 31), he held an international congress of athletic associations.
Seventy-nine delegates from twelve countries attended. Coubertin wrote 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 discussed the issue of amateur athletes versus professional – a debate that continued throughout the twentieth century – and the other addressed the revival of the Olympics.
Before the congress was over, this second committee 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.
In 1988 the IOC made all professional athletes eligible for participation in the Olympic Games, allowing the Dream Team to dominate basketball in 1992 with Michael Jordan at the helm. Each sport has its own governing body that determines eligibility and rules of what is permissible in terms of an athlete's compensation. Today, only wrestling continues to prohibit participation in the Games to amateurs only, as boxing, one of the last bastions of amateur-only athletics now allows professional fighters to compete. It is interesting that wrestling remains the last amateur-only Olympic sport, which may perhaps be due to wrestling's vast history of functioning not only as a sport, but as a source of entertainment, particularly in 20th century traveling circuses.
Site of the First Modern Olympic Games
As Jeffrey Segrave and Donald Chu pointed out in their book, 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 thirty-three year old Baron saw a life-dream fulfilled. The years ahead were filled with crisis and halting progress. On this day, however, he was radiant with joy.”
Later Olympic Sites
Later Olympics, in Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904), 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. Coubertin’s daughter was mentally ill and required care. Coubertin was penniless during the last years of his life. After the 1924 Olympics in Paris, which were very successful, Coubertin retired from his position as president of the IOC.
In summary, 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’s vision has grown from the first modern Games of 1896 in which fourteen countries participated sending 241 athletes to take part in 42 events spanning 10 different sports to London, Great Britain in 2012 when 204 participating countries sent 10,960 athletes to take part in 302 events in 26 different sports. In addition, a winter Olympics was added in 1924 and has continued ever four years to the present. Finally, televised coverage has made the Olympics one of the most watched events on television.