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Coubertin: Father of the Modern Olympics

The story of the revival of the Olympic games is very much the story of Pierre de Coubertin, the undisputed father of the modern Olympics. Coubertin almost single-handedly revived the Olympic games and created the Olympic Movement, and spent most of his life nurturing it to the place of international prominence it now holds.

Pierre de Coubertin portrait

Above: Pierre de Coubertin
as a young man

A Father Is Born
Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, was born on January 1, 1863. Young Pierre, whose father was an artist and mother a musician, was raised in cultivated and aristocratic surroundings. Growing up, Coubertin was intensely interested in literature, education, and sociology. At the tender age of 17, his deep interest in education became sharply focused on the problem of wide­spread apathy still crippling his fellow Frenchmen, a decade after their demoralizing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. He concluded that education—the development of the individual—was the key to the future of society.

Coubertin's Travels
Thus, between the ages of 17 and 24 (1880-87), Coubertin traveled to England and America to study education. In the course of his visits, he was impressed by the high standard of physical and intellectual education. He strongly approved of the curriculum at Rugby, where competitive games and sport were compulsory.

His travels led him to the conclusion that athletic exercise was of great value in the intellectual development and upbringing of young people. He observed, "competing for a place on an athletic team developed qualities of character, whereas the attitude in French schools was that games destroyed study."

Later in his life, Coubertin wrote, "Peace…could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffeting and battering, the stress and strain of fierce competition."

A Developing Ideal
Pierre de Coubertin was beginning to develop a philosophy of education that was unknown in France. In the 1880s, Coubertin launched into a series of articles and speeches extolling the virtues of English education and emphasizing its concentration on the sporting disciplines. In 1887, he founded the Union of French Athletic Sports Clubs (Union des Sports Athletiques).

Coubertin practiced what he preached—he was a very active sportsman in boxing, fencing, horse riding, and rowing. He was convinced that sport was the springboard for moral energy and he defended his idea with rare tenacity.

A New Career
Coubertin's travels through Europe and America had shown him that although interest in athletics was gaining ground in many countries, there was still complete indifference on the subject in France. He was convinced that he should devote his entire time and energy to securing a reform in his own country. By the age of 24, he decided on the aim of his life: he would help bring back the noble spirit of France by reforming its old-fashioned and unimaginative education system.

For a first project, he attempted to bring the British oarsmen to France or send the French oarsmen to compete at Henley. This experience taught him that the "British and French conceptions of amateurism were not the same." This gave him the idea of bringing together educators, diplomats, and sports leader for the purpose of developing a universal understanding of amateurism so that the athletes of all nations might meet on an equal basis.

The Ancient Athletic Ideal
Coubertin realized that to capture the attention of disinterested persons he would have to originate something spectacular. He found his answer when he visited the Much Wenlock "Olympic Games" in Shropshire, England at the age of 27. Here was an institution—the ancient Olympic games—that embodied all the ideals he was working so hard to promote! The reports from the excavations at Olympia fired his imagination even more. The founder of the Much Wenlock games, a Dr. William Penny Brookes, was an enormous help and encouragement to the young Frenchman. Coubertin began to dream of a revival of the Olympic games.

Two years later at a meeting of the Union des Sports Athletiques in Paris (the organization he had founded five years earlier), Coubertin proposed the idea of reviving the Olympic games for the first time. Although the idea was met with apathy and derision, Coubertin was not deterred. He decided that more drama was needed next time to augment his powers of persuasion.

The Paris Congress at Sorbonne
To this end, thirty-one-year-old Coubertin organized an international congress of sportsmen and physical education enthusiasts in 1894. The "International Congress on Amateurism" was attended by 79 delegates representing 49 organizations from nine countries. By the end of the Paris Congress, Coubertin had formed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and plans were in place to stage the first modern Olympic games in Athens, Greece in 1896.

Coubertin's Report

The first revived Olympics of the modern era were a truly historic and momentous event, preceded by many years of struggle and preparation. During the 10 days of the first revived Olympics, Coubertin made notes of his thoughts and feelings. After the Games, this essay was published in "The Official Report of the Games of the First Olympiad." It is truly fascinating to hear, in his own words, about the gradual development of the Olympic Movement and the revival of the Olympic games.

THE OLYMPIC GAMES: ATHENS 1896 by Pierre De Coubertin.

A Dream Fulfilled
Coubertin served as Secretary General of the IOC for the two years of preparation, then took the mantle of chairman in time for the Athens games in 1896, a position he held for the next 29 years. Over the course of the years, Coubertin single-handed dealt with all the administrative and financial duties. He articulated the IOC ideology of "neo-Olympism," wrote the Olympic Charter and Protocol and the athlete's oath, and shaped the very form and character of the Olympic games in innumerable ways. He guided the young organization through the first rocky years, when the Olympic Movement was struggling to gain momentum. After the highly successful 1924 Olympics in Paris, Coubertin retired from the IOC presidency. The Olympics were firmly established, and could now survive without his continued help.

Pierre de Coubertin portrait

Above: Pierre de Coubertin
later in life

After the Olympics
At the age of 69, in 1931, he published his Olympic Memoirs in which he emphasized the intellectual and philosophical nature of his enterprise and his wish to "place the role of the IOC, right from the start, very much above that of a simple sports association." In 1928 he published a brochure entitled "La cure d'aviron" (Health through Rowing), and at 72 was still an active oarsman.

Pierre de Coubertin died suddenly of a heart attack in a park in Geneva at age 74. In accordance with his last wishes, he was buried in Lausanne and his heart was placed inside a stele erected to his memory at Olympia.

Coubertin's Legacy
Why was Coubertin interested in reviving the Olympic games? And why did he reestablish some elements of the ancient practices and ignore others? To understand the actions of this astonishing man, one must understand his passion: education. His life's aim was to enable France to rise to glory once more after its defeat in the war in 1870 by reforming its education system. For him, education was the key to the future of his society. In his effort to help his country, Coubertin started a movement whose legacy has touched the whole world.

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