THE OLYMPIC GAMES: ATHENS 1896
by PIERRE DE COUBERTIN
[The following piece, which was orginally published in the OFFICIAL REPORT OF THE GAMES OF THE FIRST OLYMPIAD, was written by Pierre de Coubertin while the Games were in progress (April 7–19, 1896). From his own words we can discover what Coubertin thought about the revival of the Olympics and what his aims and goals were. Although we have reprinted his report in its entirety, we have highlighted key segments. Eds.]
It is generally fairly difficult to know why and how an idea is born—emerges from the tide
of other ideas that await realization—takes on substance and becomes fact. This, however,
is not the case regarding the Olympic Games. The idea of their revival was not a passing fancy:
it was the logical culmination of a great movement. The nineteenth century saw the taste for physical
exercises revive everywhere: at the dawn of the movement it was in Germany and in Sweden;
at its meridian it was in England; at the time of its decline it was in
the United States and in France. At the same time the great inventions,
the railways and the telegraph have abridged distances and mankind has come to live a new existence;
the people have intermingled, they have to learn to know each other better and immediately
they started to compare themselves. What one achieved the other immediately wished also to endeavor:
universal exhibitions brought together to one locality of the globe the products of the most distant
lands; literary or scientific congresses have brought together, into contact,
the various intellectual forces. How then should the athletes not seek to meet,
since rivalry is the very basis of athletics, and in reality the very reason of its existence?
It was this, in fact, that happened. Switzerland invited rifle marksmen from abroad for its
federal competitions, while cyclists have taken part on all the cycle tracks of Europe.
Britain and the United States have challenged each other upon water and grass, and fencers
of Rome and Paris have crossed foils. Gradually internationalism has found its way into
the various events, augmenting the interest and increasing the sphere of action.
Thus the revival of the Olympic Games was becoming possible.
Thinking it over, it appeared to me as even necessary.
For several years I made a special study of the schools for the English and American youth.
There are many points upon which criticism might be brought against the education that
takes place in the English public schools; yet it is beyond any contradiction that the education
that takes place in them is both strong and virile. One can attribute, to a large extent,
the expansion and strength of the British Nation, to which the English have been elevated
during the reign of Queen Victoria, to the virtues of this upbringing. It is even of
interest to note that this progress coincides with the educational changes that took
place in the United Kingdom during the year 1840. In this reform physical exercise holds,
in a certain manner, the fundamental basis as a means for ethical conduct.
This is the re-establishment, according to the needs of the present times,
of one of the most noteworthy features of Greek civilization; the contribution of
the muscles to the work of the moral education. In France, on the contrary, until recently,
physical inertia was considered as the necessary corollary essential for mental development.
It was accepted that sporting activity would anyhow be injurious to study,
and as for the formation of character there did not even exist a notion that there could be
any link between body and volition.
Generally speaking, most of the great national questions can be narrowed to a matter of education,
more especially so in the case of democracies. One should always seek to find the cause of the grandeur
of a democracy in the schools or universities. All improvements introduced into them have a stronger
and a wider repercussion. It was most natural that to the mind of a man convinced of this truth,
there should come the notion that it would be good for France that a little of this physical vitality,
of that animal energy, of which our neighbors have benefited, should be introduced into its scholastic
life. The work thus initiated at the beginning of 1888 prospered rapidly and the
Union of Athletic Sports Organizations, of which the beginnings were of most simple and modest nature,
had as members by the end of 1892 a considerable number of societies, among which were school clubs,
founded in the lycees, created and maintained by the pupils themselves.
The need to study what was taking place abroad so that I could work more effectively at home,
for the success of the enterprise, had through me previous journeys, put me into contact with
these latter, in the other countries which also pay attention to physical exercises.
Apart from this, the French Government, on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition of 1889,
had invited to Paris international congresses of various types, among which one relating to
physical education was also included. Being entrusted to organize it, I circulated
a questionnaire everywhere abroad, dealing with the manner in which physical exercises
were conducted in the secondary education schools and the universities.
Finally I founded a monthly magazine, the Revue Athletique, with the objective of creating
a movement in favor of virile sports so as to compare the results obtained here and there.
The task with which the Ministry of Public Instruction entrusted me in 1889 and
which was extended for me to be able to visit the establishments of North America,
has permitted me to add new documentation to my international files.
All this put me in a position of being able to conclude that at the time when that very
century which had seen the revival of athletics was drawing to a close,
sport was in great danger and that progress that had been assured risked being
compromised unless interference in a prompt and energetic manner was undertaken.
Everywhere I had met discord and civil war had been established between the advocates
of this or that form of exercise; this state of affairs seemed to me to be the result
of an excessive specialization. The gymnasts showed bad will towards the rowers,
the fencers towards the cyclists, the rifle marksmen towards the lawn-tennis players;
peace did not even reign among the adepts of the same sports; the supporters of German
gymnastics denied all merit to the Swedish and the rules of American football seemed
to the English players not to make common sense. There was also another matter:
there was the commercial spirit that threatened to invade the sporting circles.
In such places where they did run or wrestle openly for money profit one nonetheless sensed the tendency to regrettable compromises, and in urge for victory something quite
other than ambition and the sense of honor came into play. Under the risk of seeing athletics
degenerate and die for a second time, it became necessary to unify it and purify it.
There seemed to me but one method to achieve this:
to create competitions at regular periodical intervals at which representatives of
all countries and all sports would be invited under the aegis of the same authority,
which would impart to them a halo of grandeur and glory, that is the patronage of classical antiquity.
To do this was to revive the Olympic Games—the name imposed itself;
it was not even possible to find another.
Truth to tell, the name had not even fallen into disuse:
it has been utilized frequently either to designate local competitions such as
those of the Directoire, which it formally tried to establish in the champ de Mars
of Paris, just as those which are still celebrated in certain Greek
villages—either to celebrate some premature revival, or mismanaged,
such as those of which Athens was the scene under King Othon.
Yet this time it was not a matter of the name but it was a matter of substance.
A work neither local nor transient had to be created but an universal and durable work.
The idea of conveying an athletic reunion came to my mind, yet almost simultaneously
I realized that this would not be possible without a preliminary work to which
I soon harnessed myself. To bring close together the great French Societies of Sport,
the ones to the others, and to establish connections between them and the similar Societies
of other countries was essential in the first place so as not to offer to the foreigners
who would come, the sight of our discords as also to obtain numerous members from abroad.
"L'union de Sports Athletiques" had by its foundation and rapid progress sown around it
defiances and jealousies. All my endeavors tended to improve the relationships between
the Cycle Union of France, the National Union of Rifle Range Societies,
the Union of Gymnastic Societies, the Society for the Encouragement of Fencing,
the Union of the Rowing Societies, the Union of French Yachts. I only had half succeeded;
it nonetheless became possible to smooth out more than one misunderstanding,
even on certain points to outline a friendly collaboration.
The task abroad appeared to be more difficult; in reality it was less thankless and more facile.
Early in the proceedings, links had been formed between our Parisian and the Belgian clubs;
it sufficed to encourage these tendencies. Agreement with England was less rapid.
The presence of Mr. Herbett at the head of the Amateur Athletic Association
made matters easier; he knew of our endeavors and encouraged them.
The National Cyclist Union resisted for a long time.
It saw no useful purpose served in an agreement binding it to a foreign federation.
As for the Amateur Rowing Association, in order to obtain permission for our rowers
to participate at the famous Henley Regattas, which are rowed under its jurisdiction,
ten months of negotiations were necessary as well as the intervention of the French
Ambassador in London, Mr. Waddington.
By the spring of 1893, the situation appeared to be good enough for a congress to be convened;
we had good relationship with Belgium, England and the United States.
An appeal was therefore addressed to all the Sports Societies of the world inviting them to send
their delegates to Paris for the month of June 1894. I called to my assistance friends such as
Professor Sloane of Princeton University, or persons with whom I maintained a regular
correspondence such as Mr. Kémény in Hungary, General de Boutowski in Russia, Mr. Herbert in England,
and Major Balck in Sweden. The programme of the Congress was so drawn up as to place to the fore questions
of a purely sporting nature and to dissimulate the principle question, that of the revival of the
Olympic Games. I was afraid that it would but elicit sarcasm or would even discourage those
with good will by the very magnitude of the project. In fact I had spoken about it in the meetings
of New York, Oxford etc. and I sensed that my audience considered such a project as a dream and a
chimaera. I considered it indispensable that our sessions should be held in the University Great
Hall of the Sorbonne to denote nonetheless that this was a matter of something more than just
an ordinary sporting gathering; it seemed to me that below the vaults of the Sorbonne the words
"Olympic Games" would resound in matter to impose themselves upon those present. Mr. Greard,
rector of the University of Paris, graciously granted us hospitality. I wrote to Their Majesties
the King of the Hellenes and the King of the Belgians, to Their Highnesses the Crown Prince of
Greece, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Prince of Sweden, and His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke
Vladimir, to offer them the title of Honorary Member of the Congress of which the Baron de Courcel,
Senator and former Ambassador of France to Berlin, accepted the presidency. A certain number
of collaborators now surrounded me and were acquiring confidence in our work. We had arranged
a series of festivities in order to make the sojourn of the foreign delegates in Paris pleasant. But would delegates arrive?
At the approach of spring, it was not easy to hope for it. Germany, Switzerland, and Holland did not reply.
From other countries they were already proffering excuses. The correspondence was becoming most depressing:
it was necessary to return to the attack, to insist. Success affirmed itself suddenly, almost
at the last moment. There were delegates from England, America, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Belgium,
Russia; the Hellenic delegate Mr. Vikelas already resident in Paris shared our fears and hopes.
Notices of participation besides came from directions in which we had not dared hope, and even
Australia sent us its warm wish. The opening ceremony which took place with great solemnity on
Saturday the 16th of June in front of an audience of nearly two thousand persons, and which was
concluded by the playing of the Hymn to Apollon, gave to the Congress its true character.
The Olympic Games were being transferred to the first place.
Their revival was unanimously decided. We were proposing to inaugurate them in 1900;
they preferred to put this date forward. That of 1896 was adopted and Athens was designated
on the proposal of Mr. Vikelas, as the lieu where the Games would first be celebrated.
It was decided that the subsequent Games would be held in Paris in 1900,
since they would be held in the great capitals of the world at four-yearly intervals.
The congress nominated an International Committee of fourteen members to supervise the carrying
out of its decisions. Thus a work was born which would seem to be called for a happy destiny.
It has been frequently criticized since then and violently attacked: most people do not understand
it; people talk without getting sufficiently informed on its origins and its objectives.
As for me, I claim its paternity with raised voice and I would like to thank once more here
those who assisted me to bring it into well being; those who together with me think that
athletics will emerge greater and ennobled and that international youth will draw from it the love
of peace and respect for life.
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