Coubertin’s personal motto was “look far, speak frankly, act firmly,” but even he could not have foreseen how his vision for the Games would grow into one of the most significant cultural events in human history, affecting, in one way or another, billions of people around the world and touching almost every household on the planet.
He would, of course, be delighted to know that 118 years after establishing the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic Movement is stronger than ever. And it is safe to assume that he would have been astonished by what transpired in 2012.
Last year, London produced what will unquestionably be remembered as one of the greatest Olympic Games of all time. The Youth Olympic Games continued to take root and grow with the successful launch of the first winter edition, in Innsbruck, Austria. Important milestones were achieved in relation to the participation of women in sport and in legacy and environmental planning, among others. Initiatives to spread the Olympic values continued to develop and improve, in particular those undertaken in collaboration with the United Nations using sport as a tool for development. Our efforts to protect the integrity of sport were strengthened and expanded. And despite the worst global recession in the last 60 years, the IOC’s financial situation is the healthiest it has ever been.
Still basking in the afterglow of such a remarkable Olympic year, it is easy to overlook what a Herculean task Coubertin faced when reviving, almost singlehandedly, the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century.
He advocated that organised sport strengthened not only the body but also the will and mind, while at the same time promoting universality and fair play, ideas that are widely accepted today. But in his time, sport was considered by most to be a frivolous pursuit that was actually detrimental to learning and intellect. His calls for the restoration of the Games, therefore, were often met with indifference or outright resistance. Years later he admitted that many felt his idea was “a dream and a chimera.”
In the face of such obstacles, Coubertin remained resolute, selflessly donating his time, toil and personal fortune in an attempt to breathe new life into the Olympic Games of antiquity. He did so not for personal gain, but for the good of humanity, believing that sport bred values such as excellence, friendship and respect.
Armed with considerable intellect and moral certitude, and a great deal more of fortitude, he gradually gained the support and confidence of a small but growing group of likeminded individuals. In a surprisingly short period of time, these same individuals would become the founding members of the IOC in 1894. Two years later, Athens would host the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
Coubertin was the second President of the IOC and its longest-serving, with a 29-year term of office (1896-1925). He devoted much of the rest of his post-presidential life to ensuring the continuation of the Games and the purity of competition. The Olympic Movement faced a fair amount of turmoil during his lifetime, but it was thanks to Coubertin that it survived, leaving a legacy from which billions of people still benefit to this day.
In addition to the Olympic Games themselves, Coubertin gave us the Olympic rings – one of the most recognisable symbols in the world – the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, the athletes’ oath and the Olympic Museum, among others. But it was the Coubertin-penned Olympic Charter containing the Olympic values that has had the most profound influence on the Olympic Movement.
It is the Olympic Charter that differentiates us from other sporting organisations. The IOC is not in existence merely to hold a sporting competition every two years. Our mandate is to place sport at the service of humanity, with competition harnessing that which is best in our society and countering that which is malign. The Olympic values continue to be the thread that runs through everything we do.
Would Coubertin be happy with everything that has transpired since his death in 1937? Of course not. We have had our fair share of hurdles to overcome as well, but it is precisely because of the moral and ethical compass that is the Olympic Charter that we have been able to navigate through these difficult periods.
One thing is certain: Coubertin would be delighted that his core ideals have lived on. Arguably, they are more relevant today than ever.
It is no understatement to say that all we admired about Olympism in 2012 would not have been possible without Pierre de Coubertin. It is up to us to ensure the Games remain relevant, viable and clean for another 118 years and beyond.
Coubertin gave all of himself to his cause. On this New Year's Day, the entire Olympic Movement tips its hat to the man who started it all.
Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937)
Known to the public as the reviver of the Games, Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, was a precursor and visionary who advocated the virtues of sport and education in a society that was little prepared to follow his ideas, if at all.
His life and work cannot be disassociated from the age in which he lived. His actions become clear only when they are situated in the transitional phase of the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th – an exceptional period from a philosophical, social and scientific point of view, but unfortunately marked by a number of armed conflicts.
Coubertin was born in Paris on 1 January 1863 into a wealthy family belonging to the old French aristocracy. He divided his childhood and adolescence between Paris and the Château de Mirville in Haute-Normandie. In 1881, he became a Bachelor of both Arts and Science.
Disappointed by politics and politicians, and disdainful of the easy military career befitting his rank and status, Pierre de Coubertin decided, after a long period of reflection, and encouraged by the experience he had gained on training and study trips to England and North America, to devote himself entirely to an arduous task: educational reform in his country.
Education, teaching and pedagogy were the powerful engine which drove the frenzied activity that developed untiringly and enthusiastically under the historic, prodigious influence of a visionary genius. The deeply anchored causes that woke his educational vocation inevitably led Pierre de Coubertin to the creation of modern Olympism and the revival of the Olympic Games.
A fervent admirer of Hellenism, Pierre de Coubertin based himself on the value that the Ancient Greeks gave to physical exercise, and thought about reviving the Olympic Games. He believed in the civilising influence of sport, free of the passions and interests that can debase it. He also saw it as a means to unite the social classes. Starting in France, his activities developed on an international level.
His numerous trips to English-speaking countries allowed him to appreciate the integration of physical exercise into teaching. All his work was aimed at promoting new educational structures within which the training of the mind was associated with the harmonious development of the body.
Interested in all sporting activities, Pierre de Coubertin practised many himself: cycling, rowing, fencing, boxing, tennis, gymnastics and fitness training.
With the 19th century, a marked interest in Hellenic culture was reborn. Major archaeological research brought the treasures of the past to light. England’s Dr Brookes and Greece’s Zappas attempted to recreate links with the ancient Games. But their initiatives remained local and short-lived. Pierre de Coubertin stood out by broadening the framework of his activities: the competitions he instigated were international in scope.
In 1892, he launched the idea of reviving the Games during a speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Two years later, thanks to his unswerving determination, he managed to restore the Olympic Games, with Athens as their first host in 1896, creating the International Olympic Committee in the process. He was 31 years old.
Establishing the modern Olympic Games would be a decisive factor in the propagation of his ideals. Pierre de Coubertin was a lucid, perspicacious observer of the political life of his time. He addressed numerous political and social problems. In the area of politics, he showed an imaginative and creative spirit that was ahead of its time. “When I look back”, wrote Coubertin, “I see myself from the start to the end of my life as a man who fulfilled the functions of a guide… I was not conscious of this mission.”
In 1895, he married Marie Rothan, the daughter of an Alsatian diplomat. They had two children: Jacques (1896-1952) and Renée (1902-1968).
Initially Secretary General, Pierre de Coubertin was then President of the International Olympic Committee from 1896 to 1925. He then retired and received the title of Honorary President in 1937. He died on 2 September of the same year in Geneva. In accordance with his wishes, his body was laid to rest in the Bois-de-Vaux cemetery in Lausanne and his heart was placed under a memorial stone in Olympia, Greece.
Although he appreciated change in structures and ideas, Pierre de Coubertin cultivated hopes for peace and placed all his confidence in young people. Through sport he nourished his conviction of making the world’s mentalities evolve.