Celebrating Pierre de Coubertin: the French genius of sport who founded the modern Olympic Games
By George Hirthler
On the evening of 23 June 1894, the eighth and final night of the international Olympic Congress in Paris, Baron Pierre de Coubertin offered an eloquent toast to his colleagues for helping him launch a modern revolution in worldwide sport:
I lift my glass to the Olympic idea, which has traversed the mists of the ages like an all-powerful ray of sunlight and returned to illuminate the threshold of the twentieth century with a dream of joyous hopePierre de Coubertin
On that night, the 31-year-old Baron felt he had achieved the impossible. He had succeeded in resurrecting a legendary ancient ritual that had been lost to humanity for more than 15 centuries. In the euphoria of the moment, he could envision his destiny on a calendar that reached endlessly into the future in four-year cycles, uniting the world in friendship and peace at the Olympic Games. He could envision a parade of capital cities stepping forward, one after the other, to host his eternal “festival of universal youth”, starting in Athens in 1896 and returning to his hometown of Paris in 1900. At this final sumptuous banquet at Le Pré Catelan in the Bois de Boulogne, with torch lights shimmering in the lake and his fiancée, the lovely and wealthy Marie Rothan, full of pride at his side, he took pleasure in the work he had orchestrated. Seven nights earlier, he had rallied an international gathering of aristocrats, ministers of state, military officers, educators, athletes, sportsmen, executives, writers, priests, peace advocates, poets, musicians and an opera diva to stand with 2,000 in acclamation of his Olympic idea in the Sorbonne’s grand auditorium.
Indeed, on the night the Baron became the father of the modern Olympic Movement, the future glistened with promise. But like the decade just past, it would be filled with fierce opposition, professional jealously and an endless struggle that would drain his finances and exact a personal toll that would have crushed most men. Nevertheless, driven by “an inner compulsion” he could not resist, he persevered, overcoming every challenge with an ever-evolving international group of heroic colleagues, and ultimately bequeathed to the world its greatest celebration of humanity.
An enchanting aristocratic childhood shattered by war
Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was born in Paris on 1 January 1863, into a world of aristocratic privilege and cultural refinements under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. As the fourth and last child of Baron Charles de Coubertin, a classical religious painter, and his wife, Marie-Marcelle Gigault de Crisenoy, the pious and compassionate daughter of a marquis, Pierre enjoyed an enchanting childhood. His family travelled between their four homes as the seasons changed. The Coubertins typically spent spring in a chalet in the artists’ colony of Étretat on the English Channel; summers were passed at the Château de Mirville 20 miles inland in Normandy, part of his mother’s dowry. In the autumn, they travelled south to the paternal estate of the Château de Coubertin in the valley of Saint-Remy Chevreuse - not far from the Palace of Versailles - before returning to their five-storey townhouse at 20 rue Oudinot in the fashionable 7th arrondissement in Paris, a district drenched in breathtaking architecture and stirring history. The Golden Dome of the Invalides and the Champs de Mars, where the Eiffel Tower would soon rise, were only a few blocks away.
In Pierre’s seventh year, the Franco-Prussian War shattered his idyllic childhood. The boy was traumatised as invading troops entered the Château de Mirville, packed Pierre’s croquet box with explosives and blew up the nearby railway viaduct connecting Le Havre to Paris. The war brought down the Second Empire and gave rise to the Third Republic, whose first unenviable task was to crush the violent revolutionaries of the Commune, a post-war rebellion that had torched the Tuileries Palace, the Palace of Justice, the Hôtel de Ville and many mansions of the nobility - and lost their cause and 20,000 lives in the “Bloody Week”. By the time the Coubertins returned to the capital, Paris was littered with smouldering ruins. The family’s home on the rue Oudinot was spared, but the war and the terrors left its scars on the psyche of the boy. As Pierre recalled in his Memoirs of Youth, he withdrew into his room and spent a good part of the next two years creating an imaginary country and capital - the Kingdom of Croatia - a realm of fantasy where he restored order and envisioned a better world to come.
At Saint-Ignace, a new Jesuit day school on the Right Bank, Pierre proved to be a brilliant student, fascinated with the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 1874, when he was 11, the Germans began a six-year excavation of ancient Olympia. Out of the ground came 40 monuments, 130 statues or bas-reliefs, 6,000 coins, 13,000 bronze votives used as sacrifices to the mythological gods, and 400 inscriptions. The discoveries drove Europe into a frenzy for the Classical World - and the rituals of ancient sport implanted seeds of hope in one boy’s imagination.
Nothing in ancient history had given me more food for thought than Olympia. This dream city, consecrated to a task strictly human and material in form ..., (this) factory of life-forces, loomed with its colonnades and porticos unceasingly before my adolescent mindPierre de Coubertin
A quest to introduce sport into French education
While his parents were Bourbon royalists to the end, longing for the return of the exiled monarch, young Pierre developed “a wild passion for France”, a fiery patriotism aligned with the Third Republic and the Rights of Man - liberty, equality, fraternity. Like many young aristocrats, Pierre saw the future - it was democratic and egalitarian - and he rallied to the still fledgling French government to be part of it.
Turning his back on his family’s plans for a career in the church, the army or the law, he found his calling instead in the quest to reform French education. On the first of seven trips to England to study their colleges and universities, he had a vision at Rugby, where the legendary headmaster, Thomas Arnold, had first introduced sports into British schools 50 years before. Following Arnold’s model, he wanted to break down the walls of French education to set the students free in fields of play - a privilege they had never had - by importing British sports and their character-building values for French children.
For a few years, Coubertin attended the École des Sciences Politiques and mixed with France’s leading intellectuals, who helped shape his ideas on education in a new society. And then, in 1887, Coubertin heard Jules Simon give the keynote address at the annual assembly of Frédéric Le Play’s Unions for the Social Peace, demanding “the right to play” for all French students. Although he was only 24 at the time, Pierre managed to form an alliance with Simon, 73, a former French Prime Minister who was in great demand yet embraced the Baron’s ideas immediately. Through Simon, Pierre gained access to the halls of power in politics and academia. With the launch of the Jules Simon Committee in 1888, chartered to popularise sport in clubs and schools, Coubertin vaulted into the front ranks of French education reform. Almost immediately, his emphasis on British sports drew charges of treason from French nationalists led by Paschal Grousset, a still-fierce Communard who countered with a more traditional Ligue Nationale de l’Education Physique. While the battle threatened his initiatives, Coubertin ultimately prevailed through his engagement in the greatest world’s fair of the 19th century.
Designed to showcase the stability and progress of the Third Republic - and celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution - the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition stunned the world. With the new Eiffel Tower rising as its centrepiece, the expo attracted 32 million visitors in six months - and became a lifelong touchstone for the Baron. As part of its programme, he conducted a Congress on Physical Education, presented the results of an international sports survey he had conducted with responses from 90 colleges and universities in the US alone - and helped produce five sport demonstrations. He also attended the First Universal Peace Congress to hear Jules Simon’s keynote speech and form critical alliances with leaders of the burgeoning international peace movement. The ceremonies, exhibits, congresses and cultural performances the Baron witnessed at the fair would find expression five years later in his concept of an international festival of sport.
Birthing a Movement of Friendship and Peace through Sport
At the end of the exposition, the Baron left for the first of two trips to the U.S. with an official mission from the French Ministry of Public Instruction. In four months, he visited two dozen colleges and universities and gathered the data to prove that Arnold’s vision of sport was already thriving internationally. During his tour, the Baron solidified a vital bond of friendship with William Milligan Sloane, a professor of the philosophy of history at Princeton University and head of its athletic committee. Sloane would become one of the Baron’s strongest Olympic allies in the years ahead - and help draw into his Olympic orbit future US president Teddy Roosevelt and three of the most influential university presidents in American education: Charles William Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins and Andrew Dickson White of Cornell.
Back in France, 1890 proved to be a watershed year for Coubertin. He led the formation of Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques - the USFSA - which drew together more than 62 sporting societies with 7,000 members, and essentially consolidated his control over amateur sport in France. In Dominican Father Henri Didon, headmaster of the École Albert le Grand in Arcueil, the Baron found a partner to host the first racing championships between public, private and religious schools in Île de France. Didon’s proclamation, Citius Altius Fortius, became the rallying cry for school sport, and later the official motto of the Olympic Movement. As the VIP guest of Dr William Penny Brookes that October, the Baron witnessed the Olympian Games of Much Wenlock, a rural sporting festival Brookes had staged in the English countryside for nearly 40 years - and learned of the ambitions of others to revive the ancient Olympic Games.
As Coubertin’s vision evolved, he recognised that the Olympics could help popularise sport locally and unite the world in friendship and peace at the same time. In November 1892, when he delivered his first public proposal to bring the Olympics back to life, he said:
Let us export our fencers, our runners, our rowers to other lands, for therein lies the free trade of the future, and the day we do it the cause of peace will have received a strong and vital ally.Pierre de Coubertin
His audience laughed and his proposal wilted in failure, but the Baron was not to be deterred. A year-and-a-half later, on 16 June 1894, at the opening of the Olympic Congress in the Grand Hall of the Sorbonne, the Olympic Games were reborn. Among the 2,000 gathered, the leaders of the peace movement had rallied to his cause. Of the 78 honorary delegates listed on the programme, more than half were directly connected with the peace movement. If fact, six of the first 13 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize - five individuals and one institution - were among those in attendance.
Athens 1896 and the struggle to control the Games
No sooner had the celebration ended than the struggles resumed. While the Greek King, George I, sent a congratulatory telegram to the Congress, the Prime Minister, Charles Tricoupis, sent word that Greece was broke and could not possibly afford the honour. That November, the Baron spent two weeks in Athens in a Herculean effort to rescue his embryonic Olympics from a political disaster. He succeeded in rallying both the Royal Family - with Crown Prince Constantine forming a new organising committee - and public opinion through lectures and letters in the press.
With the threat in Athens resolved, Pierre de Coubertin turned to romance and consummated his marriage to Marie Rothan, the daughter of a former foreign minister under Napoleon III who had become a distinguished writer and art collector. She was Protestant, he was Catholic, but they shared a spirit of rebellion - and like rebels they married across the gulf between the churches that deeply divided France at the time.
With his new bride on his arm, the Baron headed to Greece for the debut of his glorious destiny. The 1896 Athens Olympic Games exceeded everyone’s expectations, but presented humiliating challenges for the Baron and his emergent International Olympic Committee. In a city of 100,000, the opening ceremony drew 120,000 people - 70,000 in the glistening white marble seats of the restored Panathenaic stadium, and 50,000 more on the hillsides rising beyond its walls. The crowds thrilled to the competition as the ten-member American team contended with the Greeks for supremacy in track and field. On the fifth day of the Games, ancient history and modern sport merged in a magical alchemy when Spiridon Louis, a Greek farmer running in a traditional fustanella, won the marathon and sent Hellenic spirits soaring. It was the crowning moment in a festival that filled the Greeks with immense nationalistic pride, but left no room for credit for their French Rénovateur or his colleagues. Shunted to the side throughout the Games and denied any public recognition, the Baron finally stepped forward publicly to oppose the King’s proposal to make Athens the permanent home of all future Olympic Games. The Greek press reacted with wrath, labelling the Baron a “thief” trying to steal their rightful heritage.
From catastrophe to glory—Paris 1900 to Stockholm 1912
Reasserting his control through an Olympic Congress in Le Havre in 1897 - with no Greeks in attendance - the Baron expected his hometown to restore order in the second Olympic Games, which were planned as an athletic festival in the midst of the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Unfortunately, Coubertin found himself sidelined again by Alfred Picard, the all-powerful commissioner of the expo, who made no secret of his distaste for sport. Without the resources or staff required to stage the competitions, the logistical operations collapsed, and few of the sporting events were even identified as Olympic. Another round of challenges to Coubertin’s leadership came from the frustrated Americans, particularly the combative James E. Sullivan, who attempted to form an alliance with the British to take over the Olympic Movement.
Like the Games in Paris, the 1904 Olympic Games in St Louis were a sideshow to another World’s Fair. The Baron did not attend. Few knew at the time that the Baron’s personal life was engulfed in trauma. While he kept it quiet, his son, Jacques, had suffered a stroke in infancy that left him mentally impaired for life. The birth of their daughter, Renée, in 1901, restored the family’s hopes for a time, but the stress and strain on the Baroness drove her to smother her daughter in excessive attention - and their second child suffered a degree of emotional instability throughout her life as well.
Stoically returning to work, the Baron steered the 1908 Games to Rome, hoping to mount a celebration commensurate with his vision of Olympic glory. It was not to be. On 5 April 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted, creating a national emergency in Italy that drained away the funding for the Games. All seemed lost, until the English stepped forward to rescue the Olympic Movement. In short order, the Brits had the machinery of the organising committee up and running, and produced a splendid competition in less than two years. Although the ugly side of nationalism boiled over in contests between the U.S. and their British hosts, the Games set a new mark for athletic excellence. In Stockholm in 1912, the Olympics finally ascended to Coubertin’s conception of the marriage of sport and culture. “Never had a Swedish summer been more glorious,” Coubertin wrote, of the first Games that fulfilled his vision for an arts competition that added a measure of prestige to the festival.
Another resurrection post-War and the Nazi trauma
When the hostilities of World War I engulfed France in 1914, the Baron decided to move the IOC headquarters from Paris to Lausanne in neutral Switzerland - and temporarily handed the presidency of the IOC to his Swiss colleague, Geoffroy de Blonay. The 1916 Berlin Games had to be cancelled, leaving Coubertin’s Movement with an uncertain future. The war revealed another dimension of Coubertin’s love for France. While he promoted peace, he was not a pacifist. At 51, he enrolled in the army and travelled his country delivering speeches full of propaganda to rally the people.
Barely a month after the armistice was signed in 1918, the Baron issued a circular letter announcing that the Games would be hosted in Antwerp in 1920. The French sports community protested the selection of Antwerp in favour of Paris, and demanded that the League of Nations take over the Olympic Movement. The Baron held course and succeeded in resurrecting the modern Olympics yet again. Nevertheless, he recognised that challenges to his authority were on the rise, particularly to his autocratic management style and his intransigence to women competing in elite track and field events. In his Olympic Memoirs, he called his next strategic move “a masterly coup d’état”. In 1921, he surprised his opponents and his friends by issuing a public letter announcing his retirement, appointing an executive board to take over the daily management of the Olympic Movement, and asked his colleagues to honour his final request - and award the 1924 Olympic Games to Paris.
When the IOC acquiesced, the French opposition evaporated. Paris 1924 would be the last Olympics Coubertin oversaw. The brilliance of the celebration - with 3,070 athletes from 44 nations - left him satisfied that his Games were now a permanent part of the world’s calendar. He retired the following year at the IOC Congress in Prague, reminding his colleagues to safeguard the central ethical principle of the Olympic Movement:
The Games are global. All people must be allowed in without debatePierre de Coubertin
Feeling his work was still unfinished, he announced that he would return to the education reforms he had been pursuing for the past 40 years. True to his word, the Baron soon launched the Union Pédagogique Universelle and the Bureau lnternational de Pédagogie Sportive to push adult education and sport to the working class. Neither succeeded, but both revealed that Coubertin’s soaring idealism had not withered. Despite his growing isolation, the Baron remained productive. Still hungry for intellectual and literary recognition, he published a four-volume Universal History of the world in 1926-27 at the age of 64. Along with his loyal friend, Dr Francis Messerli, he established the Olympic Library in Lausanne, and worked tirelessly from his free office and accommodation in Mon Repos to contribute to the Olympic Movement as it built new momentum without him.
He never attended the Olympic Games again, but watched from a distance as Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1932 lifted his worldwide festival to new heights. When the Games of the Eleventh Olympiad were awarded to Berlin in 1930, the Baron was pleased for his long-standing German colleagues, Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald, who had been chasing the Olympic Games for Germany for 20 years. But then the Nazis came to power in 1933, and the Games were suddenly engulfed in global controversy. Although he was nearly forgotten, his opinions were suddenly sought - and the Baron stepped forward again to defend the Games against calls for a global boycott.
He kept his distance but he was flattered by the renewed attention, and delivered various messages for the Games. While he offered protocol praise for the German hosts his communiques contained explicit rejections of racism and repression. He wrote for the Closing Ceremony:
The choices and struggles of history will carry on, but gradually understanding will replace dreadful ignorance; mutual understanding will soothe impulsive hatreds. In this way, what I have worked toward for half a century will be strengthenedPierre de Coubertin
The measure of a man
A year later, on 2 September 1937, as the hostilities of war rose, Pierre de Coubertin collapsed and died alone on his daily walk in La Grange Park in Geneva. He had quietly separated from his wife and family a few years earlier, and although he kept up pretences by meeting journalists who called at Mon Repos in Lausanne, he was living a life of obscurity in a boarding house in Geneva, nearly penniless and full of anguish about his family’s future. While the French, the Swiss and the Greeks all held memorials for him in March 1938 - per the wishes of his will, the Greeks encased his heart in a column erected in his honour in ancient Olympia - almost all memories of the man were buried in the onslaught of World War II.
In assessing the enduring influence of his legacy, John MacAloon of the University of Chicago wrote that “No modern institution so important as the Olympics owes its existence so fully to the actions of a single person ... Moreover, for all the vast changes that have accrued to the Games since their first celebration in 1896, they still bear indelibly - from their flag to their official ideology - the stamp of Pierre de Coubertin.”
Born an aristocrat, he became a champion of the common man. He was, first and foremost, the indisputable intellectual leader of the Olympic Movement. In his hands, the presidency of the IOC was the centre of communications for the Olympic world. His family fortune was its indispensable treasury. He bankrolled the Movement and underwrote so many Olympic Sessions, congresses, banquets and publications that he burned through his inheritance and the more considerable wealth of his wife as well.
He stood only 161 cm, but by every measure his achievements mark him as a giant of the last century. A visionary entrepreneur, he was among the first to see the international appeal of modern sport - and the first to see the possibilities of harnessing it for a social and educational purpose. At a time when democracy was spreading and seeking its footing around the world, Coubertin saw the lessons of sport - discipline, perseverance, sacrifice and teamwork - as character traits for better citizens. At a time when war threatened our world, he launched a global competition to promote international understanding and world peace. As a student of history and a prolific writer - he left us more than 16,000 pages - he shaped the moral clay of modern sport into a philosophy of life known as Olympism, an egalitarian ideology that infused the Olympic Games with a higher purpose and indelibly linked personal excellence with the greater good.
Although he is not widely known outside the Olympic family today, he was clearly a genius of sport. His sacrifice was severe, but his legacy is surpassing. The final measure of Pierre de Coubertin cannot yet be taken - because his dream of uniting the world in friendship and peace through sport is still unfolding.