The visionary founder of the modern Olympic Games
Baron Pierre de Coubertin was only 1,62 metres (5’3”) tall, but by many measures, he was a giant of the 20th century. Born into the French aristocracy on 1 January 1863, he became a champion of the common man, embracing the values of France’s Third Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity—as a young adult.
Destined for the military or the law, Coubertin discovered his life’s work in Rugby in England—and set out on a quest to give French children what British students already had: sport in education. By the age of 25, he had become a leader of French education reform.
At the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, which attracted 32 million people over six months to marvel at the new Eiffel Tower, he organised the world’s first Congress on Physical Education and Scholar Competitions and began to build the international network of educators, politicians, aristocrats and leaders in commerce, culture and sport who would help him fulfil his Olympic dream. Five years later, on 23 June 1894, in the grand amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, 2,000 people rose in acclamation of his proposal to revive the Olympic Games, designating Athens and Paris as the first two hosts in 1896 and 1900.
Like so many visionaries, he had his blind spots. Although he said about sport: “For every man, woman and child, it offers an opportunity for self-improvement,” he openly opposed the participation of women in elite track and field events throughout his life. Nevertheless, the participation of women in the Olympic Games grew six-fold under Coubertin’s presidency. And the all-inclusive ethic he built into the heart of the Movement—“[The Games] are global. All people must be allowed in, without debate”—ultimately shaped his legacy. Over time, the Olympic Games became a triumph of diversity for men and women everywhere, uniting all nations in friendship and peace through sport in the world’s greatest celebration of humanity.