As the philanthropic founder of the modern Olympics, PIERRE de COUBERTIN rekindled the idea after nearly 1,500 years in abeyance. R�gine Godfrey tells his story
Pierre Fr�dy, Baron de Coubertin, was born in Paris on 1 January 1863 to an aristocratic lineage. Louis XI ennobled an ancestor in 1477 and a century later the family added to their name the newly acquired Domaine de Coubertin. An excellent scholar, Pierre was boarded at a Jesuit school in an attempt by his father to quell his rebellious streak and republican thoughts, to no avail. Instead of choosing the expected role in the military or in politics, he pursued a career as an intellectual, studying and later writing about education, history, literature and sociology.
From the age of 20, he embarked on a series of visits to Great Britain and Massachusetts, in the US, to observe the impact of sport in education.
Fully aware that defeat in the Franco�Prussian War was still crippling his fellow Frenchmen, he resolved to tackle the widespread apathy with his visionary ideas about improving the unimaginative French education system.
After visiting English public schools, including Rugby, his enthusiasm for sports in the curriculum escalated.
He wrote a series of articles and speeches extolling the virtues of English education: in France, games were thought to destroy study. In the Anglo�Saxon world they provided not only physical health, but also ‘moral energy’, thus shaping a better mind.
In 1887, he founded L’Union des Soci�t�s Fran�aises de Sports Athl�tiques, and attempted to bring together educators, diplomats and sports leaders for the purpose of developing a universal understanding of amateurism. His openness to English and American influences was not without conflict, some of his Anglophobic associates wanting to replace the word football with the French barette, derived from the Aquitaine game akin to rugby union.
Three years later, an invitation to Shropshire by Doctor William Penny Brookes fuelled his desire to revive the Olympic Games on an international scale. A trained physician, Brookes had initiated
a local athletic competition that he referred to as ‘The Olympian class at Much Wenlock’. At the time of their meeting Brookes was 81, de Coubertin 27, and the Wenlock Olympian Society had been in existence for 40 years. The men were kindred spirits and Dr Brookes went on to correspond with de Coubertin for several years, giving him many useful suggestions.
At a Paris meeting in 1892, de Coubertin proposed that the Olympic Games of antiquity should be revived. This was received with derision but it did not deter him. One of his formidable traits was his capacity to pass swiftly from conception to execution. In June 1894, he used his network of contacts across Europe and the US to organise an international congress at the Sorbonne, attended by 49 societies totalling nine nations.
This time his dream came to fruition. He formed the first International Olympic Committee and the staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens was fixed for 1896. He was to serve for 29 years as Pr�sident du Comit� International Olympique, shaping the Olympic Games in innumerable ways, but most of his personal fortune was engulfed in the pursuit of his ideal.
A boxer, fencer, horse rider and still an active oarsman at 72, he died of a heart attack in Geneva in 1937. He was buried in Lausanne; his heart was placed in a monument at Olympia.
Father of the Games
OLYMPIC SYMBOLS Pierre de Coubertin created the symbols of the Olympic Movement. Upon their initial introduction in June 1914, he declared: “The intertwined rings represent the five parts of the world, which now are won over to Olympism. The six colours (blue, yellow, black, green and red on white) are those colours that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time.” Because of World War I, de Coubertin moved the IOC headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland, and the flag was first seen in an Olympic stadium at the 1920 Games in Antwerp.
The inspiration for the creed came to de Coubertin when he heard the sermon of a bishop, Ethelbert Talbot, during the London Games, 1908. “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.”
La M�daille Pierre de Coubertin is an award given by the IOC to athletes who demonstrate the true spirit of sportsmanship in the Olympic Games.
Olympic Games. Throughout France, 45 sports facilities, 127 squares/streets and 14 schools are named after Pierre de Coubertin.