Pierre de Coubertin - Criticism

Criticism

Coubertin's legacy has been criticised by a number of scholars. David C. Young, a scholar of antiquity who has studied the ancient Olympic Games, believes that Coubertin misunderstood the ancient Games and therefore based his justification for the creation of the modern Games on false grounds. Specifically, Young points to Coubertin's assertion that ancient Olympic athletes were amateurs as incorrect. This question of the professionalism of ancient Olympic athletes is a subject of debate amongst scholars, with Young and others arguing that the athletes were professional throughout the history of the ancient Games, while other scholars led by Pleket argue that the earliest Olympic athletes were in fact amateur, and that the Games only became professionalised after about 480 BCE. Coubertin agreed with this latter view, and saw this professionalisation as undercutting the morality of the competition.

Further, Young asserts that the effort to limit international competition to amateur athletes, which Coubertin was a part of, was in fact part of efforts to give the upper classes greater control over athletic competition, removing such control from the working classes. Coubertin may have played a role in such a movement, but his defenders argue that he did so unconscious of any class repercussions.

However, it is clear that his romanticised vision of the Olympic Games was fundamentally different from that described in the historical record. For example, de Coubertin's idea that participation is more important than winning ("L'important c'est de participer") is at odds with the ideals of the Greeks. The Apostle Paul, writing in the first century to Christians in the city of Corinth where the Isthmian Games were held, reflects this in his writings when he says, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize", (1 Corinthians 9:24).

Coubertin's assertion that the Games were the impetus for peace was also an exaggeration; the peace which he spoke of only existed to allow athletes to travel safely to Olympia, and neither prevented the outbreak of wars nor ended ongoing ones.

Scholars have critiqued the idea that athletic competition might lead to greater understanding between cultures and, therefore, to peace. Christopher Hill claims that modern participants in the Olympic movement may defend this particular belief, "in a spirit similar to that in which the Church of England remains attached to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which a Priest in that Church must sign." In other words, that they may not wholly believe it but hold to it for historical reasons.

Questions have also been raised about the veracity of Coubertin's account of his role in the planning of the 1896 Athens Games. According to Young, either due to personal or professional distractions, Coubertin played little role in planning, despite entreaties by Vikelas. Young also suggests that the story about Coubertin's having sketched the velodrome were untrue, and that he had in fact given an interview in which he suggested he did not want Germans to participate, something he later denied in a letter to the Kaiser.

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