Pierre de Coubertin - Reviving The Olympic Games

Reviving The Olympic Games

Some historians describe Coubertin as the instigator of the modern Olympic movement, a man whose vision and political skill led to the revival of the Olympic Games which had been practised in antiquity. The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years in the Greek sanctuary of Olympia, in the Kingdom of Elis, from 776 BC through either 261 or 393 AD. While there were a number of other ancient games celebrated in Greece during this time period, including the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games, Coubertin idealised the Olympic Games as the ultimate ancient athletic competition.

Coubertin believed "contact with women's athletics is bad for, and that these athletics should be excluded from the Olympic program".

Thomas Arnold, the Head Master of Rugby School, was an important influence on Coubertin's thoughts about education, but his meetings with Dr. William Penny Brookes also influenced his thinking about athletic competition to some extent. A trained physician, Brookes believed that the best way to prevent illness was through physical exercise. In 1850, he had initiated a local athletic competition that he referred to as "Meetings of the Olympian Class" at the Gaskell recreation ground at Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Along with the Liverpool Athletic Club, who began holding their own Olympic Festival in the 1860s, Brookes created a National Olympian Association which aimed to encourage such local competition in cities across Britain. These efforts were largely ignored by the British sporting establishment. Brookes also maintained communication with the government and sporting advocates in Greece, seeking a revival of the Olympic Games internationally under the auspices of the Greek government. There, the philanthropist cousins Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas had used their wealth to fund Olympics within Greece, and paid for the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium that was later used during the 1896 Summer Olympics. The efforts of Brookes to encourage the internationalisation of these games came to naught. However, Dr Brookes did organise a national Olympic Games in London, at Crystal Palace, in 1866 and this was the first Olympics to resemble an Olympic Games to be held outside of Greece. But while others had created Olympic contests within their countries, and broached the idea of international competition, it was Coubertin whose work would lead to the establishment of the International Olympic Committee and the organisation of the first modern Olympic Games.

In 1888, Coubertin founded the Comité pour la Propagation des Exercises Physiques more well known as the Comité Jules Simon. Coubertin's earliest reference to the modern notion of Olympic Games criticises the idea. The idea for reviving the Olympic Games as an international competition came to Coubertin in 1889, apparently independently of Brookes, and he spent the following five years organising an international meeting of athletes and sports enthusiasts that might make it happen. Dr Brookes had organised a national Olympic Games that was held at Crystal Palace in London in 1866. In response to a newspaper appeal, Brookes wrote to Coubertin in 1890, and the two began an exchange of letters on education and sport. That October, Brookes hosted the Frenchman at a special festival held in his honour at Much Wenlock. Although he was too old to attend the 1894 Congress, Brookes would continue to support Coubertin's efforts, most importantly by using his connections with the Greek government to seek its support in the endeavour. While Brookes' contribution to the revival of the Olympic Games was recognised in Britain at the time, Coubertin in his later writings largely neglected to mention the role the Englishman played in their development. He did mention the roles of Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas, but drew a distinction between their founding of athletic Olympics and his own role in the creation of an international contest. However, Coubertin together with A. Mercatis, a close friend of Konstantinos, encouraged the Greek government to utilise part of Konstantinos' legacy to fund the 1896 Athens Olympic Games separately and in addition to the legacy of Evangelis Zappas that Konstantinos had been executor of. Moreover, George Averoff was invited by the Greek government to fund the second refurbishment of the Panathinaiko Stadium that had already been fully funded by Evangelis Zappas forty years earlier.

Coubertin's advocacy for the Games centred on a number of ideals about sport. He believed that the early ancient Olympics encouraged competition among amateur rather than professional athletes, and saw value in that. The ancient practice of a sacred truce in association with the Games might have modern implications, giving the Olympics a role in promoting peace. This role was reinforced in Coubertin's mind by the tendency of athletic competition to promote understanding across cultures, thereby lessening the dangers of war. In addition, he saw the Games as important in advocating his philosophical ideal for athletic competition: that the competition itself, the struggle to overcome one's opponent, was more important than winning. Coubertin expressed this ideal thus:

L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'être bien battu.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

As Coubertin prepared for his Congress, he continued to develop a philosophy of the Olympic Games. While he certainly intended the Games to be a forum for competition between amateur athletes, his conception of amateurism was complex. By 1894, the year the Congress was held, he publicly criticised the type of amateur competition embodied in English rowing contests, arguing that its specific exclusion of working-class athletes was wrong. While he believed that athletes should not be paid to be such, he did think that compensation was in order for the time when athletes were competing and would otherwise have been earning money. Following the establishment of a definition for an amateur athlete at the 1894 Congress, he would continue to argue that this definition should be amended as necessary, and as late as 1909 would argue that the Olympic movement should develop its definition of amateurism gradually.

Along with the development of an Olympic philosophy, Coubertin invested time in the creation and development of a national association to coordinate athletics in France, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). In 1889, French athletics associations had grouped together for the first time and Coubertin founded a monthly magazine La Revue Athletique, the first French periodical devoted exclusively to athletics and modelled on The Athlete, an English journal established around 1862. Formed by seven sporting societies with approximately 800 members, by 1892 the association had expanded to 62 societies with 7,000 members.

That November, at the annual meeting of the USFSA, Coubertin first publicly suggested the idea of reviving the Olympics. His speech met general applause, but little commitment to the Olympic ideal he was advocating for, perhaps because sporting associations and their members tended to focus on their own area of expertise and had little identity as sportspeople in a general sense. This disappointing result was prelude to a number of challenges he would face in organising his international conference. In order to develop support for the conference, he began to play down its role in reviving Olympic Games and instead promoted it as a conference on amateurism in sport which, he thought, was slowly being eroded by betting and sponsorships. This led to later suggestions that participants were convinced to attend under false pretenses. Little interest was expressed by those he spoke to during trips to the United States in 1893 and London in 1894, and an attempt to involve the Germans angered French gymnasts who did not want the Germans invited at all. Despite these challenges, the USFSA continued its planning for the games, adopting in its first program for the meeting eight articles to address, only one of which had to do with the Olympics. A later program would give the Olympics a much more prominent role in the meeting.

The congress was held on 23 June 1894 at the Sorbonne in Paris. Once there, participants divided the congress into two commissions, one on amateurism and the other on reviving the Olympics. A Greek participant, Demetrius Vikelas, was appointed to head the commission on the Olympics, and would later become the first President of the International Olympic Committee. Along with Coubertin, C. Herbert of Britain's Amateur Athletic Association and W.M. Sloane of the United States helped lead the efforts of the commission. In its report, the commission proposed that Olympic Games be held every four years and that the program for the Games be one of modern rather than ancient sports. They also set the date and location for the first modern Olympic Games, the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and the second, the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. Coubertin had originally opposed the choice of Greece, as he had concerns about the ability of a weakened Greek state to host the competition, but was convinced by Vikelas to support the idea. The commission's proposals were accepted unanimously by the congress, and the modern Olympic movement was officially born. The proposals of the other commission, on amateurism, were more contentious, but this commission also set important precedents for the Olympic Games, specifically the use of heats to narrow participants and the banning of prize money in most contests.

Following the Congress, the institutions created there began to be formalised into the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with Demetrius Vikelas as its first President. The work of the IOC increasingly focused on the planning the 1896 Athens Games, and de Coubertin played a background role as Greek authorities took the lead in logistical organisation of the Games in Greece itself, offering technical advice such as a sketch of a design of a velodrome to be used in cycling competitions. He also took the lead in planning the program of events, although to his disappointment neither polo, football, or boxing were included in 1896. The Greek organising committee had been informed that four foreign football teams were to participate however not one foreign football team showed up and despite Greek preparations for a football tournament it was cancelled during the Games.

The Greek authorities were frustrated that he could not provide an exact estimate of the number of attendees more than a year in advance. In France, Coubertin's efforts to elicit interest in the Games among athletes and the press met difficulty, largely because the participation of German athletes angered French nationalists who begrudged Germany their victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Germany also threatened not to participate after rumours spread that Coubertin had sworn to keep Germany out, but following a letter to the Kaiser denying the accusation, the German National Olympic Committee decided to attend. Coubertin himself was frustrated by the Greeks, who increasingly ignored him in their planning and who wanted to continue to hold the Games in Athens every four years, against de Coubertin's wishes. The conflict was resolved after he suggested to the King of Greece that he hold pan-Hellenic games in between Olympiads, an idea which the King accepted, although Coubertin would receive some angry correspondence even after the compromise was reached and the King did not mention him at all during the banquet held in honour of foreign athletes during the 1896 Games.

Coubertin took over the IOC presidency when Demetrius Vikelas stepped down after the Olympics in his own country. Despite the initial success, the Olympic Movement faced hard times, as the 1900 (in De Coubertin's own Paris) and 1904 Games were both swallowed by World's Fairs, and received little attention. The Paris Games were not organised by Coubertin or the IOC nor were they called Olympics at that time. The St. Louis Games was hardly internationalised and was an embarrassment.

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