Baron Pierre de Coubertin had a lot of detractors in his lifetime but the Frenchman’s contribution to the revival of the modern Olympics was remarkable.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin had a lot of detractors in his lifetime but the Frenchman’s contribution to the revival of the modern Olympics was remarkable. Without his diplomacy, drive, knowledge and leadership, Athens may not have hosted the first edition in 1896.
Coubertin, who was born into an aristocratic family in 1863, was mature beyond his age as a child. He was deeply affected by the crushing loss France suffered at the hands of Prussia, which is Germany now, in the battle of Sedan in 1870. The physical weakness of his country perturbed him.
The Frenchman grew up as an Anglophile. His visit to elite schools such as Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow and Rugby in the 1880s across the Channel made him fall in love with England’s educational system. He, in particular, became an ardent fan of Rugby School where headmaster Thomas Arnold had set a template for the all-round development of students.
Coubertin devoured Thomas Hughes’ hugely popular novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which captured the role of sports in English public schools vividly. His experience in England and the French loss in war transformed him into a relentless campaigner for the introduction of physical education in school curriculum.
Once he put his mind into the revival of the Olympics after reading about ancient Greek history and meeting people who had been working for the same goal like the English doctor William Penny Brookes, there was no stopping him. He also observed the impact of sport on society during his maiden visit to the USA in 1889.
Coubertin, who was fluent in English, laid the foundations for the Olympics in 1896 by forming the International Olympic Committee two years earlier. Although Greek intellectual Demetrios Vikelas became the IOC’s first president, the real power remained with the secretary, Coubertin. The moral support of the royal family in Greece and the financial support of a Greek businessman were important to the inaugural Games but the ideological platform established by the Frenchman was more critical.
Although Coubertin ensured that Athens, and not London, became the first host of the modern Olympics in 1896, he rebuffed the efforts of Greece to keep the Games on its shores forever. Moving the Olympics to newer places every four years was his idea.
Coubertin wasn’t appreciated enough in the Olympic community, but he was actively involved with the IOC as its president from 1896 to 1925. He created the five inter-locked Olympic rings, one of the most potent brands in the world, in 1913. Keeping the Olympic movement alive during World War I was the crowning glory of his eventful life. Fittingly enough, the heart of Coubertin was entombed in a monument at Olympia because no one symbolised the modern Olympic movement more than the Frenchman with a spectacular moustache.