Written for Around the Rings By George Hirthler
The modern Olympic Movement seldom tells its origin story—and that’s a shame. Because it’s a story that could serve as an important and inspiring counterpoint to the perfect storm of disasters that are thundering across the headlines in the run up to the Rio Olympic Games. It’s a biographical story of a small man with a giant spirit, a French aristocrat with an unrelenting drive and a vision for building a better world through sport. It’s a heartbreaking story of personal tragedy, financial sacrifice and end-of-life anonymity that nevertheless propelled the Olympic Games to become the world’s greatest recurring celebration of humanity.
Pierre de Coubertin (sitting, L) poses with members of the first International Olympic Committee in Athens in 1896 (Getty Images)
It is, of course, the story of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. You may know the name, but few people outside the Olympic Family do. In fact, Coubertin ranks as one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes. People all over the world admire and follow his legacy, but few know his name. More than 3.5 billion people—half the world’s population—tuned in to watch some part of the London 2012 Olympic Games—and Rio 2016 is on track to match London’s audience. But across thousands of hours of Olympic broadcasts and billions of digital impressions, it is unlikely that the name of Coubertin will register.
And yet, his personal imprint will be seen everywhere. As John MacAloon wrote in This Great Symbol in 1981, “No modern institution so important as the Olympics owes its existence so fully to the actions of a single person ... Moreover, for all the vast changes that have accrued to the Games since their first celebration in 1896, they still bear indelibly—from their flag to their official ideology—the stamp of Pierre de Coubertin.”
Statue of Pierre de Coubertin in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park (Getty Images)
Coubertin was born in Paris on January 1, 1863, the very day that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. While that is pure coincidence, it is a fact that Coubertin spent his life—and his family fortune—liberating people through sport. When he was eight, he saw the disastrous effects of the Franco-Prussian war with Paris under siege and the 200,000 residents of the city literally starving. When he was eleven, the Germans began a six-year excavation of Ancient Olympia and his young imagination was inflamed as the classical world suddenly leaped from the pages of his Jesuit school books in statues, monuments and stories of Olympic legends long lost. As a young aristocrat in Belle Époque Paris, he embraced the egalitarian values of the Third Republic and gained powerful political allies as he led the effort to introduce sport into the sterile French education system of the time, borrowing the model of games for schoolboys pioneered in Great Britain by Thomas Arnold of Rugby.
At 26, he saw the grand possibilities of international events as the Eiffel Tower crowned the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition—and he organized the world’s first Congress on Physical Education as part of its program. As his mentor, Jules Simon, the former Prime Minister of France, delivered the keynote address at the first Universal Peace Congress during that fair, Coubertin envisioned something even greater—a global festival of youth that would unite our world in friendship and peace through sport.
Five years later, in the great hall of the Sorbonne, as he led 2000 delegates to resurrect of the Olympic Games in modern form, he said, “We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different nations shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility.”
George Hirthler, author, The Idealist (ATR)
Today, in the horrendous match set of crises in global sport and Brazil’s host city, it’s easy to overlook the extraordinary success of the movement that Coubertin launched in 1894. But when the Games open on August 5th, the modern Olympic Movement will have completed a 122-year journey across the border of its fifth continent. By almost every measure, the Olympic Movement ranks as the most successful international movement of the 20th century. Its value to our world is far more important than the competition that will soon take place in Rio. In its symbols and rituals, the Olympic Movement fills our fractious world with hope and shows us—as the nations of our world march into the arena in a full display of human diversity—that the things we have in common are far more powerful than the things that divide us.
And that is an extraordinary tribute to the life and vision of a 5’ 3” Frenchman who should be remembered as a giant of our times.
George Hirthler is the author of The Idealist, a fictionalized biography of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
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