France’s Father of the Modern Day Olympics

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It’s better to be prepared. If you’re in France this summer before, during or after the August Olympic games in China, there’s a name you are going to hear or read about constantly. It’s not going to be a Chinese leader or an athlete from anywhere. It’s not even going to be France’s always-in-the-news President Nicolas Sarkozy or his even-more-talked-about new wife, Carla Bruni, a top fashion model, turned singer/composer, turned French First Lady. It’s going to be Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman justifiably considered and constantly lauded by the French as the author of the modern day Olympics. To appear worldly wise with any French person you meet, you need to know a bit about him. Born in Paris in 1863 into a well-to-do French aristocratic family, Coubertin dabbled in many fields in his early life but, after eschewing the military and politics, logical career fields for young men of his social standing, he chose to be an educator. His guiding philosophy, however was that sporting endeavor and the principles of self pride and development as well as patriotism and honor that they fostered, should be a part of any kind of education. During his lifetime his main efforts almost always involved activities where those sporting principles could play a role. While still in his 20’s, he organized sporting competitions during the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris and, in 1912 he helped organized the Scouting movement in France, a movement heavily impregnated with precisely his favorite principles of pride, patriotism and honor. To say he had a colourful career would be severe understatement. To say it was uncontroversial would be even more so. Although he was a referee in the 1992 French rugby finals. Coubertin was not an athlete himself. But sport was his life and that life was full of controversy precisely about his sporting views. At one time or another his public statements—and they are legion—elicited criticism that he was a colonialist who envisaged the Olympics as something only for competitors from major, economically developed nations, that he was a racist who wanted them restricted to white competitors, that he was a sexist who didn’t believe women should participate in the games except to crown the victors. Add to that the charge that he was a Nazi sympathizer because he highly praised the organization of Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936 and because Hitler himself had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, an award he didn’t obtain precisely because of the suspicion of Nazi sympathies. The problem with all those accusations is the fact that, on other occasions Coubertin made other statements which in one way or another totally contradicted all the ones that had tarnished his reputation. About the only thing upon which the historians agree was that he was a man with strong opinions who was unafraid to speak his mind and defend his views. Of course, Coubertin who bore the aristocratic title of Baron, didn’t invent the Olympic Games. That distinction remains firmly with the Greeks and dates back to the beginning of the Christian era. They fell into disuse in roughly the 4th century, however and it was Coubertin, some 1,500 years later, who pushed through the idea of creating an international effort to revive them. The result was the creation in 1894 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC.) With Coubertin as the driving force, although not yet the President, the newly created IOC succeeded in organizing the first modern Olympic games just two years later, in 1896. Quite appropriately, the chosen site was Athens, the capital of Greece, where the Olympic tradition had been born. After those initial games, in 1896, Coubertin succeeded to the post of IOC President and held the job for nearly 30 years before stepping down in 1925, He had hardly taken over the job, however, before he had to go through a long diplomatic wrangle with the Greeks. His view was that the games should be held successively in different nations. The Greek view was, essentially, “We invented them. They always should be here.” Eventually, Coubertin won out and it was Paris that hosted the next set of games in 1900. Interestingly enough, despite the sexist charges that stemmed from his earlier remarks about women’s essentially prize-giving role, it was in Paris, during the first Olympics of the Baron’s Presidency, that women competitors, 22 of them, made their initial appearance. Despite the obvious success of his Olympic revival effort, Coubertin left the movement as an embittered man, frequently critical of what he viewed as the lack of idealism and expertise of his successors at the IOC. Although he retained his French nationality, he retired to Switzerland and devoted his time to writing. The total of his writings, commentaries and articles runs to more than 60,000 pages. He briefly left retirement to assist in the organization of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That effort explains his positive view of their expertise but also the suspicion of Nazi sympathies that attached ever afterward to his name. Coubertin died the next year in 1937 in Lausanne where his body is buried. His heart, however, reposes separately and appropriately, in a special…
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