Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Baron Pierre de Coubertin

Sunday, 30 December 2012
By Philip Barker

Philip Barker head and shouldersThe man who changed the face of world sport forever was born 150 years ago on New Year's day.

His name was Pierre de Coubertin  and he was the driving force behind the revival of the Olympic Games. Last summer, London 2012 paid their own tribute by asking his great grand nephew Antoine de Navacelle to carry the Olympic Torch, at the very spot where the 1908 Olympic marathon had finished.

"It is a fantastic opportunity that I have been given to carry the torch on his behalf " said De Navacelle. "London and Paris are very much concerned with the same story because Pierre de Coubertin came to England in his youth."

When Pierre de Coubertin was born on January 1, 1863, at Rue Oudinot in a district of Paris, organised international sport was in its infancy. In Athens, the Greek philanthropist Evangelos Zappas had bankrolled an "Olympic" competition which recalled the ancient Games. By the mid 1860s, the first English cricket tours to Canada and Australia had taken also place and, coincidentally also in 1863, the Football Association was formed, the first proper organisation of what was to become the most popular sport in the world.

But France was soon at war. When Coubertin was barely seven-years-old, the Prussians laid siege to Paris. It was a conflict which left a lasting impression and helped shape his outlook. For Coubertin the notion of a "sacred truce" was to be very important. "Sport you forge happy bonds between the peoples," he wrote later.

Baron Pierre de CoubertinJanuary 1, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of Pierre de Coubertin's birth

Tom Brown's School Days, the story of a boy at one of England's top public schools was newly translated and serialised in a French magazine and the young Coubertin eagerly devoured each episode. His fascination with the English way of sport grew, he visited Rugby School and saw at first hand how football, rugby union, cricket and athletics all flourished.

Coubertin became a big fan of rugby union and eventually refereed the first French Cup final in 1892 and took rowers to the Henley Royal Regatta

"Two things dominate in the English system, two things that are also means for achieving their ends," wrote Coubertin. "Freedom and sport. It is always useful to study ones neighbour, for by imitating the good in him, one can correct it and do even better."

De Navacelle said: "The way English education was displayed was what he was looking for."

Antoine de Navacelle  with Olympic TorchAntoine de Navacelle, Pierre de Coubertin's great grand nephew, carried the Olympic Torch during London 2012

Meanwhile, in Shropshire, a country doctor called William Penny Brookes had established the Olympian Society in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock. Coubertin was soon in correspondence and visited the town in 1890.

The Americans had a well organised collegiate sports system and Coubertin also travelled to the United States and took detailed notes

Back home, the establishment of the Union des Sports Athletiques (USFSA) began to change the face of French sport. By this time Coubertin was ready to unveil his big idea to the world. It was nothing less than the revival of the Ancient Olympic Games. In 1892, at a gathering to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the USFSA he outlined his plans without success but undaunted, tried again in 1894.

"As you know the International Congress is to meet at the Sorbonne," he told delegates. "To work towards establishing modernised Olympic Games which would take place every four years like their 'great ancestors'."

He proudly announced the patronage of the King of the Belgians, the Prince of Wales, Princes from Greece and Sweden and the Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia. The composer Gabriel Faure "lent a hand with good grace" and his orchestration of Hymn to Apollo was performed.

"A subtle feeling of  emotion spread," wrote Coubertin with satisfaction. "Hellenism infiltrated the whole vast hall. From this moment the Congress was destined to succeed. The idea of the revival of the Olympic Games came triumphantly to the fore.

"They are one of the cornerstones of of progress and health for the youth of our day. Not just thinking of France or England, Greeece or Italy but humanity in general."

The whole thing was to be administered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Members were to be co-opted rather than elected, and were ambassadors from the Olympic Movement rather than representatives of individual nations. Coubertin jealously guarded the IOC's right to choose who joined the organisation. The day the IOC ceased to be a self recruiting body, it would lose its main strength, total independence." he said later.

A new publication, the Revue Olympique came out to chronicle its deeds. He had already been publishing his ideas in La Revue Athletic, a newspaper to "raise the interest in manly sports in France".

Revue OlympiqueThe Revue Olympique, a publication founded by Pierre de Coubertin, chronicled the early growth of the Olympic Movement

This gave a clue to what was his biggest blindspot. Coubertin was opposed to the Olympic participation of women. "The true Olympic hero is the adult male individual," he said. "At the Olympic Games the primary role of women should be to  crown the victors."

No women competed at the first modern Olympics in 1896 Games. Coubertin led the Olympic Movement in a period which spanned Games in Paris from 1900 to 1924. Fewer than 400 women took part. More than ten times that number took part in London 2012 alone.

Coubertin had become IOC President in 1896 in anticipation of the upcoming Games in Paris. In the event he would stay in the role until 1925, the longest serving IOC President there has ever been. Yet he did not enjoy the influence that might have been expected in the early years. He crossed swords with the American James Sullivan and Sir Theodore Cook of Great Britain, once an enthusiastic supporter but who became disenchanted with the Olympic Movement..

The IOC's annual general meetings were known as Sessions and there were also Olympic Congresses, meant to have a much wider scope. Apart from sports administrators those attending included the leading academics of the day. So he was delighted when the English vicar Robert De Courcy Laffan, representing Cheltenham College, where he was headmaster,  addressed the gathering at Le Havre in 1897 in impeccable French. Laffan was soon "co-opted" and remained an IOC member until his death.

Rugby SchoolThe English education system, including Rugby School, where Tom Brown's School Days was set, heavily influenced Pierre de Coubertin

Laffan was not the only churchman to influence the Coubertin. A few years earlier, he had met a Dominican priest, Father Didon, who greeted his students at a sports festival in Arceuil, a commune in the south of Paris, with the words "Citius, Altius, Fortius, This is your watchword." Translated from the Latin to Faster Higher Stronger, it became the Olympic motto.

In  1908. Coubertin was in the congregation at St Paul's Cathedral at a special service during the Olympic Games in London. "The Games are better than the race and the prize," Bishop Ethelbert Talbot told the gathering. "St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize."

When Coubertin heard this he devised the Olympic creed  "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not so much the winning but the taking part, just as the important thing in life is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

He was determined that the Olympics would be more than just a sporting event and in 1912 he finally got his wish for.artistic competitions at the Games in Stockholm. In the poetry competition, Coubertin even entered himself. Under the pseudonym George Hohrod and M Eschbach his "Ode to Sport" won a gold medal. "O Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of Life," began his work of 11 verses.

He wrote later that "the whole city took part in the effort in honour of the foreigners and we caught a glimpse of what the atmosphere at Olympia must have been like in ancient times."

He himself devised a new competition, the modern pentathlon,  riding,fencing, shooting, swimming and running. "The modern pentathlon marked the highest peak of the Olympiad. Nowhere else was the muscular effort as great," he said.

He also pushed for the inclusion of equestrian sports, included for the first time in 1912.

When the Games came to an end in the Swedish capital, all seemed set fair for the Olympic Movement. But, within two years, the world was at war.

Mon ReposMon Repos, which was the original home of the IOC, set up by Pierre de Coubertin

Coubertin enlisted in the French army and placed the IOC under the direction of Godefroy de Blonay. In the meantime,the IOC set up headquarters at the chateau of Mon Repos in the Swiss city of Lausanne, the peaceful surroundings a stark contrast to the grim realities of the terrible war in the rest of Europe.

When the Armistice came in 1918, Coubertin returned to take control of the IOC. The Belgian city of Antwerp was chosen as host city as the Games resumed in 1920. The Opening Ceremony was starting to resemble Coubertin's dream for the first time. His design for the Olympic flag, five interlocking rings flew at the Stadium he inaugurated an oath to be spoken by the athletes.

Coubertin proudly sat alongside the Prince of Wales in the tribune of honour at the Stade de Colombes for the 1924 Chariots of Fire Olympics.

The following year he stood down as President of the IOC,to be replaced by the Belgian Count Henri Baillet Latour. "The work he created had triumphed against all opposition, thanks to his persistence, his indomitable energy and they way in which he defended his principles," said Baillet Latour.

Jacques Rogge by Olympic mottoJacques Rogge, the current IOC President, has followed closely the principles of Pierre de Coubertin

Amongst those principles, education was all important. Coubertin would have been delighted by the efforts of the current IOC President, Jacques Rogge, to establish the Youth Olympic Games, complete with a Cultural and Education Programme.

Coubertin had made his own feelings plain."I believe that a centre of Olympic studies would aid the preservation and progress of my work more than anything else, and would keep it from the false paths which I fear," he said.

It was an idea which eventually let to the establishment of the International Olympic Academy at Ancient Olympia.

Coubertin had seized on the new medium of radio broadcasting "with alacrity" and delivered a lengthy address  on "The philosophic foundation of Modern Olympism".

He was unable to make the journey to Olympia to see the start of the first Olympic Torch Relay in 1936 for the Games in Berlin, but he sent a message. "To the athletes who will carry the Torch in your eager hands," he told them. "May your route be happy. It begins in the most illustrious of places and continues to shine a path on the ages."

When Coubertin died in 1937 a special IOC bulletin was edged in black. "The IOC has lost its revered founder, France one of his most distinguished sons and the world, a genius," an editorial said.

His heart was taken to Ancient Olympia and there interred in a special monument amongst the olive groves where it remains to this day.

Born in Hackney, a stone's throw from the 2012 Olympic Stadium, Philip Barker has worked as a television journalist for 25 years. He began his career with Trans World Sport, then as a reporter for Skysports News and the ITV breakfast programme. A regular Olympic pundit on BBC Radio, Sky News and Talksport, he is associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History, has lectured at the National Olympic Academy and contributed extensively to Team GB publications.
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