Antoine de Navacelle works to maintain the Olympic ideals of Pierre de Coubertin

Monday, 30 January 2012
By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom_17-11-11Antoine de Navacelle, direct descendant of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, is a man on a mission. More than one, in fact. But the most pressing concern of this cultured, recently retired international banker is to stimulate the minds of the younger generation in much the same manner as his illustrious forebear in promoting the Coubertin Awards student essay competition ahead of the London 2012 Games.

More broadly, as a board member of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee (CIPC), which was founded in Lausanne in 1975, de Navacelle has sought to ensure that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retains the values espoused by the man who was father to the modern Olympics – and great uncle to him.

But first question to the genial financier, as a matter of courtesy, concerns his recently broken leg. Due perhaps to the vagaries of the phone line, or more likely the interviewee's sense of fun, the enquiry prompts some uncertainty. Are we talking about his ankle – or his uncle?

The latter, in fact. A shy, awkward man, it seems.

"I don't think he was an easy man to live with!" admits de Navacelle, who traces his family connection back through his great grandmother on his father's side – De Coubertin's sister Marie. Two other brothers had no children, and neither of De Coubertin's own children, a boy and a girl, had families of their own.

"People who have high ideals are not always easy. He was difficult. He spent the whole family wealth on his beliefs. At one point the family had to sell off a lot of property they had in Normandy and there were a lot of other similar occasions.

pierre de_coubertin_19-01-12
"When he was young, Pierre (pictured above) was very much a rebel. He didn't agree with the established order. He was from an educated and aristocratic family who were still royalists. But he said 'No way. I'm a republican.'

"When he was trying to make educational reforms in France it was very much the province of republicans and people who were more to the left wing. They took one look at this young aristocrat with his big moustache and refused to believe that he was also a republican with views similar to theirs.

"He also had a battle with the Catholic Church at the time, because when he talked about developing 'body and mind' in young people, the Church said 'mind' only.

"So he had to overcome opposition in three areas in order to carry through what he believed in. He was convinced the Olympic ideal was the right one, but he was a very solitary man as he tried to implement it. It was a big fight, but he managed it.

"He did not like to be the centre of attention, ever. If you look at photos of him throughout his life he is always in the second row or at the side. From a body language point of view he never wanted to be in the limelight.

"But my great uncle very much enjoyed family reunions. They were when he could felt he could relax."

The CIPC, operating alongside the IOC headquarters, coordinates efforts of more than 20 groups around the world to maintain the ideals that De Coubertin went to such pains to embed in the Olympic Movement.

"We try to ensure that the thinking of Pierre de Coubertin is still very much there within the Olympic realm," says de Navacelle. "For De Coubertin the Olympics were all about educating young people and helping them to find their strengths, both physical and mental."

For its own part, CIBC has created a growing number of school networks across the world – including in Tunisia, Russia, Latvia, China, and in Britain's Much Wenlock – where the chosen institutions adhere to the spirit of the Olympic Movement and select representatives who, every two years, attend forums which also include competitions.

"I attended the last forum we held, in Beijing, and it was extraordinary," says de Navacelle. "More than 200 young people from across the world spent 10 days with each other, talking about Olympic values and engaging in competition, and many lasting friendships were made."

Professor Norbert Muller, President of the CIBC and a man who regularly has Rogge's ear, has gone on record emphasising the importance of maintaining the founding philosophies when new policies are being devised within the IOC.

"Many of the more recent developments in Olympia are not in line with the original idea any more," he said. "Let's just think of the exaggerated commercialisation, for example.

"There are people who say if Coubertin heard this he would turn in his grave. Or others think that we need to go back to the origins of Olympia, that we need Coubertin's educational approaches.

"In our times, however, this is not realistic any more. But Coubertin is still present as a kind of godfather. And sometimes we can say that we have to remember our origins.

"Because if the IOC appears to be no more than the administrator and organiser of a multi-disciplinary world championship, that means an organisation without any educational or ethical basis.

"Then there is no reason why other organisations couldn't do this job at least as well as we do."

de Navacelle
De Navacelle (pictured) shares Muller's pragmatic approach on the matter of commercialisation.  "We all know that without money and financial support the Olympic Games could not take place," he says. "I think De Coubertin knew that too."

If he didn't originally, he soon got the message from the Briton whose efforts in establishing the Great Wenlock Games in Shropshire from 1850 gave him a template for his new vision, Dr William Penny Brookes.

When the young idealist, then 27, visited the Games on a rainy day in 1890, his host was already 81. While the particulars of that damp occasion – among them the tent-pegging event in which Corporal Dickin was judged by Sergeant-Major Bosher to have beaten Corporal Convey – may not have been directly useful to the aristocratic Frenchman, the overall conception, and the example of Brookes' own drive and vision, were.

"The relationship between my great uncle and Dr Brookes was very interesting," de Navacelle reflects. "When they first met, Brooks was an old man and De Coubertin was a very shy young man from an aristocratic family. But they really saw eye-to-eye and had the same ideas. They both saw the Greek civilisation as being at the top of the agenda. It fitted perfectly with their views.

"The big difference between them was that my great uncle had a network of contacts across Europe and was able to get support for his ideas from many influential people, so he was really able to take his ideas to the world."

As far as commercialisation was concerned back in those 19th century days, when De Coubertin was on the brink of putting in place the first of the modern Games at Athens in 1896, Brookes wrote to him suggesting he would do himself a bit of good if he could get a few rich Greeks on board.

Such is sporting life, De Navacelle seems to acknowledge.

"The boom years in the 1980s', under the presidency of Juan Antonio Samaranch, in a way helped the Olympics to survive," he says. "Of course you always have to accept that the financial emphasis will sometimes mitigate the sport at the Games.

"But it is our job to try and ensure that the members of the IOC are always reminded of the final objectives and goals of the Olympics, which are about educating young people and making better minds.

"Have we succeeded? Not always. And it's clear that the Games are getting more and more commercial. It's got more and more expensive, and now it is a big circus.

"But at the end of the day what counts is what happens in the brains and hearts of the competitors.

"You can sometimes hear individual athletes talking about competing in the Games, and there is some difference in their voice or behaviour to when they talk about other competitions. That is one of the ways you can judge de Coubertin's legacy. There is that extra Olympic element."

De Navacelle agrees with Rogge's comment that De Coubertin was 'sometimes idealistic' and that his ideas about creating peace through the Olympic Movement were unrealistic.

"I think Dr Rogge is quite right in that respect," he says. "But the Olympic Movement can still contribute a small amount to enhancing peace in the world.

"De Coubertin was eight when France was defeated in the war against Prussia in 1870, and in later life he felt strongly that if young people from different nations knew each other all over the world there would be a better chance that conflict could be negotiated down."

As UK representative for the CIPC, De Navacelle is currently inviting students in this country to submit essays for the 2012 competition being jointly organised with the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE).

The awards – sponsored by EDF Energy, who are providing support in organising the competition, together with fellow London 2012 Official Partner BP and Eurostar, an Official London 2012 Provider – aim to promote the application of Olympic ideals to the world of business.

Hmm. Olympic ideals. Business. Something a bit antithetical about them, isn't there? Do we often hear, say, stock exchange traders reflecting that the important thing is not the triumph but the struggle? I think not...

De Navacelle, in a spirit of true Olympism, rises to the rhetorical challenge.

"I would say that the competitor in the Olympic stadium and the trader on the floor in the City have the same goal," he responds. "They want to win – to win in the stadium, or to win a deal. It's really that basic."

But winning is not in itself an Olympic virtue, is it? Surely you can win without troubling yourself with even the remotest nobility?

The point is taken. But there is more to be said on the subject by De Coubertin's albeit distant flesh and blood.

"We feel it is good to put Olympic ideals to use in the business world, even if that might be utopian," De Navacelle adds.

"This is the thing. The spirit of the Olympics is that whatever happens in the stadium is clearly built around an individual performing better than he ever has before. If he doesn't win but he does his best ever performance he will be happy, even though he would be even happier if he had been the winner.

"On the trading floor of course you try to close the deal, but if you can't you have to call it a lost opportunity, to accept it and to move on to a new challenge.

"Sometimes, however, both the trader and the competitor will have been under so much pressure to succeed that they go beyond 100 per cent effort.

"On the trading floor it can become a case of 'win at all costs'. Big risks are taken, and that is one of the reasons why there has been a global financial problem in recent years.  As for the athlete in the stadium, the temptation will be to cheat.

London 2012_Olympic_Stadium_with_track_October_3_2011
"The moment you want to win at all costs, you lose all the ethical values you are supposed not to forget.  That is why we wanted to hold these competitions leading up to the London 2012 Games. London is going to be where they take place, and it is the capital of the world in terms of financial business.

"I think it would be good to give the young generation guidance. They are going to be the decision-makers in the future and so it is good that they consider the ethical values de Coubertin identified to re-create the Olympic Games and to consider how they can be applied today.

"We all are aware that cheating is a fact of life. It's just a question of when you are under such strong pressure. For the Olympics, you train for four years to perform for maybe two or three minutes. It's an extraordinary effort.

My belief is that if people compete like that and they keep their ethical values right they are bound to succeed in life, whatever else they do after. If they move into business, they will be leaders, they will be able to really help others."

So the key common factor between the successful sportsman and businessman is not the desire for victory, but the quality of the person?

"I agree," says de Navacelle. "Olympic athletes are extraordinary people."

For further information on the 2012 Coubertin Awards student essay competition, sponsored by London 2012 official partner EDF, visit www.coubertin-awards.org.uk

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
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