02 January, 2017

de Coubertin unmasked

In this post I am going to commit an act of "lèse majesté". After having written about the paradoxical personality of A. Brundage who served as IOC president for more than 20 years I am now going to dispel the myths that have being accumulating around the name of Pierre de Coubertin, the "father" of modern Olympics. This is a tall order, given the voluminous hagiography that exists around de Coubertin.

How did it all start? Charles Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin was born to an aristocratic parisian family and had thus the privilege to choose freely what he would make of his life. It seems that he was deeply interested in education and most particularly in the role of physical education and sport in schooling. D. Chatziefstathioua prominent de Coubertin specialist, offers a possible motivation for this interest: "being traumatised by the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, de Coubertin offered a formula for making French youth more robust, healthy and physically fit but also aspired to a communion of nations in the name of peace, fraternity and goodwill". His model was an anglo-saxon one and he was convinced that “organised sport can create moral and social strength”. The supposed de Coubertin's admiration of Ancient Greece is just a romantic illusion and his advocacy for physical education was rather based on practical concerns. It remains that de Coubertin's efforts to incorporate more physical education into french schools failed. 

Then came the 1892 meeting of the Union of French Societies of Athletic Sports (USFSA) where de Coubertin made his proposal for the reinstatement of the Olympic Games. He had initially planned to propose a union between sport and the french universities but at the last moment he changed mind and proposed instead the Olympic revival, aiming at assembling the best athletes of the world in a “pacific meeting point of nations”. Clearly de Coubertin’s main inspiration was not the reference to the truce of antiquity but only the pacifism of liberals. In fact at that time de Coubertin did not know much about the Olympic Games of antiquity and was more attracted by the education given in the ancient greek gymnasia. However even the olympic idea of de Coubertin seemed to be going nowhere until 1894 and the international congress organized for the “study and propagation of the principles of amateur sports” by the USFSA at the Sorbonne. Being the association's secretary de Coubertin surreptitiously added to the agenda the item of the revival of the antique games. The working group for this item was hand-picked by de Coubertin with the exception of a last minute addition, D. Vikelas from Greece, who presented a speech calling “all the civilized peoples who claim to have roots in antique Greece to participate in the revived games”. To de Coubertin's dismay Vikelas, elected by acclamation as president of the Olympic Commission, convinced the audience to have the first modern Olympic Games organised in Athens in 1896 (de Coubertin was pining for Paris in 1900) and became thus the first president of the International Committee of the Olympic Games (which became later the IOC).

The first Olympic Commission. de Cobertin is second from left 

But was de Coubertin's the first person to formulate the idea of modern Olympics? Nothing is further from the truth. When Greece acquired its independence from the Ottomans, various personalities started proposing the revival of Olympic Games. The first to do so vocally was the poet P. Soutsos in 1835 but the project was not to materialise until 1859 and the financial support of E. Zappas. After the death of Zappas, Olympiads were organised sporadically in 1870 (they took place in the Panathenaic stadium which were to host the 1896 Olympics), 1875 and in 1888-1889. A royal decree announced that the Olympiad would be reinstated, at four-year intervals, from 1888. Unfortunately the 1892 event was cancelled due to lack of funding (a typical greek situation). But my compatriots were not the only ones to host olympic dreams. Already in 1850, the Olympian Class was established in Wenlock, in England, and proceeded to organise Olympian Games in the same year. The first national Olympian Games were held in London in 1866 following the founding of the National Olympian Association. In fact de Coubertin visited the Olympian Society in 1890 and it is not unreasonable to surmise that that's where he got his inspiration for the Olympic Games. (The Wenlock Olympian Society is active to date, the current president being non other but the famous Jonathan Edwards). Going even further back in time one finds the Cotswold Olimpick Games that started in the 17th century and continue on and off to the present day.

The opening ceremony of the 1896 Olympic Games

The Athens 1896 Olympics were a great success and things risked to get awry for de Coubertin. Greece sought to keep the Olympic Games in Athens. It is characteristic that the king in the closing banquet talked about an "au revoir" expecting to meet everybody in Athens four years later for the next Olympics. Immediately after the Olympics de Coubertin moved into action. Taking advantage of Vikelas' absence he obtained the agreement of the Committee of the Olympic Games that the Games be celebrated in various capitals of the world and that the president be a national of the country hosting the next Games. This last decision meant that de Coubertin was de facto the new committee president given that the 1900 Games were to be held in Paris (and once he obtained the presidency that decision was immediately repealed leading to de Coubertin keeping the presidency till 1925). In fact de Coubertin did not in the least like the fact that during the games he was treated like "another face in the crowd": when he claimed to have been involved in the organisation of the Games, belittling the contributions of Vikelas, one athenian newspaper condemned him as "a thief seeking to rob Greece of her inheritance". Finally a compromise was reached whereupon "greek olympiads" could be celebrated in between the international competitions. However for political and financial reasons Greece was unable to organise these pan-hellenic competitions neither in 1898 nor in 1902. Then came the disasters of the Paris, 1900, and St. Louis, 1904, Olympics. As a result in 1905, the IOC accepted, grudgingly, the principle of intermediary Olympic Games to be held in Athens in 1906. The baron fought tooth and nail trying to avoid giving legitimacy to these Games. He planned a “consultative seminar of Arts, Letters and Sports” to be held in Paris, practically at the same time as the Olympiad. This served also as an excuse for him not going to Athens. The Athens 1906 Games were a huge success. In order to avoid any action from the greeks concerning the 1908 Olympics, which were initially scheduled for Rome but were facing serious problems, de Coubertin decided unilaterally to transfer them to London. The tangle of de Coubertin with Greece did not stop there. When The Times of London attributed the success of the Olympic Games to his joint actions with G. Averoff, who financed the construction of the Panathenaic stadium of Athens, de Coubertin wrote a vehement rebuttal concluding that "a marble stadium did not seem at all necessary to make the games a success". Still it remains that without Greece who launched the Olympic Games in 1896 and saved them when they were floundering in 1906 there wouldn't be any Olympics today, de Coubertin or not de Coubertin. And just to put things straight, while de Coubertin opposed the idea of Greece permanently hosting the Olympic Games he did not hesitate, in 1918, to  propose to have the Games permanently established in Geneva (obviously that did not come to pass).

The Panathenaic Stadion during the 1906 Olympics

Reading my lines above you may get the idea that my feelings for de Coubertin are due to his mis-hellenic attitude. Rest assured, this is not so. Of course, I am quite unhappy with the fact that the great Olympiad of 1906 has been denied olympic status thanks to the machinations of the baron, with the help of the famous Mr. Brundage, but this is not the only reason I believe de Coubertin reputation is overrated. Details of his character and his beliefs have, over the years, been glossed over so as to present him as an ethereal idealist. Fortunately recent works have helped establish the truth. To put it in a nutshell, de Coubertin was a man of his time. He defined himself as a fanatical colonialist. He was deeply convinced of the superiority of the white race to which all other races must show allegiance. His worldview was not far from eugenics: he believed that there exist two distinct races that of the strong and that of the weak; the weak are to be put aside while the strong are the only ones to profit from (physical) education. In the defence of de Coubertin I must point out here that he denounced what he called the ignominious farce of the Anthropology Days organised during the St. Louis, 1904, Olympics. The organisers of these "days" recruited natives who were participating in the World Fair’s ethnic displays to compete in sports events, with the supposedly scientific goal of measuring the physical prowess of “savages” as compared with “civilized men”. It remains that de Coubertin did authorise the organisation of that event to begin with. His support to the nazi regime on the occasion of the Berlin, 1936, Olympiad is well-known. During the preparatory phase he acknowledged the efforts of the government and the german people for the organisation of the 11th Olympiad, acknowledgments reiterated after the Games. For some of his biographers this is a sign that de Coubertin was an admirer of Hitler (but this may be a tad exaggerated). I would be ready to ignore all of de Coubertin's misgivings were it not for the one I find totally intolerable: his deep-rooted misogyny. He did not spare his efforts in order to exclude women from sport and the Olympics in particular. For him, olympic games for women would be impractical, unaesthetic and even incorrect. For de Coubertin only a man can be an olympic hero. The role of women in the Olympics should be limited to presenting the awards to the winners. Of course that was the time when women were considered fragile beings, the physiology of which would not withstand violent efforts. Still one would expect something better from a "visionary" like de Coubertin.

Concerning amateurism de Coubertin attitude shows his ignorance of Ancient Greece and the (quasi-professional) status of ancient sportsmen. He incorrectly stated that the only reward for the participants to the Olympic Games was “a crown of wild olive tree”. These ideas notwithstanding he accepted the participation at the very first Olympiad of professional maîtres d'armes at the fencing competition and in his later days he admitted openly that a strict amateurism is impossible. On this point he had more progressive ideas than the one who was going to become IOC president in 1952.

Finally let me dispel the myths circulating about some supposedly de Coubertin's sayings. "The most important thing is not to win but to take part!". This is not de Coubertin's. In fact he got it from a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania during the 1908 London Games. To be fair, when de Coubertin pronounced these words he attributed them explicitly to the bishop. (By the way this idea is at odds with the ideals of the greeks, for which the most important thing was to win). The Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger") is not de Coubertin's. He borrowed it from his friend H. Didon, a Dominican priest who was an athletics enthusiast.

The USFSA logo

And the olympic flag, with its superannuated five-circle logo?. Yes, that was designed by de Coubertin (obviously not very talented in graphic arts) but a look at the USFSA logo suffices in order to show where did de Coubertin seek his inspiration. While I find the USFSA logo with the blue-red colours on white background (the french flag colours) quite pleasing I do not like the olympic one. It seems that de Coubertin did not associate the five colours to the five continents but it is now common practice to do so (blue and green corresponding to Europe and Oceania or vice versa).

The monument in Olympia

The baron passed away in 1937. In his will he stipulated that his heart be buried in Olympia. The urn with de Coubertin's heart was placed in a stele in 1938 with a pompous ceremony (my compatriots will always disappoint me). Was that a last act of olympic marketing on behalf of the clever baron? I cannot tell. It remains that the myth was solidly established: de Coubertin became, alas, the father of modern Olympics.

No comments:

Post a Comment