The Forgotten Genius of Sport

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Just before the flame was doused at the Closing Ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games Sunday night, Thomas Bach, the IOC President, mentioned the name of the man who started it all.  As he awarded the Olympic Cup to six representative Cariocas—the gracious hosts of Rio—Bach described it as an award created 120 years ago “by our founder, Pierre de Coubertin.”

There it was—the name of the genius of sport who gave birth to this great global festival, but a name that for the most part has been lost in the folds of history.  The modern Olympic Movement seldom tells its origin story.  And that’s a shame.  Because it’s a powerful, 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.

It is, of course, the untold story of Baron Pierre de Coubertin—a man who must rank today as one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes.  People all over the world know, admire and follow his legacy, but few know his name.  More than 3.5 billion people—half the world’s population—watched, streamed or followed some part of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  But across thousands of hours of Olympic broadcasts and billions of digital impressions, it is unlikely that the name of Coubertin registered at all.

And yet, his personal imprint was 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.”

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.

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 war as the Prussians sieged Paris and starved the 200,000 residents of the city in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  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 twenty-six, 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 and former Prime Minister of France, Jules Simon, delivered a keynote address at the  first Universal Peace Congress during the 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.”

Today, in the match set of crises in global sport that haunted Brazil’s host city in the run up to the Games—doping scandals, bribery, corruption, fixed construction contracts, political turmoil, polluted waters, striking police carrying ‘Welcome to Hell’ signs and mosquitoes carrying Zika—it was easy to overlook the extraordinary success of the movement that Coubertin launched in 1894.  But when the last torch relay runner lit the cauldron in the Opening Ceremony on August 5th, the modern Olympic Movement completed a 122-year journey across the border of its fifth continent.

Despite the calamitous chorus of those criticizing the Games, the Olympic Movement ranks, by almost every measure, as the most successful international movement of the 20th century.  Its value to our world reaches far beyond the heroic athletic feats and thrills of the competition that riveted people everywhere.  In its symbols and rituals, the Olympic Movement fills our fractious world with hope and in Rio it showed us once again—as the nations of our world marched 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—and celebrated—as a hero for our times and the genius of sport that he clearly was.

George Hirthler is the author of The Idealist, a fictionalized biography of Baron Pierre de Coubertin: www.coubertintheidealist.com