In Defense of Pierre de Coubertin

Pierre de Coubertin circa 1935

In Defense of Pierre de Coubertin

By George Hirthler

If you were to draw a portrait of Pierre de Coubertin from the spate of recent attacks on him in the French press, you could easily conclude he was a monstrous man.  He is often labeled an antisemite, a racist, a misogynist and a fascist. These horrible characterizations are presented as historical fact, although they stand in contradiction to the humanitarian principles he espoused in 20 books and the countless articles that make up the 16,000 written pages he left behind.  Even more, they are the antithesis of the values he infused at the core of his colossal legacy in the Olympic Games—a legacy that Paris will be celebrating on the world’s stage this summer.

Coubertin had his flaws, of course.  But those flaws, especially those implied or expressed in a few lines of text, should be measured against the historical context in which they were written and, moreover, balanced against the full content of his oeuvre—and the values expressed through his demeanor and actions. 

If Coubertin were an antisemite, why then did he name Ferenc Kemény, a Hungarian Jew, as one of the first 13 founding members of the International Olympic Committee in 1894—and later protect him from an ouster by Count Andrassy of Austria because of his heritage?  Or why did he praise Pere Didon for “… a frontal assault on the béte noire of the day, anti-Semitism” in a tribute after the priest had died?  Or why did he condemn Edouard Drumont, the founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France in 1899 for “… his virulent preachings which provoked the foundation … (of) the anti-Semitic virus in the provinces”?

Like so many Frenchmen, Coubertin was on the wrong side of history in the Dreyfuss Affair, partly because of his brother’s military career, but when evidence of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry’s forgeries came to light, he supported Dreyfuss’s “right” to a new trial and lambasted Henry as “despicable” and “detestable.”

If Coubertin were a racist, why—at the young age of 26 on his first trip to the United States—did he condemn the blatant racism he witnessed in the American South in no uncertain terms:  “With regard to Blacks, Whites believe that they can do anything they want,” he wrote. “They cheat at election time when the ballots are counted, and they are not afraid to boast out loud about it. In a dispute, the Black man is always wrong. People speak to him as they would to a dog, and everyone does his best to give him a clear idea of his inferiority.” Prophetically, he predicted trouble ahead if the Jim Crow laws of the era weren’t repealed. “If the Southern states are stupid enough to uphold this brilliant legislation much longer, one must believe that they will pay for it dearly in the end.”

Twenty-five years later, the 62-year-old Coubertin demonstrated that his principles hadn’t changed. In his retirement speech in Prague in 1925, he demanded his colleagues protect the universality of the Olympics: “The (Games) are global, all people must be allowed in without debate.” Hardly the words of a racist.

Yes, he was a professed colonialist as most ardent Frenchman were in his day, but he stood for the rights of the indigenous people in the colonies and argued that they should be able to compete on fair grounds with those who had conquered them.  Unsuccessful in producing an All African Games before WWI, he tried again in 1923, arguing against “a prejudice that led to the failure of the first African Games.” He wrote that “It is clear that at the base of the opposition there was the persistent notion of the prestige of the colonizing country being harmed by the successes of the colonies. How could one ever think that in the modern world, it would be possible to prevent the spread of athletics for very long, and to limit progress to certain races and certain countries?”

Although family problems prevented him from traveling to St. Louis for the 1904 Olympic Games—he sent Kemény and the German IOC member, Willibald Gebhardt, as his representatives—he was disgusted when Kemény reported the organizers had imposed separate starting times for White and Black competitors.  But he was even more offended to learn that St. Louis had hosted “Anthropological Days,” a series of sporting events reserved for primitive people from the around the world. He described it all as “an outrageous charade,” and predicted the fate of such events: “It will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw and leave the white men behind them.” Hardly the sentiments of a white supremacist.

Coubertin is labeled a misogynist because he opposed the participation of women in the Olympic Games, yet his opposition was never meant to keep women out of sport—but rather to protect their dignity. "If there are women who want to play football or box, they should be free to,” he wrote, “provided that it happens without spectators, because the spectators who are grouping around such competitions do not come to see sports.” His opposition to women competing in public was rooted in the prevailing attitudes of the time and his own paternalistic code of chivalry—but what he feared then is commonly expressed today in complaints about female athletes being objectified and sexualized in modern media coverage of sports events.

Despite his attitude, he never blocked a single female competitor from the Games; he left those decisions to the organizers.  And female participation grew six-fold under his presidency from 1900 to 1924.  He took his niece and nephew to the Paris 1924 tennis competition to see the American teenage phenom Hellen Wills—and wrote later that in the end “the public will decide” about female participation. The truth is the inclusive ideology he built into the Games overcame his own lack of vision.

The inaccurate label of misogyny also overlooks his advocacy for women’s education.  Coubertin recognized the need to prepare women for independence if they choose not to marry or decided to divorce.  Although he believed the highest calling of a woman was to be “the companion of man, the future mother of a family” he recognized—as few of his time did—that women deserved legal protection and the freedom to choose their own paths. “Let the laws protect her, put her in a position to resist, and even to escape from marital tyranny, nothing more legitimate.”  And: “Finally, what we are concerned about is ensuring to those who do not marry, ways to earn an honest living....” Those are progressive views within the context of his time—and allude again to protecting the dignity of women while discrediting any accusation of misogyny.

And finally, the notion that Coubertin could have somehow become a fascist at the end of his life is perhaps the most ludicrous of all the accusations. Although he defended the German hosts of the 1936 Berlin Olympics against the cries for boycotts spreading around the world, he also embedded in the three messages he sent to Berlin, clear and obvious rejections of the tenets of national socialism, which his French critics ignored then—and now.

In his first “Message to the Olympia-Berlin (Torch Relay) Runners,” he wrote this: “Countless stadiums around the world now ring with the shouts of athletic joy, as they once rose from the gymnasiums of Greece. No nation, no class, no profession is excluded.”  In his emphasis that no one could be excluded from the Olympic Games—the baron presented an ethic of inclusion which flew in the face of the exclusionary ideas of the national socialists who were organizing the Games.  

In the recording he did for opening ceremony, the baron proclaimed once again his most famous quote: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part, just as in life, what counts is not the victory but the struggle.”  While this can be read as an appeal to the world for participation against the natural political instincts to boycott, it can be read as well as a message to the Nazi team that winning at all costs is a distortion of the Olympic spirit.  

In the closing ceremony, his message against racism and hatred was explicit. Following his protocol praise for the German hosts, he concluded his message with this summation: “The choices and struggles of history will carry on, but gradually understanding will replace dreadful ignorance; mutual understanding will soothe impulsive hatreds. In this way, what I have worked toward for half a century will be strengthened.”  

Here, Coubertin is speaking directly against “dreadful ignorance” and “impulsive hatreds,” two characteristics for which the Nazis were fast becoming known.  The note on the 50-year framework of his career, five decades dedicated to uniting the world in friendship and peace through sport, provide a final rejection of fascist racism.  All in all, it is clear that while Coubertin refused to disavow or criticize the 1936 Games or their hosts, he clearly hoped his philosophy of Olympism would triumph—and it did.  

Despite the continuing disparagement of the man and the diminishment of his legacy in France, his name will never be erased by cancel culture critics past, present or future because the world will continue to celebrate the grand vistas of his vision and the all-encompassing worldwide festival he created.  Today, the Olympic Games are precisely what Coubertin wanted them to be: a worldwide celebration of human diversity.

While the criticisms are regrettable, none of them are surprising.  The history of Coubertin’s relationship with his mother country is marked by a century of opposition and character assassination that started before he launched his Olympic career and is sadly continuing today.

But that’s another story. 

Ironically, Paris’s brilliant plan for the Games and its multi-billion dollar investment in the festival will serve to extend Coubertin’s ever-expanding influence around the world; everywhere, it seems, but in France.