History’s Greatest Forgotten Olympic Hero

Baron Pierre De Coubertin

By George Hirthler

The modern Olympic Movement seldom tells its origin story—and that’s a shame.  Because it’s an important and inspiring story that could help the world understand the true meaning of the Olympic phenomenon.  It’s a 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 story of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.  You may know the name, but few people outside the Olympic Family do.  In fact, Coubertin ranks as one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes.  People all over the world admire and follow his legacy, but few know his name.  More than 3.5 billion people—half the world’s population—tuned in to watch some part of the Rio 2016 Olympics—as they do for every edition of the Games.  But across thousands of hours of Olympic broadcasts and billions of digital impressions, they seldom hear the name of Coubertin.

And yet, his personal imprint can be seen everywhere at the Games.  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.”

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 the 1870 Franco-Prussian war with Paris under siege and the 200,000 residents of the city literally starving to death. 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, importing 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, Jules Simon, the former Prime Minister of France, delivered the keynote address at the first Universal Peace Congress during that expo, 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.”

At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896, he was shunted aside by the Royal Family and the organizers, denied the public recognition he deserved, and even slandered as a thief by the press, which accused him of trying to steal their rightful heritage.  The Games were always a struggle, but like a great athlete, Pierre persevered, held fast to his vision and led the Olympic Movement through its first seven Olympiads. 

The second and third Games, in Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904, were more or less sideshows to larger World Fairs—and full of problems.  But in London in 1908, Coubertin’s vision of a true sports festival for worldwide youth took shape.  Although marred by excessive nationalism, especially between the Brits and Americans, London helped solidify the Olympics as the world’s major multi-spsort competition.  In Stockholm 2012, which saw the emergence of the brilliant Native American athlete, Jim Thorpe, the Games reached a new of excellence.  And then World War I brought on the cancellation of the Games scheduled for Berlin in 1916. 

After the war, with Coubertin driving hard for a second resurrection, Antwerp stepped up and miraculously produced an Olympic Games in less than two years--and Coubertin's new five-ring logo flew over the Games for the first time on the Olympic flag.  Paris 1924 were the last Games at which Coubertin presided as president of the IOC, and they were truly magnificent.  With the Olympics finally recognized as the pinnacle of international competition, Coubertin retired at the IOC Session in Prague in 1925—and watched from afar as the Games in Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Berlin unfolded in the next three Olympiads, growing ever larger in their pageantry and ever more important in their symbolic meaning. 

As the world rallied to his idea, and the glories of the Games rose to ever greater heights, Coubertin’s personal fortunes declined.  At the end of his life, he was living in apartments generously provided by the municipality of Lausanne.  Nearly bankrupt and in ill health, Coubertin was hectored by a wife embittered by their losses, heartbroken over the mental disabilities that affected both of his children, and left bereft of hope as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s turned his great festival into a tool of political propaganda.

He died alone after a brisk walk in a park in Geneva on September 2, 1937, wondering if his great movement for uniting the world in friendship and peace through sport could possibly survive the coming war. 

It did, of course.  Coubertin’s legacy rose from the ashes of World War II to become the globe’s greatest celebration of humanity. Its value to our world today is far more important, in many ways, than the competition that takes place on the fields of play.  In their symbols and rituals, the Olympic Games fill our fractious world with hope and show us—as the nations of our world march 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 as a giant of our times.

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