About the Writer
From the moment I first encountered Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the Olympic library in Lausanne, Switzerland in April of 1989, I knew he had a vital message for our world today. And the more I learned about him, the more I studied his life and writings, the more convinced I became that he should be more widely known—that his ideas about sport and friendship and peace should be a much greater part of the public conversation, particularly during the Olympic Games. The story that follows will tell you how my Olympic journey unfolded and why I remain committed to spreading the word about the Baron’s idealism.
A Movement, Not Just an Event
My Olympic journey began, as so many have, through a friend.
In the spring of 1988, as I was beginning to train for a fourth marathon, one of my running buddies, Brad Copeland, began to talk to me about Atlanta’s emergent bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. Brad, who bore a striking resemblance to a young Steven Spielberg, ran a small, award-winning graphic design studio, but couldn’t usually make it beyond the ten-mile mark on the road. Nevertheless, as we jogged along, he talked enthusiastically about Billy Payne, a former University of Georgia football star who was chasing the city’s unlikely Olympic dream. Brad wanted me to meet Billy and present my writing credentials for a major project called the “bid books.” Although I was Brad’s go-to writer for almost all of his creative projects—and often helped him pitch clients—I was busy with a lot of other work, including a few annual reports and a religious novel I had just finished after four years of work. An editor in Chicago wanted me to soften the sex scenes and I was thinking about it.
Truth be told, the Olympic bid sounded like a long shot. But then Brad won the design competition for the campaign logo and suddenly his passion became an obsession. He knew Billy and his team were searching for a lead writer for the bid, and he figured if we were hired as a writing/design team, it might open the door to a whole new world. How right he was.
On the day we met Billy, Brad and I were ushered into a boardroom on the 34th floor of the IBM Tower, at the time Atlanta’s newest signature skyscraper. Billy and two of his advisors were seated at the far end of a long conference table built for twenty. Brad and I settled in at the opposite end and we talked across that awkward distance for some time. The conversation went well and when Billy finally asked why he should hire me and why I thought I could write the bid books, I reached into my portfolio and pulled out my pièce de résistance: a set of matching eighty-page brochures on Atlanta and Georgia that had recently won a good number of creative awards for First Union Bank. I laid them on the dark polished surface of the conference table and slid them toward Billy like a shuffleboard player.
Four months later in April of 1989, Brad and I were on a plane to Lausanne, Switzerland, as the Atlanta Organizing Committee’s new creative team. Our assignment was to investigate Olympic history, analyze the bid books from past bid cities and come home with a proposal that would set a new standard for bid book writing and design. Our destination was the Olympic Library, which at the time was housed on the first floor of a modest building just west of the Lausanne train station, about 100 yards up avenue de la Gare.
Fifteen minutes after we entered the library, I was staring for the first time at the white mustache and kindly countenance of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in the pages of an old bid book. A headline by his photo proclaimed that Coubertin had launched the Olympic Games as part of an international movement chartered to unite our world in friendship and peace through sport. I was stunned—and suddenly in the grips of a feeling of destiny, as if I was always meant to be in that room at that moment. The news that the Olympic Games were part of a greater movement, a movement driven by the values of friendship and peace rose from the page like poetry and stirred my heart and soul. “Brad,” I said, “This isn’t just a sporting event, it’s a movement.”
o o o o o
In May of 1969, my brother, Gary, was wounded on Hamburger Hill in Vietnam. Five months earlier I had been in Washington D.C. to protest the war at Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration—and I returned the following November to march in the Vietnam Moratorium, the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history to that point. My brother came home and fully recovered physically, and the war in Vietnam eventually wound down. As the years rolled by my passion for peace took a backseat to raising a family and building a career. When I graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism, my young wife, Carole, and I decided to move to Atlanta with our young son, Jason, to be part of the New South and help build a new future there.
We arrived in October of 1973 and I settled into a writing position with an ad agency in Colony Square in Midtown. But even as I succeeded in the advertising game, eventually becoming one of Atlanta’s leading freelance writer/producers, I couldn’t help but feel I had abandoned a far more important quest, that riveting earlier engagement with a vision for building a more peaceful world.
But suddenly, on that April morning in 1989, I realized that peace had come calling again and here, in the Olympic Movement, was a chance to rekindle my passion—not against something this time, but for something. The revelation led to the larger question, of course, Who was this Baron Pierre de Coubertin and why hadn’t I ever heard of him?
o o o o o
Under the brilliant leadership of Billy Payne, Atlanta ran a very smart campaign. Mayor Andrew Young, the civil rights icon and one of the finest men I’ve ever met, stepped up to work shoulder to shoulder with Billy, telling Atlanta’s story and conveying our vision to the Olympic Family all over the world. The two of them—white and black—embodied the best qualities of the city too busy to hate and helped turn the sentiments of the IOC away from Athens, Greece, the prohibitive centennial Olympic favorite, toward the capital of the New South. On September 18, 1990, in the ballroom at the Grand Prince New Takanawa Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch opened an envelope and pronounced, in his thick Catalan accent, that Acklanta had won the greatest civic prize in global sport. The wave of euphoria that followed was unlike anything I had ever experienced. On the flight home, Brad and I decided to form a partnership—and our new studio, Copeland Hirthler, became the leading design and communications firm in the Olympic world in the 1990s.
Within six months of our victory, it seemed every city bidding for the 2000 Olympic Games—Sydney, Beijing, Berlin, Manchester and Istanbul—made a pilgrimage to Atlanta to learn what Billy and his team could teach them. Billy graciously sent them all over to talk to his creative team. Before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Istanbul had hired Copeland Hirthler to write and design their bid books. In the end, Istanbul lost to Sydney, but the work we did for the bid, particularly the way we wrote about the idealism of the Olympic Movement and its promise for our world, garnered the attention of the IOC and opened other doors for us. Soon we were engaged in the Stockholm 2004 campaign, and then Klagenfurt 2006, a three-country Winter Olympics bid from Austria, Italy and Slovenia.
Brad and I went our separate ways in 2000 as I started a new company with Terrence Burns, and within a month Beijing engaged us to help with their campaign for the 2008 Games. We won that campaign and then went on to win the bid with Vancouver 2010. From there, on my own, I served as a lead writer or senior communications strategist for five more campaigns—New York City 2012, Salzburg 2014, Chicago 2016, Munich 2018, and the aborted 2020 bid for Rome, where I had the pleasure of reteaming with Terrence Burns, with whom I’m working once again part-time on the bid of Los Angeles 2024.
As I labored side-by-side with the teams for each of these aspiring host cities, I met men and women whose imaginations were fired by the magic of the Olympic dream. It became clearer and clearer that it wasn’t only athletic talent that responded to the Olympic call to excellence, but people from every walk of life, every culture, nearly every occupation. Across ten campaigns my belief in the transformative power of the Olympic Movement deepened bid by bid— and my conviction that Baron Pierre de Coubertin was one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes grew stronger year by year.
o o o o o
In February 1992 in the Main Press Center at the Albertville Winter Olympics, I came across a brochure that outlined the activities of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee. On the way back to Atlanta, I decided to form a chapter in the U.S. With Billy Payne’s full endorsement and the tireless help of Cindy Fowler and Susan Watson, we launched the United States Pierre de Coubertin Committee in 1993, seeking to promote the ideals of the founder and the values of the movement in the run up to Atlanta 1996. With Cindy leading the charge, we raised $500,000 and commissioned Raymond Kaskey to design and build a world-class statue of the Baron in Centennial Olympic Park. It became one of the most photographed and filmed landmarks of the Games—and it still graces the green lawns of the park.
We also led the effort to translate approximately 800 pages of Coubertin’s Olympic writings into English for the first time, working with the IOC and Professor Norbert Muller of the University of Mainz in Germany. The project eventually resulted in publication of the book Olympism, which the IOC printed in time for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games—and has subsequently translated into several other languages.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver dozens of presentations on Coubertin’s vision to Olympic assemblies and public gatherings. Invariably, when I’m finished, people express their surprise—sometimes about the movement behind the event, most often about why Coubertin’s name is not more widely known. When you consider that 3.5 billion people—half the world’s population—typically watch some part of the quadrennial Summer Olympic Games on television, it’s stunning that the founder of an event with that kind of reach isn’t part of the daily public parlance. Some years ago, I addressed one of the largest Olympic organizations in the world and when I was finished a gentleman came up to me and said, “I’ve been working here for seventeen years and I’ve never heard any of this.” He had long been part of a global movement of friendship and peace through sport, but had never been taught about its roots.
o o o o o
In 2010, I decided I had to write a book about Baron Pierre de Coubertin. And as I began to search for the right approach—not only to tell his story, but to dramatize his achievements and paint a portrait of the extraordinary transformation of Paris that served as both backdrop and inspiration for him—I decided that historical fiction would give me the most leeway and license. Historical fiction uses fact to create a framework for imaginative interpretation. It allows the writer to surround real personalities with fictional characters—and to create conversations and actions that reveal the possibilities of past events with a telling immediacy.
In The Idealist, I wanted to remain as true as possible to Coubertin’s history while building a compelling and hopefully inspiring narrative. While most of the events, dates and places that represent Coubertin’s drive to resurrect the Olympic Games are accurate, the backstory and the description of the events and conversations themselves are all fiction. Some historic settings and dates have been shifted for dramatic effect. What we know of his life, we know mostly from the surface. Beneath that surface and the facts that shape it, I created a cast of characters who help draw from Coubertin his personal and professional history, interacting with him almost at the level of intimacy found within a family. They become his family in a way, burdened with a need to tell his story—and help the world remember a hero it had forgotten.
George Hirthler is regarded as one of the leading writers and campaign strategists at work in the Olympic Movement today, helping Olympic bid cities build their brands, tell their stories and perform at their best on the international presentation stage.
Over the last two decades, he has served as a leading communications strategist for ten Olympic bid cities. The campaigns of Atlanta 1996, Istanbul 2000, Stockholm 2004, Klagenfurt 2006, Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, NYC2012, Salzburg 2014, Chicago 2016 and Munich 2018 all benefited from his insights, passion and drive for excellence. He also wrote the theme for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, One World, One Dream, and the winning bid for the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games for Innsbruck 2012. He supported LA2028 as a part-time writer as well.
Hirthler has served as a strategic consultant to the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, the Commonwealth Games Federation, numerous Olympic Organizing Committees and Olympic sponsors. In 1996, the Republic of France awarded him the Chevalier in the Order of Arts & Letters for his work in promoting the Olympic Ideals through the United States Pierre de Coubertin Committee, which he had founded three years earlier. In 2004 Sports Business Magazine named him one of the 20 most influential people in the Olympic Movement for his Olympic bid work.
In 2016, he published The Idealist, The Story of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a 564-page work of historical fiction that dramatizes the milestones of the Baron’s life and the founding of the Games. He is currently writing another novel, a work of non-fiction and posting daily quotes on Coubertin Speaks. A graduate of Temple University’s School of Communications and Theatre, he and his wife, Carole, make their home in Atlanta.