Books & Manuscripts

The Original Olympic Manifesto Brings Home the Gold

By Halina Loft
In the Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on 18 December, 2019, Sotheby's sold the original copy of Pierre de Coubertin's 1892 speech outlining his vision for a modern revival of the ancient Olympic Games for an astounding $8,806,500.

O n 18 December, The Olympic Manifesto, an autographed manuscript by Pierre de Coubertin dating to 1892, sold for an astounding $8,806,500 – besting the high estimate by nearly 8 million and setting the world auction record for sports memorabilia. This manuscript, which Coubertin inscribed over 14-pages, is the manifesto for the modern Olympic Games. While a high-quality copy of the manifesto was displayed at Copenhagen City Hall during the 2009 Olympic Congress, the original manuscript had never before been exhibited publicly until the present auction.

COUBERTIN, PIERRE DE, The Olympic Manifesto, 1892. Sold for $8,806,500.

In 1892, Coubertin – a French aristocrat, educator and fierce advocate for modern athletics – delivered this manifesto and effectively altered the course of international athletics. Standing before a crowd gathered at the Sorbonne to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the French Athletics Association, Coubertin outlined his idealist vision for a revival of the ancient Olympic Games. He posited that new ideas, technologies and systems (specifically the telegraph, railways and developments in scientific research) were propelling human progress and innovation to unfathomable heights – and in this vein, athletic endeavors should no longer exist primarily as military pursuits.

Citing case studies in countries such as Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and France, Coubertin argued that athleticism should evolve into something greater: a pursuit of individual excellence that benefits both the athlete and society at large. Coubertin had a vision of a world united by athletic pursuits, with an emphasis on the importance of free individualism and civilized, peaceful nationalism. Two years after giving the speech, Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee – and in 1896, the modern Olympic Games debuted in Athens.

In his speech, Coubertin espoused the power of international competition to bring citizens of the world closer, help use overcome our differences and cultivate democracy:

"As for athletics in general, I do not know what its fate will be, but I wish to draw your attention to the important fact that it presents two new features, this time in the series of these secular transformations. It is democratic and international. The first of these characteristics will guarantee its future: anything that is not democratic is no longer viable today. As for the second, it opens unexpected prospects to us. There are people whom you call Utopians when they talk to you about the disappearance of war, and you are not altogether wrong; but there are others who believe in the progressive reduction in the chances of war, and I see no Utopia in this. It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more. Those who have seen 30,000 people running through the rain to attend a football match will not think that I am exaggerating."
Pierre de Coubertin, quoted from the 'Olympic Manifesto'

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, author of the original Olympic Games manifesto written in 1892. Library of Congress

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this manuscript; to this day, Coubertin's words stand as testament to the democratic, altruistic nature of modern sportsmanship and competition. With every iteration of the modern Olympic Games, countries gather to celebrate Coubertin's vision, and test the limits of human capability.

To athletes, Coubertin's vision of a modern Olympics is especially poignant. As Becky Wing, member of Great Britain's 2008 Summer Olympics artistic gymnastics team, notes:

"The Olympics are different from any other sporting event I've taken part in – there's an incredibly careful balance between celebrating individual achievements and focusing on one common goal: pushing the human body to be the absolute best it can be. Because of this, all differences are prejudices are put aside."
Becky Wing, member of the British women's 2008 Summer Olympics artistic gymnastics team

The members of the First International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin second from the left. Athens, circa 1896 by Albert Meyer (official Report 1896, Part II, Page 5)

For Jade Johnson, a long jumper who represented Great Britain at the Summer Olympics in 2004 and 2008, the Olympics offered an opportunity to feel accepted by the world and honored for her athletic achievements. As Johnson notes:

"The Olympics ask people to put their differences aside and come together for a common goal: supporting their nation and athletes. It gives people hope to see that it is, in fact, possible to achieve the nearly impossible. And once we have hope, we can find the courage to look past all the challenges and obstacles life may throw our way."
Jade Johnson, competed on Great Britian's Track and Field Team in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympic Games

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