COUBERTIN, PIERRE DE
The Olympic Manifesto
Autograph manuscript, 14 pages (11 x 7 1/8 in.; 280 x 180 mm) on 14 leaves of unwatermarked wove paper, in French, neatly written in sepia ink on the versos of unaccomplished registration forms for the June 1889 “Congrès pour la propagation des exercices physiques dans l'éducation” (Congress promoting physical exercise) organized by Coubertin, numbered –14, first page headed in another hand “Conférence faite à la Sorbonne au Jubilé de l’U.S.T.S.A [sic. U.S.F.S.A.] Nov. 1892” (Address given at the Sorbonne during the Jubilee of the U.S.T.S.A Nov. 1892), final leaf with Coubertin’s autograph notes for the preparation of the lecture, the whole extensively revised and emended by the author in the course of composition, occasional pencil underscoring; lightly browned, first leaf with minor marginal chipping and a one-and-a-half inch tear at right margin not affecting legibility.
The very moment of conception of the modern Olympic Games: Pierre de Coubertin's first public call for the revival of the Olympic games, delivered as the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques in 1892, more than eighteen months before Coubertin organized the first International Olympic Committee. At the conclusion of a detailed survey of the history and current state of sport in modern life, Coubertin boldly proclaimed that the time had come to reintroduce the concept of the ancient Greek athletic festivals that he so revered—indeed, he argued that a world tottering on the brink of a new and uncertain century both demanded and necessitated a return to Olympian ideals:
"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. Let us export rowers, runners and fencers; this is the free trade of the future, and the day that it is introduced into the everyday existence of old Europe, the cause of peace will receive new and powerful support.
"That is enough to encourage me to think now about the second part of my program. I hope that you will help me as you have helped me thus far and that, with you, I shall be able to continue and realize, on a basis appropriate to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and beneficent work: the re-establishment of the Olympic Games."
Remarkably, less than four years after planting this first seed at a domestic sporting conference, Coubertin would witness the Games of the I Olympiad, held at Panathenaic Stadium and other venues around Athens and featuring 241 athletes from fourteen nations competing in forty-three events across nine sports. Writing of Coubertin and the resurrection of the Olympic Games, John MacAloon declares that "no modern institution of comparable significance owes so much to a single man."
Charles Pierre de Frédy, later Baron de Coubertin, was born into an aristocratic French family on the first day of 1863. He was shaped by his education (the Jesuit Externat de la rue de Vienne, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, the Faculte de Droit, the École Libre des Sciences Politiques) and by the tumultuous times of his youth (France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the establishment of the French Third Republic). Coubertin became a prolific author, publishing more than a dozen books on a variety of subjects, but his principal interest was education and, in particular, physical education and the role of sport in developing character.
His interest in physical education took him on tours of schools and universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, and he was particularly influenced by his onsite study, in 1883, of English public schools, including Rugby. During his time in England he also encountered Charles Kingsley's concept of "muscular Christianity."
Coubertin was familiar with Rugby School from reading Thomas Hughes’s didactic novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857; French translation 1875), and he also owned Arthur Penrhyn Stanley's Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D. Dr. Thomas Arnold, who served as the school’s headmaster from 1828 until his death in 1842, is featured as a character in Tom Brown’s School Days.
Arnold introduced reforms to the English educational system—grounded in his syllabus of emphasizing “First religious and moral principle, second gentlemanly conduct, third academic ability”—that had enormous influence on Coubertin, as recorded in the study that came out of his English sojourn, L'Éducation en Angleterre (1888). In the present address, Coubertin praises Arnold—who he claimed to have seen in a vision at Rugby chapel—as “that great citizen, … the leader and classic model of English educators, [who] gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education.” Indeed, Coubertin makes clear that he still believes, as he wrote earlier in L'Éducation en Angleterre, that "the role played there by sport [is] what appears to me most worthy of notice in English education" (quoted in MacAloon).
Coubertin was an inveterate founder and joiner of social committees and societies, including the Comité pour la Propagation des Exercises Physiques, which gradually advanced a preference for organized, competitive sport rather than simply physical exercise. In 1890 he co-founded the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques, which took under its umbrella several earlier organizations. In conjunction with the USFSA, Coubertin also began La Revue Athlétique, the first French magazine devoted exclusively to sport.
It was at the second annual meeting of the USFSA that Coubertin decided to call for the revival of the Olympic Games as a modern, international competition that could also contribute to world peace and understanding. Believing that the introduction of this grand scheme deserved a grand setting, Coubertin decided to date the founding of the USFSA to one of its predecessor organizations, the Société de Courses à Pied, so that he could promote what was in fact the second yearly meeting of the USFSA as a "fifth anniversary jubilee." In his Mémoires olympiques (1931), Coubertin admitted that "we gave a birthday party …and 'switched the babies'" (quoted in MacAloon).
The annual meeting, whether the second or the fifth, was preceded by three days of receptions and athletic competitions. After various literary and service prizes were awarded, three speakers addressed the membership. Georges Bourdon lectured on sport in antiquity, Jean Jules Jusserand spoke about sport in the Middle Ages, and Coubertin concluded the event with the present address on sport in modern times.
As his manuscript shows, Coubertin labored carefully over his speech: every page bears multiple revisions and the initial paragraph of the concluding section of the text is crossed out and entirely rewritten. In addition, the final leaf of the manuscript bears on its printed recto Coubertin's initial notes, including a list of countries that he may have seen as participants in the revived Olympics (“Europe | Russie | Allemagne lutte | Bohème lutte pour l’indépendance | Hongrie | Suisse | civisme | Italie=guerre | Suède et [?] | Espagne | France | Angleterre et Colonies | Amérique Espagnole | Etats-Unis | Belgique”) as well as a few topics he was considering discussing ("Intransigeance et formation de certains gymnastes | Difficultés d’organisation | Réglements | nécessité d’un amateurisme” [Intransigence and training of some gymnasts | Difficulties of organisation | Rules | necessity of an amateurism]).
Coubertin conceals the ultimate purpose of his address until its concluding paragraphs, seeming instead to be simply presenting a survey of global physical education practices and suggesting a synthesis of what he considers the three capitals of physical exercise in the modern world: Berlin, Stockholm, and London. Each of these systems, Coubertin claims, seeks to advance a different goal through physical education: respectively, military preparedness, hygiene, and recreational sport.
After his introduction, Coubertin presents his thesis in five roman-numbered sections. The first contains an overview by nation of the history and present state of physical education, ending that section by concluding that while he may “appear to be abandoning sport to study diplomatic issues,” he is actually “merely insisting on that important social law, namely that there exists a close correlation between frame of mind, ambitions, the tendencies of a people and the way in which they understand and organize physical exercise in their country.”
The second portion of the address focuses on the system of gymnastics founded in Stockholm by Pehr Henrik Ling and evidently based on Chinese exercises. "To move from German gymnastics to Swedish gymnastics," Coubertin writes, "is to hear a pastoral symphony after a heroic symphony." Interestingly, in this lecture Coubertin credits ice skating more than the Ling system of gymnastics for the “good health, the smooth balance of mind and body [and the] tranquil temperament” of the Swedes (something he may have remembered when the Winter Olympic Games were founded in 1924, during his presidency of the International Olympic Committee.)
Coubertin’s survey continues with a review, in the third portion of his text, of the place of sport in the English-speaking world. In the United Kingdom, and particularly at Oxford and Cambridge, he saw elements of the philhellenism that so informed his own view of physical education: “On the days of major [athletic] meetings, business stops, offices empty, and there is a truce like in Ancient Greece to applaud the young people as they pass.”
The United States is particularly congratulated for its embrace of recreational sport and the development of a sporting press. And Coubertin finds the influence of English athletics appearing as well in “Australia, the Cape, Jamaica, Hong Kong [and] the Indies.”
As he brings this section to a close, Coubertin contends this new class of amateur athletes had demonstrated that athletic endeavor was no longer primarily the domain of military training, but had evolved into a pursuit of individual excellence that had personal as well as societal benefits. These “young people,” Coubertin writes, have “the merit of seeking in effort only the effort itself, of imposing upon themselves constraints to which no one is pushing them, of submitting themselves to a discipline which is doubly effective because freely consented to. It is very noble and fine to think of war; it is laudable to think of hygiene; but it is more perfectly human to worship effort in a disinterested way and love difficult things simply because they are difficult. That,” he concludes, “is the philosophy of sport in general and of our union in particular.”
Coubertin next speaks, in section IV, of his homeland and his home club, crediting the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques and all of its members on the "fifth" anniversary of its founding with unifying all those who wanted to advance the role of sport in France, especially cross-country racing, alpine sports, and the national sport of fencing. This portion of the address is far shorter than those that preceded it, almost as though Coubertin could scarcely wait to get to the conclusion and his extraordinary announcement.
In the deleted opening of the fifth and final section of his address, Coubertin was focused on the parochial mission of the USFSA, but in the revised and definitive text he broadens his outlook dramatically in the words quoted at greater length above: "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. … That is enough to encourage me to think now about the second part of my program. I hope that you will help me as you have helped me thus far and that, with you, I shall be able to continue and realize, on a basis appropriate to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and beneficent work: the re-establishment of the Olympic Games."
Pierre de Coubertin imbued his vision of modern Olympic Games with ideas from Greek classicism, conservative paternalism, a liberal emphasis on the importance of free individualism and “self-help,” public school and British athletics; individual and social hygienism; and an emerging fin-de-siècle dream of civilized and peaceful nationalism. He believed that this distinctively modern project, and the resynthesis of ideas that supported it, would require the creation of a new and fully independent international organization. As sports historian Patrick Clastres suggests, Coubertin’s vision rejected the international socialist dream of a world without wars in favor of the attempt to “elaborate an international code based on principles of arbitration between nations, to educate the peoples teaching them history which is not restricted to the dry enumeration of the names of battles but which accounts for the progress of mankind, and to favour cross-border economic and cultural exchanges” (quoted in Gruneau).
Coubertin served as the president of the International Olympic Committee from 1896 to 1925 and lived to see ten Olympic Games (the sixth Olympiad, scheduled for Berlin in 1916, was cancelled because of World War I), but their survival after the highly successful inaugural Athens Games was uncertain. The 1900 Paris Games and 1904 St. Louis Games were both appended to—and greatly overshadowed by—World's Fairs. The 1912 Stockholm Games (where Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and the decathlon) put the Olympic movement back on track and fulfilled the promise of the 1896 Games. "The wonder," John MacAloon writes, "is that during these 16 years de Coubertin did not give up and the Olympic Games did not vanish, to be remembered only as a fin-de-siècle curiosity. Pierre de Coubertin's greatest display of prouesse came during these dark years. Even more than the 'noble works, glorious examples, and generous sacrifices' that led to the Athens games, these patient, persevering and not very heroic efforts earned him the right to his epithet le Renovateur. And the survival of the Olympic Games through this period testified eloquently to the need the modern world had, and has, for them."
Greece and the Olympic Games—in particular the first iteration of the modern Games in Athens—retained an unbreakable hold on Coubertin until the end of his life. In accordance with his wishes, following his death in Geneva in 1937, his heart was taken from his body and sent to Greece, where it was interred at the foot of the Hill of Kronos in Olympia.
Pierre de Coubertin, L'Éducation en Angleterre (Paris, 1888); Coubertin, Mémoires Olympiques (Lausanne, 1931); Coubertin, Le Manifeste Olympique (Lausanne, 1994); Coubertin, “The Olympic Manifesto—Le Manifeste Olympique,” in a special issue of Civilization Magazine (Beijing, January 2008); Richard Gruneau, Sport and Modernity (Cambridge and Medford, 2017); John J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games, 2nd ed. (London and New York, 2008)
Baron Pierre de Coubertin — a private collection in Switzerland — Marquis François d’Amat, acquired late twentieth century, by bequest to — the present owner
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