What Baron Pierre de Coubertin really thought about the Olympic Games

You are probably aware that the revival of the ancient Greek Olympic Games in 1896 is attributed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat.  If you didn’t know that, by the end of 2012 you definitely will!  You may also know that there are alternative stories about this enterprise. 

Some people argue that the Greeks have a good claim to the honour of the revival, because they staged several ‘Olympic’ festivals in the nineteenth century before Baron de Coubertin started his.  Others hold that Dr William Penny Brookes should share the honours, because he had instituted some English ‘Olympic Games’ at Much Wenlock in Shropshire in 1850.  None of these forerunners was international in scope, or claimed to be an actual revival of the Greek event, as did the 1896 Games associated with Baron de Coubertin. The International Olympic Committee, which was founded by Coubertin, claims him as the founder of the modern Games and holds that his philosophy of life and sport, as represented in the book Olympism: Selected Writings, published in 2000, is still very important today.  This book is 750 pages long, and quite repetitive; if we read it attentively, however, we discover some strange things that Coubertin wrote about ancient Greece, and some even stranger that he wrote about the revival of the Olympic Games.

Like others of his time, Coubertin believed that ancient Greece had discovered the secret of harmony between body and mind, which subsequent generations had lost.  Unlike his contemporaries, he believed that the balance could be rediscovered in a proper culture of sporting activity, bringing the Olympic Games into the modern era.  But this did not mean that he was an uncritical admirer of ancient Greece.  He writes that the layout of ancient Olympia was ‘chaotic’, ‘impractical and bothersome’, and pities the ancient spectators ‘packed together in rigid lines on their marble benches, broiling in the sun or chilled in the shade’ (Olympism p. 352).  He compares ancient sports facilities unfavourably to the technical and architectural improvements of modern times (257, 276).  He is well aware that ancient society was scarred by slavery, although he seems to think that alcoholism is as great a blemish on modern society (277).   He also sees that ancient Greece was not necessarily morally superior to the present day, and even that ancient Greeks did not always value athletic activity that much:  ‘ The culture of sports in Greece, moreover, was never as widespread as we have believed... Many authors convey widespread notions of long-standing hostility on the part of public opinion with regard to physical exercises.  Besides, those who engaged in exercise were not at all seen as models of virtue and continence’ (167).  He claims too that the ancient Olympic Games owed their long life to ‘the spectacle, the hubbub, and the advertising’ (209), rather than simply to their harmony between body and mind, and that they eventually succumbed to corruption.

Coubertin's goal was that the revived Olympic Games would bring together the best of the ancient world with the best of modern times.  In fact, however, Coubertin was quite quick to find a kind of corruption even in his revived Games, after 1896.  One theme in Olympism is that the modern Games are never quite good enough; they never quite live up to the imagined ancient Greek ideal, and consequently, Coubertin is constantly inventing new institutions which will ‘cure’ the modern Games of whatever problems he judges that they have. After the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, he complained that ‘all efforts had been concentrated on the sporting side of the venture ...; there had been no congress, no conference, no sign of any moral or educational purpose’ (369).  Sports alone are not enough to recreate the supposed Greek ideal of harmony between body and mind.  He therefore produced plans for several other institutions which would either improve the Olympics or replace them.  First of all, he agreed with the Greek authorities that while the Olympic Games would go to a different country every four years, there would be a parallel series of Games which would stay in Athens, in the birthplace of Greek culture (349).  The first of these Athens Games happened in 1906, but no others followed; the new institution came to nothing.  Instead, in 1909, Coubertin wrote at length about building ‘A Modern Olympia’, which would form a permanent home for the Games (256-68). He designed buildings for this Olympic site and drew up proposed rules, including that participants should meet a ‘moral qualification’ (265).  Fortunately, he does not explain in detail what this qualification would consist of.  He also argues that there should be a maximum of ten thousand spectators (268).  For comparison, let’s recall that the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing held 90,000, and probably a billion people watched the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony on TV.

In 1927 Coubertin invented yet another institution to correct what he saw as the problems with the modern Olympics.  He planned to revive the Panathenaia, the ancient festival of Athens  (279-80).  He wrote that it must be acknowledged that there was something lacking about the celebration of modern Olympiads ...  A solution was found... the restoration of the famous ‘Panathenaea’, in their amplification and transformation... They will consist of three parts: athletic contests in the stadium, an historical procession from the stadium to the foot of the Acropolis, and finally a music festival in the theatre of Herod Atticus... The athletic contests will not last more than two or three days at most, for they will be strictly limited to the ancient trials of strength and skill...all according to the ancient methods which differ widely from ours.   While the revived Olympic Games tried to bring a Greek ideal into the modern world, the ‘Panathenaea’ deliberately kept to Greek methods.  This institution too came to nothing.

The revived Olympics went from success to success, growing bigger and more popular, but despite this, they sometimes seem in Coubertin's writings almost to be a problem in themselves.  In 1928, for instance, he wrote that the construction of stadiums is a betrayal of the Olympic ideal and a means to corrupt athletics (184):  
Stadiums are being built unwisely all over the place... once seats for forty thousand spectators are built, you have to fill them, and that means drawing a crowd.  To draw that crowd, you will need a publicity campaign, and to justify the publicity campaign you will have to draw sensational numbers... Almost all the stadiums built in recent years are the result of local and, too often, commercial interests, not Olympic interests at all.  Now ... people are on the attack against the athletes, accusing them of the corruption that has been forced on them for the past twenty years.  I admire the fact that athletes are not a hundred times more corrupt than they actually are.  In my view, these oversized showcases are the source of corruption at the root of the evil.  
The success of the revived Olympics has in this account led directly, Coubertin’s eyes, to its corruption and failure.  

In some of Coubertin’s writings he develops the idea of reviving the ancient Greek gymnasium as a replacement for the modern Olympics.  By the ancient gymnasium, he understands a place where ordinary citizens could exercise together and in so doing, could strengthen bonds among them, leading to greater social harmony.  The gymnasium as he dreams of it does not have anything to do with competition or the training of elite athletes, and since it is a kind of civic centre as well as a place for exercise, it is not like our modern ‘gym’ either.  In 1918 he argues that the balance between mind and body ‘is not sufficiently served by being glorified before the world once every four years in the Olympic Games.  It needs permanent factories.  The Olympic factory of the ancient world was the gymnasium.  The Olympiads have been renewed, but the gymnasium of antiquity has not – as yet.  It must be’ (217).  In 1927 he goes into more detail:   ‘I wish to see a revival in an extended and modernized form of the municipal gymnasium of antiquity.  I should like a place where petitions and records are forbidden, but where any adult at any convenient moment, and without risk of being spied upon and criticized, may practice the simplest forms of exercise’ (235).  As you can see, at this point he is moving in the direction diametrically opposite from how the modern Olympic Games have developed, since they have become  ever more concerned with ‘records’.  In other ways too Coubertin was opposed to developments in the modern Olympics.  He is famous for disliking team sports – he held that the individual athlete should be the focus of the Games – and he strongly resisted the entry of women into competitive sport.  A product of his time, he held throughout his life that women should be there only to applaud the victors (713).

Interestingly, Coubertin on occasion supported the ‘Workers’ Olympiads’, which were instituted in opposition to the Olympic Games and were held several times between the two world wars.  In 1940 Coubertin welcomed them:  ‘Perhaps the expansion of the Worker’s Games will profoundly change the nature of the Thirteenth Olympiad.  So much the better, so much the better!  The Games must embrace the life of the world...’ (521).  In several of his writings he disputed the idea that sports were the prerogative of an elite, claiming that all members of society should join in sports in order to promote unity across classes.  Writing again about reviving the Greek gymnasium, he claims that it will bring about public health, victory over alcoholism, and social peace – the exact benefits that he had earlier claimed for the revived Olympic Games (674).

It has become a commonplace to say that the modern Games are as far from Coubertin’s ideal as they are from the ancient Greeks.  What I did not realise, until I began to read Olympism, was that Coubertin himself was dissatisfied enough with the modern Games to invent several other versions of them, including the Modern Olympia, the Panathenaea and the revived ancient gymnasium that I have just discussed.  None of these worked, and since Coubertin's time the International Olympic Committee has overseen great changes in the organisation of the Olympic Games, none of which converges with Coubertin’s vision.   These include increased commercialisation, hugely expanded television and internet exposure, and the amplified role of the opening ceremonies.    At the same time the International Olympic Committee has repeatedly invented new institutions such as the Winter Olympics, the Olympic Academy, the Olympic Museum, the Olympic Studies Centre, and the Youth Olympics.  In a strange way, then, Coubertin’s ideals and the development of the modern Games intersect as well as pulling apart; both display a restless creativity that finds an outlet in new forms of activity. Happily for us within Classics, such activity continues to provide more occasions to talk about the ancient Greeks.