Stone coubertin. The embarrassing father of the modern Olympics

Stone coubertin. The embarrassing father of the modern Olympics
Stone coubertin. The embarrassing father of the modern Olympics

Visionary and humanist? Misogynistic and reactionary? All this at once? The personality of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, continues to divide, while his wax effigy entered the Grévin museum in Paris on Tuesday.

“Paris-2024 has not done much around Pierre de Coubertin, either to promote him or to make him known,” regrets Diane de Navacelle, great-great-niece of the baron, in an interview with AFP.

Pierre de Coubertin was never at the avant-garde, he was never a progressive, and on certain subjects he is rather reactionary, in any case conservative

And for good reason! Passed through the prism of 21st century values, a few sentences are enough to cast doubt, even to discredit this aristocrat, born in 1863 and imbued with the values ​​of his time and his environment.

Regarding women, whom he did not want to see in the stadiums, Coubertin wrote this tirade in 1922: “A small female Olympiad next to the large male Olympiad. Where would the point be? (…) Uninteresting, unsightly , and we do not hesitate to add: incorrect, such would be, in our opinion, this women’s half-Olympiad.”

At his death, this paradoxical character requests that his body be buried in Lausanne, but that his heart be transported to Olympia on the site of the ancient Games.

Inadmissible? Not in his time, says his descendant. “In 1920, she recalls, women did not have the right to vote, were subject to their husbands, had no financial autonomy, were confined to dresses and corsets, and doctors ensured that sport risk of preventing them from having children.

On another ground, today we are unearthing his comments favorable to colonization and a sentence on “inferior races”.
But he was especially criticized, after his death, for his unrestrained admiration for the grandiose organization of the Berlin Games in 1936 by the Nazi regime: “How would you expect me to repudiate this celebration?” he wrote in the press at the time, at age 73.

“What excited him was to see for the first time a country put in exceptional resources to host the Olympics, building the largest athletics stadium of the time,” recognizes Ms. de Navacelle: “It’s is this what he sees, a crowning achievement of his life’s work. So yes, he is happy and amazed.

Especially since the Reich courted him by organizing – in vain – his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hitler even offered to send him a private train to bring him back from Geneva, where he lived, to Berlin. Which Coubertin refused.

He died a year later, in 1937, “too early to be confused in opprobrium, but too late to be absolved of heavy connivance”, summarizes his biographer Daniel Bermond.
“It is certainly necessary to place him in a historical context, but even in his time, he was never at the avant-garde, he was never a progressive, and on certain subjects he is rather reactionary, in all conservative case”, deciphers sports historian Patrick Clastres.

At a very young age, he launched a crusade for sport at school, modeled on what he observed in England. But in a France where physical activity is widely denigrated by the intellectual class, he fails. It was then that he thought of proposing to the whole world to restore in Greece the Games of Antiquity, abandoned at the end of the 4th century AD.

And on October 23, 1894, in the Sorbonne amphitheater, he laid the foundations for his life’s work: he adopted the principle of a revival of the Games in 1896 in Athens, by introducing modern sports. And above all by proposing roaming of the site, against the wishes of the Greeks, who hoped to keep the Games for eternity.

He also links the Games to the international movement for peace, and enacts the famous “Olympic values”, respect for the adversary, loyalty, universality, borrowed in part from the codes of the aristocracy of his time.

Having become president of the IOC, he organized the first Paris Games in 1900, which went completely unnoticed. Annoyed, Coubertin fought for twenty years to bring them back to his city, in 1924. After which, he retired, to the great relief of a CIO who could no longer stand his autocratic ways.

At his death, this paradoxical character, straddling eras and social circles, left an astonishing will: he asked that his body be buried in Lausanne, but that his heart be transported to Olympia on the site of the ancient Games. It is still there, inserted in a stele where Olympic enthusiasts can come and pay homage to this controversial father of the modern Olympics.

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