Would the founder of the Olympics approve of the Games today?

Current IOC President Thomas Bach touches a monument to Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin in ancient Olympia, southern Greece, in 2016. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Would the founder of the Olympics approve of the Games today?

In 1927, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, visited Ancient Olympia for the unveiling of a monument in his honour.

He wandered through the ruins in pursuit of romantic visions of Ancient Greece. In a letter to the “youth of the world,” he declared the Olympics were not revived “in order to be a subject for film or an object in a museum,” but to be the emblem of a “religion of sport.”

Coubertin felt Olympia and the Olympics were not relics to be studied or read about in textbooks, but the living salvation of the modern world.

The adaptable Olympics

While the current Winter Olympics may be embroiled in scandals — as modern Olympics often are — Coubertin’s vision remains relevant more than 80 years after his death.

Commentators may point to declining interest and other problems facing the Winter Games, but the International Olympic Committee’s recent reiteration of the connection between sport and peace (Sports for Hope), the 2016 Refugee Team and the possibility of these Games helping ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, if only in a small way, makes Coubertin, perhaps, look less naive and more visionary.

Coubertin’s reputation rests on the Olympic movement. His ideal of sports as a tool for peace and his faith in youth and education bear remembering in uncertain times

Pierre de Coubertin (1925) [CC], via Wikimedia Commons

As the Olympic movement contemplates change, Coubertin’s legacy requires sober assessment.

It’s not clear Coubertin himself would recognize — much less approve of — the current incarnation of the Olympics. He feared the Games would become a spectacle and despaired that large stadiums and crowds would dull the moral quality of his international sports festival.

He would find female participation odd, to say the least, though it isn’t clear he wouldn’t support the IOC’s Women in Sport initiatives. Coubertin thought the Olympics were adaptable to present conditions — whether in 1896 or 2018. To him, the Olympics were a means to an end.

Olympic salvation

Coubertin’s original interest was the educational potential of sport. Even as the Olympic Games became successful, the moral aspects of sport were central to him.

He saw a historic moment for sport in the 19th century, which began what he called “the physical renaissance.” (Olympism: 283) His was a messianic mission: “It is only in certain historical epochs that physical exercise is called upon by general consent to accomplish a task of renewal, or restoration, or general rigour. We are living in such an epoch.” (Olympism: 221)

In the midst of this mission, Coubertin recognized what to him were the signs of imminent decline: Ambition, money and specialization. He decided the way to prevent what he saw as sport’s corruption was to place athletics under “the patronage of Classical Antiquity!” (Olympism: 309).

Coubertin did not intend to recreate the ancient Olympics, but he was inspired by them. His aim was to promote what he thought was ancient sport’s true virtue, “the merit of seeking effort only in the effort itself… to worship effort in a disinterested way and to love difficult things simply because they are difficult.” (Olmypism: 295)

Whether the IOC has carefully managed this legacy or not, Coubertin’s vision remains.

Antiquity and modernity

Coubertin’s understanding of sport was anything but antiquarian. He saw athletics as modern, especially in its democratic and international character. He believed that athletics would promote international co-operation and, in fact, peace.

Democracy, internationalism and peace were the benefits modern sport had to offer the world. These would be coupled with the moral benefits of the pursuit of effort for effort’s sake. Sport was a fusing of old and new, tradition and innovation.

A priestess dances next to the Olympic flame during the lighting ceremony for the 2006 Turin Winter Games in the Pierre de Coubertin Grove in Ancient Olympia, Greece. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

Ancient Greece was a model, equal parts inspiration and lustrous veneer. “Hellenism again!” cried Coubertin in one of his last publications in 1936, invoking the ancient Greek past. “We used to believe that Hellenism was a thing of the past, a dead notion, impossible to revive and inapplicable to current conditions. This is wrong. Hellenism is part of the future.”

The Olympic future

At the Panathenaic stadium at Athens, the venue for the first modern Olympics in 1896, Coubertin saw a manifestation of the merger of past and present in Olympic sport.

He received an inscribed seat at the stadium and watched a university team. He observed the novelties (“cinder track, spiked shoes”) but saw, reborn, an eternal athlete. “Their souls were the same and their youth ringed around by the same youthful surge of muscular joy.” (Olympism: 512)

The old Panathenaic Olympic Stadium of Athens, a marble reconstruction of the city’s ancient stadium built for the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Coubertin spied one of these student-athletes as he prepared to leave the stadium: “The student [was] full of the joy of living, his body suffused with the voluptuous glow that comes only from healthy tiredness induced by sport… He was like a sculpture representing neo-Olympism, the symbol of future victories awaiting Hellenism—still very much alive, and eternally adapted to human circumstances.”

Naive or visionary?

Coubertin’s romantic vision for sport, young people and peace may seem naive. (Though others have put a similar vision into practice in the home of another ancient Greek athletic festival.) Or, considering the incredible number of corporate partners in the modern Olympics, we may choose to be cynics.

Nonetheless, it remains the case that 124 years after he fitted modern sport with an ancient pedigree, Coubertin’s Games remain an icon, and an enduring reminder of the possibilities of internationalism — often in spite of themselves.