The speech that fizzled, then set the Olympic movement ablaze
The day was meticulously planned. After years of research, the 29-year-old baron went public with his idea to revive the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece in the modern era. He chose the old Sorbonne in Paris and on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the founding of the French athletics association to give his speech. It was a great setting for a big idea: a sporting competition to bring nations together and learn from each other – to promote internationalism and world peace, nothing more and nothing less. .
The speech became dull.
David Wallechinsky, author and founding member of the International Association of Olympic Historians. “He gave a good speech and the wrong audience – an audience that wasn’t sympathetic enough or open enough.”
“Coubertin realized he didn’t give it up, but he persevered,” adds Wallechinsky. “He realized that idealism wasn’t enough. He had to get down and get the job done.”
Stephan Wassong, an expert on Coubertin’s life and head of the Institute of Sports History at the German Sports University of Cologne, said that in 1892, France had not yet taken organized sports seriously. Physical activity and organized sports are part of the military curriculum but not the school curriculum, unlike the US and UK.
But it was precisely where sport could be combined with his other passions that gave Coubertin’s idea an edge. A sworn internationalist whose writings detailed the “Awakening” at the World’s Fair of 1878, he was involved in the world peace movement, which was like many other movements, centered in Paris at the time.
Upon witnessing the Englishman Hodgson Pratt propose an international student exchange to promote tolerance, at the 1891 World Peace Conference in Rome, “Coubertin floated the idea and … affiliated it’s with sports,” Wassong said.
Wallechinsky said this was “not a popular concept”, especially among leaders in the era of colonialism and the rivalry between the imperialist ambitions of European nations. But Coubertin believed in his idea.
As the night of the Sorbonne came, the speech sealed the Hellenic revival in popularity, and used the fame of the Ancient Olympic Games to support his idea. Coubertin praised the progress of sport from Germany to Sweden, England to the US, lamented the slow start of France, and called sport “the free trade of the future.”
Sport was placed on the same pedestal with the scientific and technical discoveries of the time: “Clearly the telegraph, the railway, the telephone, the passion for scientific research, the congress and the exhibition has done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention,” Coubertin said. “Well, I hope that athletics will do even more. Those who have seen 30,000 people rain to attend a football match will not think that I am exaggerating.”
Wassong said that the speech “clearly laid out the educational fundamentals of the Olympic idea – of Olympicism, and its mission to build a better world through sport.”
But even though his lofty rhetoric left his ears deaf that night, Coubertin had the will and resources, and has lobbied across Europe for his modern Olympic Games.
A complex legacy
He also said that the Olympic movement “needs to be constantly updated and adjusted to the prevailing fervor,” noted Wassong. So while the movement is indebted to Coubertin, certain views he holds, by his own admission, should happily be left behind and detached from the Olympics.
“We will have about 11,000 athletes in Tokyo,” said Wallechinsky. “The vast majority – I would say 80% or so – won’t have any chance of winning a medal, and they know it… But most of them are there to set personal records. , to set a national record, to do the best he can. I think de Coubertin would love that.”
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