Why is the Olympic ideal so pervasive? The Games themselves have, practically from the beginning, been fraught with controversy: politics, scandals, poor sportsmanship, cost overruns. Every journalist seems to find something to criticize or yawns at the competitions, calling them bloated or lackluster. Every pundit declares that this time, because of all the fighting between countries and cost overruns, the Olympics are really dead. Consider this summation written by John Robert Tunis:
That the Olympics are … productive of keen competition, new records, immense crowds, profitable weeks for the hotel-keepers and shop-owners of the city in which they are held… But that they have succeeded in becoming a beneficial force in the spreading of peace and good will throughout the world… is not so certain. For, as Mr. George Trevor of the New York Sun said recently…: “The history of the Olympic Games since their arrival in 1896 has been marked by sporadic dissension, bickering, heartburning, and one or two old-fashioned rows.”John Robert Tunis, Harper’s, August 1928.
And that was back in 1928. Still, the Olympics endure.
The reason that this athletic tournament has lasted for over a hundred years is not because of the sporting achievements, not because countries crow over piles of medals, and not even because they embody tremendous entertainment for the viewing public. The Olympic ideal has lasted because of the dude who pulled together all the fractious national egos to reinstate the modern Games in the first place: Pierre de Coubertin.
Ideas as Audacious as the Moustache
Baron Pierre De Coubertin was born in 1863 and died in 1937; grew up in the Industrial Age and the Victorian Era and lived through war after increasingly larger war; the end of slavery in the U.S., the consolidation of nation states, and women’s suffrage in the First World. He was raised in an aristocratic French family but was intrigued as a young man on with the notion of physical education as a core way to build both moral and physical strength. More importantly, he saw sport as a venue for peace.
It’s a weird notion to believe that sports competition–athletes trying to beat each other to a finish line or pin each other on a wrestling mat–could lead to peace between nations. You can imagine there might be a cessation of hostilities during the Games, but having peace come about from sport? Yet, this is precisely what de Coubertin advocated:
Peace could be the product only of a better world; a better world could be brought about only by better individuals; and better individuals could be developed only by the give and take, the buffering and battering, the stress and strain of free competition.de Coubertin, quoted in 100 Years of Sports Business
Diversity of Athletes, Diversity of Competition
The Games weren’t created because de Coubertin wanted his team to win or liked to watch people compete, but because he truly believed that bringing the world together for this purpose and this focus might broker a fragile understanding. Every picture that shows a competitor from one nation helping another cements that understanding.
These ideas are so pervasive because they still represent the original notion of ” not the triumph but the struggle.” Because de Coubertin thought it was so important to focus on the “taking part,” he established the early requirement that athletes be amateurs rather than professionals. At the same time, he sought out representation and diversity in sport. For example, he criticized the structure of amateur rowing competitions in England, which excluded working-class athletes.
Misguided Visions about Amateurs and Women
Of course, de Coubertin’s focus on amateurism, and the Olympic Committee’s insistence on strict adherence to it, became problematic. By the late 1960s and 1970s, countries with centralized governments bankrolled athletes and provided coaching, facilities, and training methods for free, while athletes in capitalist economies were forced to jump through hoops of pretense to stay “amateurs.” From the outset, de Coubertin had softened his stance, stating that athletes could be paid while competing to make up for their loss of income. Yet, Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medal when it was found he had been paid for paying semi-pro baseball.
The strict adherence to amateur rules led to scandal after scandal until the IOC finally relented, famously, for tennis in 1988 and other sports afterward. The celebrated Dream Team basketball tournament was wildly successful in promoting tons of international goodwill because the professional players, intermixing with the other athletes, far outstripped the value of the tournament. For the U.S., the team is still considered the greatest talent of basketball ever assembled. Global interest in basketball soared, bringing a steady way of international talent in the NBA ever since.
The other foolishness at the core of Victorian de Coubertin’s ideals was his attitude toward women:
An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting , unaesthetic and improper.Pierre de Coubertin, in his least shining moment.
The revived Olympics in 1896 did not include women. A Greek woman, Stamata Revithi, became famous for running the marathon course the day after, but despite logging a verified time of five and a half hours, was not allowed to enter the stadium or considered part of the competition.
Women were reluctantly admitted in Paris 1900 yet still banned from track and field because of their fragility. They played tennis, croquet, sailed, and rode horseback rather than throw the discus. French countrywomen of de Coubertin were so affronted that they created their own Women’s Olympiad under the organization of Alice Milliat and the International Women’s Sports Federation (FSFI). Apparently, the French are exceptionally talented at creating international symbolic events!
Rings, Doves, Poem, and Song: Symbols at the Core of the Movement
Eventually, women were admitted, though the fight for equality lives on. Even as late as London 2012, organizers thought women boxers should fight in skirts allegedly because some viewers couldn’t distinguish the women from the men. (Really?) That suggestion was shot down because of its symbolism of unequal treatment. Because, at its core, the Olympics was created by de Coubertin as a symbol, and he thought the pagentry and visions of the Games were as lasting as the competitions themselves. He wrote an award-winning poem, persuaded the Greeks to center the first games in Athens to reflect the ancient legacy, and wrote the Olympic motto.
Olympic organizers ever since have added rituals: the torch relay, lighting of the flame, the Olympic hymn, the athletes’ entry into the stadium grouped by country at the Opening and in friendly disorganized harmony at the Closing. The Olympic theme songs used by ABC and NBC are just as linked as are famous commercials by Jackie Joyner-Kersee (“red toenails”) and Mark Spitz (“milk is for everybody”).
Ultimately, de Coubertin translated the excitement he felt watching players on a rugby field and an archaeologist excavating the city of Olympia into a worldwide movement, pulling together detractors and self-interested parties into a disorganized but proud group of humans, willing to attempt to put aside national differences for a little while. And while we’ll all have to wait another year to hear the themes and see the performances, it’s fitting to the Olympic ideal that they will go on.
I predict that after our weeks of isolation and year of challenges, all of us will be thrilled to see Tokyo 2021 bring together the youth of world for the glory of sport and the ideals of global cooperation.
*Some alphabetic systems suggest I should list “de Coubertin” under “D,” but the Library of Congress lists him as “Coubertin, Pierre de” which makes him a “C.”
Plus, I just learned you can get to the Library of Congress online …. *fanning self.*