Pierre de Coubertin`s Medal Campaign in the USA

Stephan Wassong

Pierre de Coubertin regarded the Olympic Games as a valuable tool to foster international friendship. The occasion of the Olympic Games should bring together representatives of different nations and would offer opportunities for personal meetings by which athletes and spectators alike would learn more about the culture and customs of other nations. According to Coubertin this would help to reduce prejudices which were regarded as causes of conflict (please refer also to the entry The Olympic Founding Idea).


Coubertin learned about this educational opportunity of international meetings from his close contacts to leading representatives of the growing peace movement in the late 1880s and beginning of the 1890s. Particularly at the Third International Peace Conference, which was held in Rome in 1891, it was suggested to initiate international student exchanges to give students the possibility to acquire knowledge on other nations very practically. In addition, it was the Englishman Hodgson Pratt who recommended to encourage students on studies of political and social aspects of other nations. In the proceedings of the International Peace Conference the following recommendations can be found:


“109. Mutual respect and friendliness should be sowed between students of European and American universities.
11. Students should study the progress of civilization by reading universal historiography and by analyzing each nation`s contribution to the progress of humankind.”[1]


Coubertin, who knew about the proceedings by his close contact to Pratt, wanted to make a contribution to the realization of the recommendations. As a Frenchman he viewed it as his educational responsibility to promote intercultural learning between French and US-American students. From 1893 onwards, he donated the following medals to the universities listed below:


French Medal: awarded at Princeton University in 1893

Carnot Medal: awarded at Tulane University and Stanford in 1894

Tocqueville Medal: awarded at Johns Hopkins University in 1898

Pasteur Medal: awarded at Harvard University in 1898

Victor Hugo Medal: awarded at Cornell University in 1898

Front and reverse side of the French Medal

Front of the medal: Marianne, the national personification of France. She is wearing a Phrygian hat on her head. Reverse side of the medal: In the middle of the wreath the name of the medal as well as the donator Pierre de Coubertin is engraved. American Whig Society (top) and Princeton University (bottom) is stamped on the side of the medal.

These medals were given to students who showed an academic expertise on French culture and politics in essays and lectures presented at the debating societies of the respective universities. Topics which were addressed included French imperial politics, presidential crisis of the 3rd French Republic, the question if a constitutional or parliamentary-type of government is better for the French Republic or if the French President should be directly elected by popular vote. Valuable information on this medal campaign can be found in the report of the Union Française des Universités D` Amérique (UFUA) which was founded on 8th March 1897 and chaired by Coubertin.


Coubertin himself contributed much to the dissemination of knowledge on his country in other nations and on other nations in France. A careful view on his bibliography, compiled by Norbert Müller and Otto Schantzstresses this interest of Coubertin. The concept of universal history writing was addressed by him in his four-volume publication Histoire Universelle published in 1926/27.


In the context of this entry one can refer to articles which Coubertin published on social and political life in the 3rd French Republic in US-American magazines The American Monthly Review of Reviews, The Century Magazine and the English/American magazine The Fortnightly Review. Coubertin also organized an American translation and edition of his book L` Evolution Française sous la Troisième République. For his fellow French countrymen Coubertin wrote books and articles on the US-American university system and athleticism (e.g. Universités Transatlantiques) and on the historical development of the USA and its political landscape. As to the latter, one can refer to his five-part essay La formation des Etats Unis published in 1896/97 in La Nouvelle Revue.


This entry would be incomplete if one does not stresses the fact again that Coubertin also used sport as a tool for bringing French and US-American students closer together. Already in 1892, with the support of William M. Sloane from Princeton University he invited students from US-American universities to a sport meeting with French athletes in Paris. In the same year he was collaborating with the president from Cornell University, Andrew D. White, to organize a sport meeting between French and US-American students in the USA. In a letter written to White, Coubertin clearly stressed that “athletics are not the end of the voyage. I want our young men to visit New York, Boston & Chicago & some of the leading universities”.[2]


Against this background it must become clear that Coubertin viewed the Olympic Games as an educational tool for the development of international friendliness and the promotion of transnational cultural understanding.



[1] Quoted in: Wassong, Stephan: Intercultural Education for Student Youth: A Fundamental Idea of Pierre de Coubertin. In: Nikephoros. Journal of Sports and Culture in Antiquity. Special Issue 2012. Youth – Sports – Olympic Games. Hildesheim 2012, 204.

[2] Coubertin quoted in: Ibid., 207.