The Society of Popular Sports

Jean Durry

Among Pierre de Coubertin’s many enterprises, the Society of Popular Sports (SPS) is of particular note because, although most people know him primarily as the creator of the Modern Olympic Games, the SPS bears witness to the extent of his vision.


Coubertin fully assumed and championed the motto of his friend Father Henri Didon which became that of the Olympic Movement (citius, altius, fortius). He was fully aware that it was for the best, for champions “capable of astonishing feats”[1]. However, he did not forget everybody else, those who formed the majority; quite the contrary, and the SPS is an example of that.


Having dealt with the issue during a conference on 2nd March 1902 under the auspices of the Touring-club de France and announced a Committee of Utilitarian Gymnastics, he founded the SPS in June 1905, publishing almost simultaneously L’Éducation physique: la Gymnastique utilitaire. Sauvetage – Défense – Locomotion. Indeed, underscoring the fact that the problem of the ‘popularisation’ of sport is complex and having thought about the most effective way of overcoming such difficulty, he based himself on the then renowned philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism. He wrote:


“There is nothing we can do nowadays without the concept of utility. If only sport can offer an opportunity for success in the ‘struggle for life’, it will easily establish itself.”[2]


By means of a “popular, rapid and healthy method”, the idea was to send out into the world:

“[…] a boy who is good with his hands, quick off the mark, supple, indefatigable, alert, determined and trained in advance to deal with the changes in place, task, situation, habits and ideas made necessary by the prolific instability of modern societies, thanks to sporting exercises. To date, such instruction appears to have been accessible only to the privileged few.”[3]


The accomplishment of this initiation or training took the concrete form of a Diploma for Resourcefulness. André Slom was entrusted with the design. He was the same artist who designed the Olympic Diploma. The diplomas were first formally distributed at the Sorbonne, the symbolic place at which Coubertin had organised, from 16th to 23rd June 1894, the congress leading to the establishment of the Olympic Movement, under the aegis of and signed by the Rector of the Universities of Paris, Louis Liard, Honorary President of the SPS. On 30th June 1907, after a variety of events organised in Lorient, Orléans, Paris and Tourcoing with the assistance of Théo Vienne, who, among other things, was the director of the journal entitled L’Éducation physique, over one thousand of these diplomas were awarded. All of this was the focus of chapter XX of Coubertin’s book Une campagne de vingt-et-un ans (1887-1908), published in 1909 by the Librairie de l’Éducation physique.


The programme of the SPS featured in full on the reverse of postcards published by the society. It is remarkably innovative:

Société des Sports Populaires
Navacelle Collection

“A football team in every village; a gymnasium and playing field in every small town, an outdoor swimming pool in every town, rowing on every river, horse-riding and boxing for everyone wherever possible, a department for singing in every sports club, no more rules, superiors, and rewards than absolutely necessary, no politics, political parties and no outside influences on sport.”

The Diploma for Resourcefulness was temporarily taken up by the National Education League, a new initiative launched by Coubertin in October 1911, after which Coubertin put back on its feet, to use his expression, the SPS in 1914.


In 1916, Coubertin condensed into 47 pages the Leçons de gymnastique utilitaire, which were first serialised in the Excelsior newspaper from October 1914 to July 1915.


Those years of world conflict provided Coubertin with an opportunity to develop and consolidate his thought and analysis in all areas. The time had come for him to express himself in the following terms, very much ahead of his time. On 13th January 1919 he wrote the following in the article Olympic Letter XI, published inLa Gazette de Lausanne in 1919.


“All form of sport for everyone; that is no doubt a formula which is going to be criticized as madly utopian. I do not care. I have weighed and examined it for a long time; I know it is accurate and possible.”[4]


Thus, above and beyond mere ‘utilitarian gymnastics’, he achieved what was implicitly the objective of the SPS, seeking to give to all, as he had set out previously in his discourse of 23rd June 1894 on the evening of the successful Olympic Congress, the tools to have the opportunity to experience “that healthy intoxication of the blood known as joie de vivre and which exists nowhere else as intensely and exquisitely as in physical exercise.”[5]



[1] Coubertin, Pierre de.: The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism. In: International Olympic Committee (Editing Director: Norbert Müller): Pierre de Coubertin 1863 – 1937. Olympism Selected Writings. Lausanne 2000, 581.

[2] Translation from: Coubertin, Pierre: Une Campagne de vingt-et-un ans (1897 – 1908). Paris 1909, Chapter XX.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Coubertin quoted in: International Olympic Committee (Editing Director: Norbert Müller): Pierre de Coubertin 1863 – 1937. Olympism Selected Writings. Lausanne 2000, 173.

[5] English translation from: