Introducing Baron Pierre de Coubertin

Norbert Müller

Founder of the Olympic Movement

Pierre de Coubertin has become known as the founder of the Olympic Movement and restorer of the modern Olympic Games. He was born on 1st January 1863 in Paris and passed away on 2nd September 1937 in Geneva.

Pierre de Coubertin at the age of 31.

Navacelle Collection

Coubertin inherited his love of art …

… from his father, Charles-Louis, a respected church painter. Coubertin was also very attached to the native region of his mother, Agathe-Marie. He used to spend several weeks each year in Mirville, their property in the country, where he met friends and developed his ideas.

The Chateau of Mirville

Navacelle Collection

He studied humanism …

… at the Jesuit Collège, St. Ignace, in Paris. After passing his baccalauréat (1880), and despite a bourgeois career plan, he studied politics, history, sociology and education and left the Ecole des Sciences Politiques as a free spirit and with top exam results. Thanks to the experience he had acquired during his numerous study trips (to England from 1883 onwards and, for the first time, to North America in 1889), he soon became financially independent. He had exceptional journalistic talent and devoted himself to much-needed reforms of the education system in the French Republic.

Pierre de Coubertin with the rugby team

of the Racing Club de France at Oxford in 1894.
Navacelle Collection

Passionate about sport …

… (he practised horse riding, fencing, boxing, rowing and tennis), Coubertin then started to create pupils’ sports associations, later becoming secretary general of the National Federation of Sport Schools (USFSA) which he had instigated. Then he organised varied sports schools, following the English example. He aimed to revitalise the youth of France by reducing overloading of the mind and increasing physical activity. Self-responsibility in sport would enable pupils to become democratically-aware citizens.

He was enthusiastic about the Anglo-Saxon sporting education he had discovered through literature and during his travels. Thomas Arnold, who died in 1842 after being Headmaster of Rugby School, was a special role model for Coubertin, who was only able to discover him through his literature which he found so fascinating. For Coubertin sport, which was considered as a capital and integral part of the education of young British people, could give the French youth the new impetus it needed after the defeat in 1870/71.

Pierre de Coubertin dressed in a sports kit

© International Olympic Committee

The idea of international Olympic Games …

… was born from Coubertin’s enthusiasm for the legacy of Greece, the German archaeological excavations in Olympia (1875-81), the sports events called “olympic”, and especially the Olympic Games of Much Wenlock in England. Railway and shipping lines, the invention of the telegraph, sports writings and international commercial exchanges did the rest.


On the one hand, he wanted to promote sport rapidly throughout France, and on the other hand, he wanted to put into practice peoples’ understanding and serve peace in the world thanks to regularly-held international sport events bringing together the youth of the world. For this, he received the support of a man who was a father-figure to him, Jules Simon, the president of the USFA and also one of the protagonists of the Peace Bureauin Bern in 1889.


In order to eliminate the national barriers that prevented international sporting exchanges, Coubertin, as secretary general of the UFSA, organised an international congress for the harmonisation of the conditions of amateurism in Paris in June 1894. The restoration of the Olympic Games in the context of the modern era, initially put at the end of the agenda, actually became the centre point of the discussions. On 23 June 1894, Coubertin founded the IOC according to a precise development plan and the first Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. As representative of the host nation, the Greek, D. Vikelas became the first president of the IOC, Coubertin accomplishing the construction work as secretary general.


In 1896, Coubertin took over the presidency as representative of the host country of the second Olympic Games which took place in Paris in 1900. He was re-elected several times until he stepped down in 1925. His directorship, albeit a somewhat domineering one, was very successful, at least until the end of the First World War. Then he had to adapt to new sports structures world-wide. In any case, few of the IOC members had been able to follow his objectives concerning sports education and his philosophy of Olympism. Coubertin had already published his Notes on Public Educationin 1901, which were very complex presentations of reforms in teaching. Specific ideas on the education of adolescents would follow, with the trilogy on youth education in the twentieth century. Apart from his presentations on the education of the body (1906), he also gave importance to intellectual education and the edification of the mind (1915). In 1920, he summarised in Pédagogie sportivehis general concept on this subject.


Coubertin tried to put his educational ideas into practice, but he was obliged to leave them at the modelling stage. In 1906, he founded the Société de Sports Populaires thanks to the mass of French wage-earners. This society, thanks to the propagation of a series of sports tests, popularised the idea of the citizen healthy in mind and body (as stated by Débrouillard). To this were added campaigns for communal sporting installations as a human necessity.


After moving the IOC headquarters to Lausanne in 1915, he moved there with his family in 1919 and founded there in 1917 an Olympic institution as a model communal sports centre for the use of everyone, based on the example of Greek gymnasiums. It was designed mainly for the working classes who could exercise free of charge for the benefit of their health and education. Coubertin’s requirement of a special university for the working classes remained blocked at the stage of a training school for the people.


Another initiative, the founding by Coubertin of the Union Pédagogique Universelle allowed for the propagation of a new form of general culture, encompassing culture in the widest sense of the term. For Coubertin, an interest in history was a necessary condition for all other types of knowledge, a fact which he underlined in 1925/26 with the publication of l’Histoire Universellein four volumes.

Pierre de Coubertin at the age of 40

sitting behind his desks with manuscript papers in front of him. He left behind more than 15.000 printed pages
© International Olympic Committee

Having also initiated in 1926 …

… an international education bureau in Lausanne, Coubertin further spread his educational and sporting ideas with the Charte de la Réforme du Sport in 1930. Coubertin had put down for posterity his ideas, plans and visions in 1100 reviews and newspaper articles, some 50 brochures and 34 books- in total roughly 15,000 printed pages. In 1935, he gave a remarkable speech on the Philosophical Foundations of modern Olympism. Old and troubled by the Nazi propaganda at the 1936 Berlin Games, Coubertin struggled to let it go. He died in Geneva in 1937 after having given his life and fortune for his philanthropic plans. The history books, which above all remember him as an Olympian, should instead recall the educational reformer that he was. His wife Marie (née Rothan) died in 1963 at the age of 101. Their son Jacques and daughter Renée died in 1952 and 1968 respectively, leaving no heirs. [1]



The content is mainly taken from: Müller, Norbert: Coubertin, Pierre de.
In: Röthig, Peter & Prohl, Robert (Eds.):  Sportwissenschaftliches Lexikon.
2003, 120-122.