The Works

Jean Durry

How did Pierre de Coubertin manage everything?

Throughout his career and his enterprises (whether or not they were achieved), the number of organisations that he created, established and headed is remarkable because, far from focusing solely on simple intellectual constructs, perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that he worked ceaselessly to ensure that they became a reality.

  • He entered the public arena in November 1886 with his first articles and conferences. On 29th May 1888, he officially announced the creation of the Committee for the promotion of physical exercise in education, chaired by Jules Simon, the renowned former minister for public education, although Coubertin was the linchpin. In June 1889, on the occasion of the Universal Exposition in Paris, he was the instigator of an international congress for the promotion of physical exercise, maintaining his steadfast faith in the future.
  • Also in May 1888, he joined the pioneers of French athletics, notably Georges de Saint-Clair (Racing Club) and Jules Marcadet (Stade Français), who founded the Union des sociétés françaises de course à pied [Union of French running associations] on 18th January 1887. Two years later, it became known as the Union des sociétés françaises de sports athlétiques (USFSA) [Union of French athletics sport associations]. Coubertin was its extremely active secretary general from 1890 to 1893.
  • On the evening of 25th November 1892, during the USFSA jubilee celebration, he held a conference on physical exercise in the modern world, during which he made his first reference to the project to “restore the Olympic Games”. Misunderstood, he made a renewed attempt in 1894 as commissioner-general of the congress, which took place from 16th to 23rd June at the Sorbonne, putting all of his energy into it, which resulted in the creation of the Olympic Movement. It subsequently took on a different dimension, drawing it apart from the USFSA. Others had attempted to do this before him, but his genius was that of making the modern games international and basing them on principles that gave them an opportunity to last, in particular the principles of holding the games in different parts of the world on a four-yearly basis and the independence of the International Olympic Committee, of which he was initially the secretary general and already the “deus ex machina” before becoming president in 1896 on the eve of the Olympic Games in Athens. He was the active president until 1925, and took on the day-to-day administration, the annual sessions and the six other Olympic Congresses between 1897 and 1921. The 20th anniversary Olympic Congress held in Paris in 1914, after the categorical success of the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, cemented the efforts he had gone to, against all odds, as it brought together the IOC members, the representatives of the 29 National Olympic Committees and those of the dozen International Federations existing at the time.

In his message of 1 January 2013, Jacques Rogge, …

… his sixth successor, underscored the “Herculean task Coubertin faced when reviving, almost singlehandedly, the Olympic Games.” Nevertheless, this Olympism and these Olympic Games to which he gave his support, imagining from the outset how they would take place and then meticulously developing the symbols, including the flag with the five coloured interlaced rings, have been the trees hiding the forest of his work and his constant battles in so many other areas.

  • In 1906, he created thel’Association pour la réforme de l’enseignement [Association for teaching reform], thus reorganising the Association pour la réforme de l’enseignement scolaire en France [Association for the reform of school teaching in France], which he launched in 1889. Education was always (cf. below) the guiding thread of his activities, and the Olympic Games themselves made no sense to him unless they were seen as a predominantly educational process.
  • During the First World War, together with Henri Desgrange, director of the sports daily L’Auto, in the weeks following the start of the conflict, he created the Comité d’éducation physique [Physical education committee]; in 1916, the Comité pour la diffusion des études historiques [Committee for the dissemination of historical studies]; and, in 1917, the Olympic Institute in Lausanne, which held several sessions from March to July 1917, January to April 1918, October 1918, and February to March 1919.
  • The four years of the Great War further broadened the ever-expanding vision of Coubertin and his growing detachment from his aristocratic background. In his view, “History’s admiration will now go to the mass of obscure combatants.” In the future, “nothing will be decided without popular consent”, and “I expect great things of the working classes; great strength lies within them.” He even criticised the well-to-do classes for having systematically kept the proletariat away from culture: “Open the doors to the temple!” he said in 1918. “[…] for the sake of the future of humanity.” This is why, coming back to the call for the creation of university education for the working classes, which he had attempted unsuccessfully in 1890, he threw himself in 1921 and 1922 into a new battle for universities for the working classes, which had no practical effect.
  • In 1923, during the International Olympic Committee Session in Rome, he reflected upon Africa: “Let us not hesitate to […] give sport its African share.” But here, as was often the case, he was ahead of his time and the African games he imagined taking place in Algiers in 1925 and then in Alexandria did not take place because of the underlying opposition of the colonial powers. It was not until 1965 that the first edition was held in Brazzaville.
  • 1925: In Prague, Coubertin stepped down as the active president of the International Olympic Committee. In his speech on 29th May which was both a farewell message and focused on the future, he stated that “the future of civilization […] depends solely on the educational direction that emerges. […] The time has come to construct a pedagogical edifice […] appropriate […] to current needs.” On 15th November (at the age of 62), he launched the Union Pédagogique Universelle [Universal pedagogical union], returning to his initial vocation of 1886.

Some months later, in 1926, …

… he also launched the Bureau international de Pédagogie sportive [International bureau for scientific sport].

So many fights with an uncertain outcome were carried out tirelessly without resentment or respite by the person who said, three decades previously (in March 1897): “Success is not a goal but a means to aim higher. Individuals are of value only with regard to humanity.” I wrote in 1994 that his work and his action “are and will always be there to be discovered and rediscovered by us and future generations.”