Norbert Müller

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, deliberately intended to create a universal movement that would elevate the interaction of body and mind to an ideal through practiced sport (as a sign of willpower). Greek antiquity was Coubertin’s model. The visible highlight were the four-year Olympic Games, whereby Coubertin initially gave priority to the idea of peace and even social peace.


The Olympic movement founded by Coubertin therefore needed not only an institutional framework (International Olympic Committee, National Olympic Committees, NOKs, Olympic Games), but an intellectual orientation, an Olympic philosophy, for which Coubertin coined the term Olympism; synonyms are: Olympic idea, Olympic thought, Olympic idealsor principles. Consequently, Coubertin repeatedly emphasized that Olympism was “not a system, but a spiritual attitude”, which “as in a bundle of radiances seeks to unite all those principles that contribute to the perfection of man” (1917).[1] For this he designed teaching concepts and created exemplary educational institutions.


Coubertin did not want to give an unambiguous definition of Olympism, he repeatedly encouraged people to think anew about the meaning and value of the body. As a legacy, this fundamental conclusion from Coubertin’s comprehensive literary work contrasts with the famous 1935 radio speech’s four fundamental features as the “philosophical basis of modern Olympism”: 1. the religious basis of sport, based on the ancient model of the “religio athletae”, heightened by internationalism and democracy, symbolized in flag, anthem and oath; 2. “aristocracy and selection” as a commitment to sporting achievement, manifested in the Olympic motto “citius-altius-fortius”; 3. the four-year rhythm as a measure for the constantly renewing humanity with the Games as the crowning celebration of peace; 4. the integration of the arts and the spirit for eurhythmic decoration and holistic perfection.[2]


The relationship between nationalism and international peace, so far one-sided due to its perceived internal contradiction, is precisely what makes Olympism so fascinating. From the very beginning, Coubertin’s intention was a competition between peace-loving nations and an internationalism that ceremonially emphasized the peaceful honour of the nation.


After Coubertin’s death, attempts to conceive of Olympism as a complex idea did not lead to a convincing reinterpretation. Carl Diem or Avery Brundage as protagonists of an orthodox Olympism conceived of it as an overarching “sport religion”. Rudolf Malter considered Olympism to be “syncretistic” because it lacks a transcendental reference. He defines it much more simply as “the totality of values that are developed beyond physical strength when one engages in sport” (1996).[3] Nikolaos Nissiotis (1986) [4] and Bernd Wirkus (1992) [5] see Olympism as a “practical philosophy of life”.


In theFundamental Principles of Olympism, published in the Olympic Charter, Olympism is defined as follows: “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind”.[6] The following principles of Olympism can be summarised from the Olympic Charter:

  • The harmonious connection of body, mind and willpower;
  • The task of placing sport at the service of this human development everywhere, from which the “Right to Sport” as a human right can be derived;
  • The connection of sports with culture and education;
  • Through the experience of sports practice including the youth in the building of a better and more peaceful world;
  • The lack of any discrimination, instead encouraging mutual respect, friendship, solidarity and fair play.

This standardization leaves a wide scope that is not rigid but dynamic and open to new developments. At the same time, this interpretation does not reduce Olympism to the Olympic Games as a standard of values, but aims at modern sport in its entirety and sports education in particular, which includes popular and disabled sport, but also school sport.


Hans Lenk (1964) decisively influenced the scientific discussion. His value structure of the modern Olympic Games has often been mistakenly transferred to the Olympism as a whole. Lenk discovered the following “systemically important Olympic values” of the modern Olympic Games: 1. the ritualistic-religious celebration; 2. the artistic and spiritual design; 3. the elite idea and equal opportunity; 4. top performance and competition; 5. fair play and chivalry; 6. regularity of the games, tradition and ceasefire; 6. internationality and nationalism – international unity and cultural diversity; 7. community of all sports; 8. amateur idea; 9. antique example and modern form.[7] These exist independently of each other and form an “action unit”. In the last 20 years the term Olympism has mistakenly often been used for the Olympic Movement as a whole.


Since the mid-seventies, Olympism has increasingly been the subject of educational programs, propagated mainly by the work of the International Olympic Academy and the National Olympic Academies. Olympic education includes sports education, but goes beyond it in some of its goals. Under consideration of Coubertin’s educational conceptions, Grupe and Müller derived the following pedagogical goals: 1. athletic self-awareness; 2. holistic harmonious education; 3. the idea of human perfection through athletic performance; 4. the conscious commitment in athletic action to ethical principles and the adherence thereto 5. human respect and tolerance towards fellow players, e.g. in the fair play ideal; 6. social encounter and understanding in sport; 7. peace and international understanding; 8. the promotion of emancipatory developments in and through sport (e.g. participation of athletes, emancipation of women, protection of nature, etc.).[8]

However, due to foreign influences such as commerce, doping and violations of fair play, the function of the Olympic Games as an educational role model is not entirely credible, especially for young people. On the other hand, the ethical and pedagogical principles of Olympism, which are to be interpreted and developed in the context of contemporary history, continue to be the basis for the legitimacy of the Olympic Games, which in this respect decisively differs from all other major sporting events.[9]



[1] Coubertin, Pierre de: L’Institut olympique de Lausanne. In: Bibliothèque universelle et Revue suisse, LXXXV, (1917), Nr.257, 185-202.

[2] 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, 580 – 583.

[3] Malter, Rudolf: „Eurhythmie des Lebens“ als Ideal menschlicher Existenz. In: Müller, Norbert & Messing, Manfred (Eds.): Auf der Suche nach der Olympischen Idee. Kassel 1996, 9 – 16.

[4] Nissiotis, Nikolaos:  Pierre de Coubertin’s Relevance from the Philosophical Point of View and the Problem of the “religio athletae”. In: Müller, Norbert (Ed.): The Relevance of Pierre de Coubertin Today, Niedernhausen 1987, 125-169.

[5] Wirkus, Bernd: Die Aktualitätsproblematik des modernen Olympismus aus philosophischer Sicht. In:  Kuratorium Olympische Akademie d. NOK (Ed.): Olympische Erziehung in der Schule, Frankfurt/M. 1992, 21-38.

[6] IOC: Olympic Charter 2018. Lausanne 2018, 11.

[7] Lenk, Hans: Werte, Ziele, Wirklichkeit der modernen Olympischen Spiele. Schorndorf. 1964,19722. Lenk, Hans:  Olympische Eliten – Zur Eliteidee im Hochleistungssport. In: Messing, Manfred & Müller, Norbert (Ed.): Blickpunkt Olympia: Entdeckungen, Erkenntnisse, Impulse. Kassel 2000, 90-115.

[8] Grupe, Ommo: Die Olympische Idee ist pädagogisch. Zu Fragen und Problemen einer „olympischen Erziehung“. In: Müller, Norbert & Messing, Manfred (Eds.): Auf der Suche nach der Olympischen Idee. Kassel 1996, 9-16. Müller, Norbert: Olympische Erziehung. In: Grupe, Ommo & Mieth, Dietmar (Ed.): Lexikon der Ethik im Sport. Schorndorf 20013, 385-395.

[9] The content is mainly taken from: Müller, Norbert: Olympism. In: Röthig, Peter & Prohl, Robert (Eds.):  Sportwissenschaftliches Lexikon. 20037, 414 – 416.

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»Olympism« & »The Olympic Idea«