Pierre de Coubertin and the Athlete

Stephan Wassong

According to Pierre de Coubertin the Olympic Games were to offer young adults some kind of final education, stressing the development of highly social and moral character traits and an openness of transcultural understanding. He regards the Olympic Games as a useful support in the transition of a mature athlete into a respective and responsible person of society.

Students of Princeton-University, members of the American Team for the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.
© International Olympic Committee

As already mentioned in the entry on Olympism Coubertin delivered the radio message The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism for the radio station Swiss Romande on 4th August 1935; only three days later the message was printed in the magazine Le Sport Suisse.

Coubertin in the Radio Suisse Romande studio.
© International Olympic Committee

A careful reading of this article reveals that it is the athlete who is at the centre of Coubertin`s Olympic idea and the focus of most of his educational thinking. In this message/article Coubertin made it clear that he has a specific age group in mind to which he referred as the Olympic athlete:


“The human springtime is expressed in the young adult male, who can be compared to a superb machine in which all the gears have been set in place, ready for full operation. That is the person in whose honour the Olympic Games must be celebrated and their rhythm organized and maintained, because it is on him that the near future depends, as well as the harmonious passage from the past to the future.”[1]


Participation at the Olympic Games should be reserved for the best athletes only. Coubertin understood that not all sportsmen have the capability and muscular superiority to become an Olympic athlete. But in his Olympic pyramid Coubertin stresses that an Olympic athlete has a moral and social responsibility to act as a role model, stimulating participation in sport for the masses:


“For every hundred who engage in physical culture, fifty must engage in sports. For every fifty who engage in sports, twenty must specialize. For every twenty who specialize, five must be capable of astonishing feats.[2]


Coubertin never tired of stressing that Olympic role models are worthless when their achievements are not based on the rules of fair-play and respect for equal opportunity. According to him the exceptional character of the Olympic athlete and his worship of sport as an educational tool are under constant threat of professionalism. Coubertin believed that moral faults in professionalism stemmed from excessive focus on ambition, rivalry, and emulation, which he and his colleagues in the IOC considered as the decisive characteristic of sport, and that honesty, fairness and mutual consideration had become victims of a behaviour solely bent on winning. Hence, the Olympic athlete had to be an amateur. The following two quotations clearly explain Coubertin`s opinion on the importance of amateurism:


“Sporting can only produce good moral effects, can, indeed, maintain its existence, only as it (is) founded upon disinterestedness, loyalty, and chivalric sentiment.”[3]


“The task that he (the sportsman) accomplishes is one that he has set for himself. Since he does not return to this task the very next day to earn his living, there is no reason for him to conserve his energy. In this way he is able to cultivate effort for the effort`s sake, to see out obstacles, to place a few obstacles in his own path, and always to aim a little higher than the level he must achieve.”[4]



It is central for a correct understanding of Coubertin`s vision of the Olympic athlete to reflect upon the demand on the athlete to display athletic excellence. It becomes clear in the quotation above that achievement orientation is expected from the athlete. The focus is on the athlete’s endeavour to achieve individual performance improvement, which does not exclude the achievement of absolute records. This is also reflected in the motto citius – altius – fortius (please refer also to the entry The Olympic Rituals and Symbols).

[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, 582.

[2] Ibid., 581

[3] Coubertin, Pierre de: The Re-Establishment of the Olympic Games. In: The Chautauquan XIX (1894), September, 699.

[4] Coubertin, Pierre de: La psychologie du sport.In: International Olympic Committee (Editing Director: Norbert Müller): Pierre de Coubertin 1863 – 1937. Olympism Selected Writings. Lausanne 2000, 148.