The Olympic Founding Idea

Stephan Wassong

Pierre de Coubertin presented his idea to revive the modern Olympic Games for the first time in public at the 5th anniversary of the Union des Sociétés française de Sport athlétiques (USFSA) in November 1892. At the end of his closing speech, held on 25th November, he said the following:

»As for athletics in general, I do not know what its fate will be, but I wish to draw your attention to the important fact that it presents two new features (…). It is democratic and international. The first of these characteristics will guarantee its future: anything that is not democratic is no longer viable today. As for the second, it opens unexpected prospect to us. (…). Let us export rowers, runners and fencers; this is the free trade of the future, and the day that it is introduced into the everyday existence of old Europe, the cause of peace will receive new and powerful support.
That is enough to encourage me to think now about the second part of my programme. I hope that you will help me as you have helped me thus far and that, with you, I shall be able to continue and realize, on a basis appropriate to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and beneficent work: the re-establishment of the Olympic Games.«[1]

[1]Coubertin, Pierre de: Le Manifeste Olympique. Lausanne 1994, 79.

Facsimile of Coubertin`s speech (page 1), 25th November 1892.
© International Olympic Committee
Facsimile of Coubertin`s speech (page 14), 25th November 1892.
© International Olympic Committee

The audience was surprised about the presentation of this ambitious idea and reacted moderately. Many of them believed that Coubertin had developed this idea more or less spontaneously. But this was wrongly perceived as Coubertin had mentioned this idea to Andrew D. White, founding president of Cornell University in the USA, in a letter dated 23rd July 1892. Even earlier than this, namely in 1888/89, Coubertin mentioned already his idea to plan an organisation of sport for all nations to William Milligan Sloane, university professor at Princeton University in the USA, and to the French historian and philosopher Hippolyte Adolphe Taine.


Despite the passive reaction of his audience in November 1892 Coubertin did not give up his Olympic idea. With the support of Sloane and Charles Herbert, the then secretary general of the Amateur Athletic Association in England, Coubertin organized the Congrès International de Paris Pour Le Rétablissement des Jeux Olympiques. The international congress was held at the Sorbonne in Paris from 16th to 24th June in 1894. The list of participants comprised 58 French delegates from 24 sport organisations and 20 delegates from 20 foreign sport associations/clubs spread over 9 countries. At this congress, which can also be listed as the 1st Olympic Congress, it was decided to re-establish the modern Olympic Games, hold the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, found the International Olympic Committee (IOC), appoint the Greek literate Demetios Vikelas as the first president of the IOC and agree on a core set of amateur rules.

Page 2 of the final congress programme.

© International Olympic Committee

In his idea to revive the modern Olympic Games Coubertin was stimulated by his cultural appreciation of the ancient Olympic Games, the German excavations in Olympia from 1875 to 1881 and by several initiatives which had taken place in, amongst others, Greece (Olympic Games of Evangelis Zappas) and England (Wenlock Olympian Games, organized by William Penny Brookes) on a regional and national level. None of these initiatives had an international character and didn’t survive the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. But Coubertin did not want to merely copy the ancient Olympic Games, he wanted to coin a very modern profile of the Olympic Games. He aimed at establishing an international athletic festival of which the driving force should be an educational objective. The Olympic Games should promote the value of sport as an educational tool. Indeed, the idea was that sport can contribute to the education of modern citizens. Participation in sport competitions should support the development of highly social and moral character traits which could be transferred beyond the sporting context to daily private and professional life. Coubertin`s appreciation of this educational process was coined by this insight and analysis of the Anglo-American sport world at the university level and beyond. In the 1880s and 1890s he made several study trips to England (e.g. in 1883, 1886 & 1887) and the USA (1889 & 1893) to acquire knowledge on the educational view of sport at, amongst other, English public schools and universities, US-American universities, the YMCA, working class sport clubs and park sport in the USA. Coubertin published a variety of books, articles and newspaper reports about these study trips.


Without doubt, the appreciation of sport as an educational tool for character development was one of the central pillars of Coubertin`s thinking. Of equal importance was his belief in intercultural learning. He became acquainted with it by his close contacts to leading representatives of the growing peace movement in the late 1880s and beginning of the 1890s. According to Coubertin the Olympic Games should be a platform to bring together athletes and spectators from different nations. The Olympic Games were to provide a useful pathway for the creation and expansion of friendly relationships through mutual understanding. He justified his intention to support transnational understanding via the re-establishment of the Olympic Games because sport enjoyed a growing interest world-wide. The Olympic Games, with their mandatory rules and regulations for athletes, were to facilitate international sport activities; the Olympic four-year cycle should ensure the continuity of the international sport competition. Coubertin wrote the following on the value of the Olympic Games as a vehicle for supporting the development of a peaceful internationalism in his article The Olympic Games of 1896 which was published in the US-American magazine The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1896:


»Should the institution (Olympic Games) prosper, – as I am persuaded, all civilized nations aiding, that it will – it may be a potent, if indirect, factor in securing universal peace. Wars break out because nations misunderstood each other. We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all races periodically together for amiable trials of muscular strength and agility.«[2]

[2] Coubertin, Pierre de: The Olympic Games of 1896. In: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine XXXI (1896), November, 53.


Against this background the prevailing long-term assumption can be resolved that Coubertin was driven by national ambitions to revive the Olympic Games. He cannot be portrayed as a narrow-minded national reformer who suffered from the French defeat in the war against Germany in 1871 and blamed the poor physical condition of the French youth for this national crisis. It cannot be said that Coubertin simply revived the Olympic Games to set a stimulus for the French youth to regularly engage in sport for physical training reasons only.