A few weeks ago, on August 10th, 2021, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics ended. Millions of people tuned in to watch the most exciting moments of winning gold medals and breaking world records against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The modern Olympic Games have been an inseparable part of the world’s sports and entertainment since the 1896 Athens Olympic Games. However, the establishment of the modern Olympics was different from what the enthusiasm and drama of today’s Olympics may suggest to many. It was primarily the vision of a man named Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin.
Around the eighth century BCE, the Olympics arose in ancient Greece, held in the city of Olympia to celebrate and honor Zeus, the King of the gods. Every four years, heralds traveled around the empire to announce the time of the Olympics. The Games were composed of five days of athletic competitions and feasting. Sports included chariot races, horse-racing, discus and javelin throwing, foot races, and wrestling. The events were often attended by over 5 percent of the population in the entire Greek-speaking world. These Olympic Games lasted until the fourth century AD during the age of the Roman Empire when they were outlawed as a pagan activity in an effort to promote Christianity. For more than 14 centuries, the magnificent temples and amphitheaters built for the Olympics fell into disarray and were forgotten.
In the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, numerous small-scale sporting events sprouted across England and France. Although most were short-lived, many of them attempted to imitate the original Games held in ancient Greece and proved quite popular in the years they ran. A small town in England called Much Wenlock provided one of the most remarkable Olympics, called the Much Wenlock Olympian Games. Created in 1850, the Much Wenlock Games featured cricket, archery, running, and other sports, while more events including poetry competitions would soon be added. Although organized by only the town itself, the Games frequently attracted several thousand spectators from many other places and even began to expand to several nearby towns. By 1889, the Much Wenlock Games had drawn the attention of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was born on January 1, 1863 into an aristocratic French family. Although educated at a Jesuit college in the pursuit of a career in the church, by the time he left school, Coubertin had broken with many beliefs of his social class and decided he was best suited in an intellectual environment. He struggled with a sense of his role in the world and yearned for some kind of grand mission to fulfill. After travelling extensively in England, Coubertin became convinced that the French should incorporate a great deal of physical education in their schools and establish a broad competitive athletic culture for the health and wellbeing of all social classes. Through a relationship with Jules Simon, former Prime Minister of France, Coubertin gained many connections to influential people across Europe in politics and academia. With this support, he launched the Jules Simon Committee in 1888 to popularize sports in education and soon reached the forefront of education reform.
In 1889, Coubertin directed the Congress on Physical Education at the Paris Universal Exposition, where he began to form alliances with international peace leaders. During a 4-month trip to the U.S., he visited two dozen colleges and universities and rallied the support for international sports from the most influential university leaders including William Milligan Sloane, a professor of the philosophy of history at Princeton University and head of its athletic committee, and three university presidents — Charles William Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, and Andrew Dickson White of Cornell. Sloane would become one of the Baron’s strongest Olympics allies in the years ahead. Upon returning to France in 1890, Coubertin created the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), a collection of sporting clubs and organizations all over France that essentially established him as the ultimate authority over all amateur sports in the country. The USFSA organized and governed numerous sports throughout France for the next decade.
Despite Coubertin’s passion in promoting athletics, initially, he was surprisingly dismissive of re-establishing the ancient Olympic Games. When he began a search in England for information and resources on physical education, it was the founder of the Much Wenlock Games, Dr. Penny Brookes, who attracted him the most and convinced him of the revivalist notion. Invited to the 1890 Much Wenlock Games, Coubertin was treated as an esteemed guest, honored with the planting of an oak tree and an invitation to a grand dinner. During a private discussion between Coubertin and Dr. Brookes, the latter shared his Olympic-revival archive and the history of various exchanges with the Greeks. By the end of the conversation, Coubertin was completely immersed in the idea of recreating the classic Olympics of antiquity and ready to make it a reality.
In 1892, Coubertin’s first proposal to bring the Olympics was met with widespread skepticism and derision. However, in June 1894, with the aid of numerous social connections and access to major sports associations, universities, and athletics clubs across Europe and North America, Coubertin sent out letters to much of the sporting world, inviting them to the Olympic Congress. Here, Coubertin again suggested the possibility of re-establishing the Olympic Games. This time, the audience of 2,000 was much more receptive and rallied to his cause. Together with the attendees, Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee. The Congress drew up a list of rules and sports for the new Olympics and initiated the principles of amateurship. As a fitting tribute to the Olympics of ancient Greece, the first modern Olympics were set to be held in Athens in 1896. Thus, the modern Olympic Games were born.
True to Coubertin’s vision, the Olympic Games became a global spectacle, offered an international hub of sporting spirit, and cultivated the stories of countless legendary athletes who changed the way we perceive the world. To this day, the Olympic Games have lived up to his words, “The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well,” and will continue to do so for years to come.
Goldblatt, The Games, Macmillan Publishers International Limited (2016)