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No. 2343:
Coubertin and the Olympics

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, we wheeze our way to Beijing. The University of Houston's Honors College presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Media coverage of the Beijing Olympics seems more about athletes -- not records -- that will fall. Cars, construction and coal-burning factories cast a permanent and leaden shroud over this city of twelve million. Particulate matter, not athletic matters, is on everyone's mind because it will be in everyone's lungs. The American trainer has told his athletes to wear masks from the airport to the starting line.

Pierre de CoubertinThis is a funny business: you see, the modern Olympics were meant to cure the ills that overwhelm Beijing. This, at least, was the hope of the Olympics founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin was the child of an aristocratic Parisian family. In the wake of France's many revolutions Coubertin's noble family became as irrelevant as, well, ancient Greek. 

As it turned out, ancient Greek -- specifically the ancient Greek Olympics -- would be Coubertin's and France's salvation. 

The young aristocrat spent his youth fencing, boxing and riding horses. But Coubertin then visited England in 1883 and had a vision. He toured Rugby and Eton, on whose playing fields Waterloo had been won. What if France had had its own playing fields, Coubertin wondered? Would it have lost at Waterloo? Or been humiliated in its war with Germany in 1870? Couldn't organized sports remake France's martial spirit? 

In fact, couldn't it also counter the ills of industrialization and urbanization that were transforming France and sickening its citizens? Coubertin decided to rejuvenate a pallid and puny France. His aim was to put "color in the cheeks of a solitary and confined youth, [toughen] his body and character by sport." Coubertin quickly discovered that the lack of green spaces was matched by the state's lack of interest. Many officials even believed physical competition was elitist.

But Coubertin persisted. The turning point was a meeting he organized in Paris in 1894, where representatives from thirteen countries agreed to revive the ancient Olympics. Coubertin was overjoyed: he believed the resurrected Olympics would make the world more peaceful. He also thought they would offer a healthy and pure ideal to a world swept by mass industrialization, mass entertainment, and mass consumption.

And so, the Olympics were reborn in 1896. But what about Coubertin's dreams? Some might say they were stillborn; WWI certainly buried his internationalist hopes. And the ills of modernization have not gone away. Look at China, overwhelmed by the same problems that plagued 19th century Europe, but at a vastly greater scale. In 2002, there were 25,000 premature deaths in Beijing alone due to particulate matter. In comparison, Coubertin's goal of putting color back in youthful cheeks seems positively quaint. Less quaint is the prospect of athletes running and jumping with asthma inhalers at hand.

Yet, the perseverance of these athletes reflects Coubertin's own doggedness on behalf of an ideal that, though battered, still inspires. Let the games begin!

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

E. Weber, My France: Politics, Culture and Myth. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

For more on the founding of the modern Olympics see Episode 1137.

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens, victor at Hitler's 1936 Olympics (internationalism ensnared). Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.