Pierre de Coubertin

Pierre de Coubertin (1863 - 1937)

Pierre de Coubertin today has the force and mysterious appeal of something rare and extremely valuable. He could perhaps be called the most famous unknown in history.

If a survey were conducted at the magnificent four-yearly celebration of the Olympic Games, to discover the survival rate of the Coubertinian ideology, the result, despite the favourable atmosphere, would probably be discouraging. However, Pierre de Coubertin would still justly deserve the title of one of the most outstanding benefactors of humanity, for giving the Human Family of the twentieth century that powerful motive for union and harmony, Olympism and its rich philosophy, and the regular festive and peaceful meetings, creating unity and mutual respect, of the Olympic Games.

But Olympism, with its organizational and philosophical arms supported by his solid and discerning plans, is no more than part of Coubertin’s great work. Despite being evaluated today as the most important sociological force of the end of the century, it represents little more than half of the humanist genius’s business, as he himself maintained.

His life

Pierre de Coubertin was born in Paris on January 1, 1863, to a family the ancestor of which, known under the name de Fredy, was in the service of the King of France Louis XI who knighted him in 1471.
It was in 1577 that the domain of Coubertin near Paris was acquired by a Fredy who assumed the name and the estate. Since then, all his descendants preserve the name f Fredy de Coubertin.
It was in Normandy, not far from the port of Le Havre, that Pierre de Coubertin lived during his youth in the domain of Mirville, brought in marriage by his mother, a descendant of a companion of the Viking chief Rollon, first duke of Normandy. Pierre did his schooling at Paris and followed courses at the School of Political Sciences. Having considered a military career, he renounced it, foreseeing a period of peace. Politics seemed disappointing to him. Thus he considered the reform of education of French youth.
After informational voyages to England and the United States, embarking at Le Havre, he decided to consecrate his life to pedagogical reform - which he did unstintingly.

From Lausanne, where he lived from 1917 and of which he was «honorary bourgeois», he pursued an overwhelming activity, giving the best of himself, and in which, little by little, his personal fortune was swallowed up.
One of his dominant traits was his capacity to pass immediately from conception to execution.
Little or poorly known outside of the Olympic movement which he created entirely in renewing the antique tradition, he deserves above all the title of «humanist». In his mind, Olympism is inseparable from Culture, and it is for this reason that he advocated the education of the intelligence at the same time as that of the body.
Such was this spontaneous, generous man, of revolutionary conceptions, a rebel to all past ideas; this genial pedagog entirely devoted to the youth of the world in whom he onserved all his faith until his sudden death in Geneva in 1937.

His work

The life and the work of Pierre de Coubertin reposes on cultural principles capable of unravelling the antinomies of the human condition, in offering to a world in full transformation, a new manner of thinking and acting.
From his school years, Pierre de Coubertin felt the necessity of a «pedagogical rebronzing» (to renew, stronger and better): «almost unconsciously and moved by a strange instinct, I indicted in my child’s judgment all French pedagogy» he affirmed before the «French Association for the advancement of Sciences» on January 26,1889. At twenty years of age, he turned to comparative pedagogy and for several years travelled abroad, indispensable for accomplishing his observations. As early as 1887 he responded to the campaign of the «hygienists» on «scholastic overwork» in proposing, as a remedy, the organization of leisure. In 1906 he founded the «Association for the Reform of Teaching» and published thereafter in three installments the program of an integral education, under the title: «The Education of Adolescents in the XXth Century». Elected President of the Union Pédagogique Universelle (Universal Pedagogical Union)
in 1925 he finalized the «Charte de la réforme pédagogique» (Charter of Pedagogical Reform) for a return to a more vast and purified life.

As early as 1891, respecting the man in each man, he called for the creation of a workers university education; in 1906 he founded the «Société des sports populaires» (Society of Popular Sports); in 1921, he edited a work concerning workers’ universities; he brought out in 1922 a study entitled: «Between two battles: from Olympism to the Workers’ University»; in 1923 followed a thesis concerning «higher education of manual workers and the organization of workers’ Universities», after 1925 he had established the regulations for the workers’ University through the work of the «Universal Pedagogical Union», concerning secondary education.
Already, at Lausanne in 1917, he had called for the creation in each agglomeration of a «Popular University», consecrated to the general culture to the exclusion of all professional training. During his stay in this city, the «Maison du Peuple» (Peoples’s House) was stimulated by his presence and manifested a great intellectual activity. One understands, thus, the fervor which animated the reflection of Pierre de Coubertin: «One is not in this world to live one’s life, but that of others.

The greatest joys, moreover, are not those which one enjoys, but which one gives». The interventions of Pierre de Coubertin, written or oral in favor of the corporal burgeoning and development by sport, mark all his existence. He gave a conference at the Sorbonne on November 25, 1892, on «physical exercises in the modern world», followed by the announcement of the plan for reestablishing the Olympic Games; in 1894, he declared at the Sorbonne the reestablishment of the Games and the foundation of the International Olympic Committee over which he would preside from 1896 to 1925 with devotion and a rare competence.
For him, Olympism is the eagerness to relish the plenitude of a culture which gives a meaning to life in opposing to the natural weakness of man, the belief in the grandeur of his destiny. By Olympism, a humanism is built above all philosophical, scientific and artistic steps to envelope them in the same effort to permit each one to find himself, in seizing events in their universal signification.

The Olympic ethic becomes the esthetic of the heart, founded on eurhythmy; the latter reveals itself as a perception of exterior and interior harmony by the human unity, passionately affirmed. The quadrennial Games, animated by the spirit of Olympic truth, concedes the differences and reconciles the opposites: in experiencing his body profoundly the athlete spiritualizes himself. The experience of the body, properly conducted, privileges the fundamental dialectic of life in transforming disquiet into confidence. In 1897 Pierre de Coubertin organized a congress of Sports Pedagogy in Le Havre, and his speeches concerning the Olympic Games pose with pathetic accents the moral problem of man and nations in the contemporary world. On the occasion of the inauguration of the commemorative monument concerning the reestablishment of the Games, in 1927 at Olympus, he stated: «In the modern world, full of powerful possibilities and menaced at the same time by perilous degradations, Olympism can constitue a school of noblesse and moral purity as well as of endurance and physical energy, on condition that the conception of honor and disinterest be continually raised to the height of the muscular ardor.»

Pierre de Coubertin refused a sclerosed world which did not correspond to the image of his aspirations. To the harmonious equilibrium of each human being must correspond peace and social justice, peace and international justice.
Any humanist possesses the sense of the continuity of man’s destiny. Pierre de Coubertin shares with us his judgment on the irreplaceable value of Universal History. He reedited the «Charte de l’enseignement historique» (Charter of Historical teaching) in emphasizing the importance of an objective vision of the world, in the forefront of meditations and dreams; by it each can have access to the conscience of a common existence. However, for Pierre de Coubertin, the significance of equilibrium and beauty s revealed only to those who have first put their soul in tune with itself, to participate, thereafter, totally in the general work.

by Georges Rioux