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The speech that fizzled out, then ignited the Olympic movement


The day had been meticulously planned. After years of research, the 29-year-old baron would go public with his idea of ​​reviving the Olympic Games from ancient Greece to the modern era. He had chosen the old Sorbonne in Paris and the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the French athletics association to deliver his speech. It was a grand setting for a great idea: a sports competition to bring nations together and learn from each other – to promote internationalism and world peace, nothing less.

The speech fell flat.

The audience was “not negative, but there was no support,” said David Wallechinsky, author and founding member of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “He had a good speech and the wrong audience – an audience that wasn’t sympathetic enough or open-minded enough.”

“Coubertin realized that he had not succeeded, but he persisted,” adds Wallechinsky. “He realized that idealism was not enough. He had to get to the bottom of it and get the job done.”

That the speech is so revered – the original 14-page manuscript cost $ 8.8 million in 2019, becoming the most treasured sports memorabilia ever to be auctioned off – is a testament to what happened next .

Olympic spirit

In 1892, France did not yet have organized sports at heart, explains Stephan Wassong, a specialist in Coubertin’s life and director of the Institute for the History of Sport at the German Sports University in Cologne. Physical activity and organized sports were part of the military curriculum but not the school curriculum, unlike in the United States and Great Britain.

Coubertin, a strong advocate for the educational value of sport, believed it was “good for the brain” and “the mind and body could work together, and they helped each other,” says Wassong. He had traveled to England, where sport was already part of the daily life of students in boarding schools and where local events like the Wenlock Olympics, created in 1850, brought together competitors from several disciplines.

But this is where sport could be combined with his other passion that gave Coubertin’s idea an advantage. A sworn internationalist whose writings detail an “awakening” to the 1878 World’s Fair, he became involved in the world movement for peace, which, like so many other movements, was centered in Paris at the time.

After seeing the Englishman Hodgson Pratt proposing an international exchange of students to promote tolerance, during the 1891 World Peace Conference in Rome, “Coubertin took up this idea and … linked it to sport” , explains Wassong.

The speech that fizzled out, then ignited the Olympic movement

It “was not a popular concept,” Wallechinsky says, especially among rulers in an era of colonialism and competition between imperial ambitions of European nations. But Coubertin believed in his idea.

When the night of the Sorbonne came, the speech clung to the popular revival of all that was Hellenic and used the reputation of the ancient Olympic Games to support its idea. Coubertin praised the advancement of sport from Germany to Sweden, from Great Britain to the United States, lamented France’s slow start and called sport “the free trade of the future”.

Sport was put on the same pedestal as the scientific and technical innovations of the time: “It is clear that the telegraph, the railways, the telephone, the passionate research of science, congresses and exhibitions have made more for peace than any diplomatic treaty or convention. , Coubertin said. “Well, I hope athletics will do even more. Those who have seen 30,000 people running in the rain to watch a football game will not think that I am exaggerating.”

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The speech “clearly laid the educational foundations of the Olympic idea – of Olympism”, says Wassong, “and its mission to build a better world through sport”.

But although his haughty rhetoric fell on deaf ears that night, Coubertin had the will and the resources, and campaigned across Europe for his modern Olympics.

Two years later, he returned to the old Sorbonne, and in the same room, plans were formalized for the first Games. His message had finally been heard. In 1896, the Olympic Games were revived in Athens, Greece.
The speech that fizzled out, then ignited the Olympic movement

A complex heritage

Coubertin was not without considerable faults. Initially he did not believe that women should participate in the Games (women competed for the first time in 1900) and with his upper class mentality he held “condescending at best and at worst, genuinely racist” views on some countries, says Wallechinsky.

He also said the Olympic movement “needs constant updating and being adapted to the prevailing zeitgeist,” Wassong notes. Thus, while the movement is indebted to Coubertin, certain opinions he defended should, by his own admission, be willingly abandoned and dissociated from the Games.

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In 1896, 12 countries were in competition. For Tokyo 2020, Games invitations have been sent to more than 200 nations, states and territories. Today, the Games are almost unrecognizable by their scale, their diversity and their degree of sporting prowess. But the spirit of Coubertin’s speech endures in its friendly competition.

“We’re going to have around 11,000 athletes in Tokyo,” Wallechinsky said. “The vast majority – I would say 80% or more – will have no chance of winning a medal, and they know it … But most of them are there to set a personal best, to set a national record, to do their best. I think de Coubertin would have loved that. “

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