Pierre de Coubertin: the values of sport
What could be more universal than sport! This great communion around the values of effort, surpassing oneself, excellence but also friendship and respect. A communion of which the Olympic Games are, without doubt, the most vibrant symbol! And yet, this has not always been self-evident. Based on the work of historian Patrick Clastres, I have in fact looked into the speech of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee at the end of the 19th century. Europe was still marked by the Franco-German war of 1870. And for Pierre deCoubertin, there is no doubt: sport must also prepare young people to fight. Here, for example, is what he said in an article from 1912:
« Sports have made all the qualities that are useful in war flourish. Carelessness, good humor, habituation to the unexpected, exact notion of the effort to be made without expending useless forces. The young sportsman obviously feels better prepared to leave than his elders were, and when you feel prepared for something, you do it more willingly. »
« The young sportsman obviously feels better prepared to go to war ». On the eve of the First World War, Pierre de Coubertin believed that the assiduous practice of sports would be an asset for France if a conflict were to break out. And besides, he did not deviate from this conviction. Here is what he wrote in a letter in 1919, the day after the Allied victory. « It is through sports that France has been able to erect a powerful muscular rampart against the invasion. After having prepared incomparable soldiers. Athletics has still been able to maintain their ardor and console their suffering. » things are very clear: sport should not only aim for physical excellence, it also prepares for military excellence.
For Pierre de Coubertin, sport nevertheless remains a vector of peace. As he says in a text published in 1912. The ode to sport. « Sport, you are peace. You establish happy relationships between people by bringing them together in the cult of force controlled, organized and mistress of itself. Through you universal youth learns to respect each other, and thus the diversity of national capacities becomes the source of a peaceful and generous emulation. »
Sport brings people together in peaceful competition. You see that we are suddenly very far from his other declarations. Finally, it would seem that Pierre de Coubertin was a man of his time, marked both by a pacifist ideal and by the spirit of revenge against Germany. A tension that can be found in his writings, and which explains why sport can both enable peace and prepare for war.
Pierre de Coubertin therefore had a very political approach to sport. So much so that the political virtues of sport engage, according to him, a great plurality of issues. I will take just one example, but oh so significant. For Pierre de Coubertin, sport was to be an instrument to establish the domination of France over the colonized peoples. This is what he wrote in an article from 1912, Sports and colonization. « Sports are in short a vigorous instrument of discipline. They engender all sorts of good social qualities, of hygiene, of cleanliness, of order, of self-control. Is it not better that the natives be in possession of such qualities and will they not thus be more manageable than otherwise. »
« Won’t the colonized peoples be more manageable thanks to sport ». So, of course, we have to place this question in its time. At the start of the 20th century, the vast majority of French notables were in favor of colonization, Pierre de Coubertin no more than anyone else. Nevertheless: for him, sport can also be a tool for pacifying the population.
The Olympics have not always been the universal event they are today. This universalism imposed itself little by little during the 20th century, but their origin is very political. This universalism imposed itself little by little during the 20th century, but their origin is very political. And besides, when you think about it, universalism is also very political. It was Pierre de Coubertin himself who insisted that the Olympic Games proceed from diplomatic neutrality. This is partly what ensured their success. But this neutrality was not self-evident, and it was this that led the Olympic Games to compromise with oppressive regimes. In 1936, the games were held in Berlin. And in 2022, when the Uyghur people are oppressed by the Chinese authorities, they stand in Beijing.