Father of modern Olympic spirit largely forgotten (Commentary)

August 5th, 2008 - 11:54 am ICT by IANS  

By Claude Arpi
The Beijing Olympics are almost here, but not many remember Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who restored the Olympic Games in 1896. The spirit with which the ancient Games were revived and Coubertin’s objectives seem to belong to a bygone era, though remembering the first steps of Olympism is inspiring.

Coubertin was a man of exceptional talent; he was not only an organiser, a pedagogue, a historian, a sportsman, a writer, an aesthete, but also a visionary, a great humanist and a man of action.

Olympism was for him nothing else than the ‘religion of mankind’.

Born in a French aristocratic family in 1863, as a young man Coubertin decided to work in education, the only field where he thought he could bring about changes for the good of humanity.

Though Coubertin liked to call himself a ‘rebel’, he was first and foremost a pioneer much ahead of his time.

It is in the realm of sports that he thought to apply his educational concepts. Coubertin, himself an accomplished sportsman, saw a relation between sports and character formation; his main objective was to ‘build men’.

Very few believed in his revolutionary vision, but he decided nevertheless to start the process of restoring the ancient quadrennial Games. On June 23, 1894, he founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at a function at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

Though the first Olympics Games of modern era, held in Olympia in Greece in 1896, were a success, he was dissatisfied. In his Memoires Olympiques, he wrote in 1931: “In [Olympia], we had, so to say only sports techniques dressed in historical gowns; no congress, no conference, no moral preoccupation or apparent pedagogy.” In reviving the Games, he hoped to bring back the “intellectual, philosophical and moral” characteristics of the ancient Games.

To fulfil his objective, Coubertin decided to organise the first Olympic Congress at Le Havre in France in 1897. How to produce men ‘morally, intellectually and physically robust’? He believed that it was essential to develop the character of men and not to break it, as happened in many schools of that time (and today’s).

During the Congress, Henri Didon, his friend and collaborator, made it clear that their objective was to build beings independent in their thinking and strong in their body. “There is more glory to train a free man, with his own personal initiative than a hundred docile men, incapable to assume any responsibility.”

This Congress marked the infant steps of the Olympic movement. The ideals preached by Coubertin were similar to the ones of Ancient Greece; body, mind and spirit should be developed simultaneously to produce complete beings. The purpose of education in ancient India was not different.

Coubertin’s interpretation of the Olympic motto, Fortius, Citius, Altius, is fascinating. Fortius (stronger) referred to the field of sport. The body had to be trained by repeated exercises to become healthier and stronger.

Citius (swifter) was connected with literary and scientific studies and the domain of the mind in general which had to be constantly educated like the body.

Altius (higher) had a deeper meaning connected with the sacred, with the soul or God, whatever name one calls it. All three levels had their importance; in common was the centrality of the ‘effort’ to reach the determined goal.

According to the spirit which presided over the restoration of the Olympic Games, ‘perfection’ was not the ultimate objective, the ‘effort’ to attain this goal was more significant. We all know the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The knowledge and mastery of oneself, generosity and respect for others and an enthusiasm for the ‘effort’ was essential not only on the sports ground or in class, but in life as well.

In education, Coubertin believed that sports should have as much importance as science, literature and arts. Sports had the capacity to stimulate the thought process and concentration.

Can we hope that these values will be remembered during the XXIXth Olympiad in Beijing?

(Claude Arpi can be contacted at claude@auroville.org.in)

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