“O, Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of lire!”
It is fitting that the author of this heady ode, Pierre de Fredy, Baron de Coubertin won a gold medal at the 1912 Summer Olympics in the short lived competition for literature, though he was not himself an athlete.
Today’s Google Doodle reminds us that we have French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, lover of sport, academic extraordinaire, to thank for the establishment of the modern Olympics, exactly 120 years ago today.
Pierre de Coubertin was no ordinary aristocrat, even as a youth. His position in society meant that he was expected to serve his country, either in the military or in politics.
After his final year at the Jesuit College of St. Ignatius in Paris, Coubertin was offered a place at the Military School of Saint-Cyr. Defying expectations, however, Coubertin decided to pursue an intellectual life.
Intrigued by his studies, Pierre went on to study law. Despite his academic aptitude, however, he found law boring. Instead, he satisfied his new passion, education, in an unlikely place: England.
Despite enmity between Britain and France that ran deeper than the English Channel, Coubertin found his muse at the Rugby School in England during a visit in 1883. The school was known for a rigorous physical education program, and its results evidently convinced Coubertin of the importance of a balance between sport and academic achievement.
From that first visit onward, Coubertin dedicated the rest of his life to promoting athletic achievement as part of a balanced, wholesome existence.
On a later trip to England in 1890, Coubertin visited a town called Wenlock, which held annual athletic contests for the health of the inhabitants. The town’s athletic contests were created in 1850 by a doctor, William Penny Brookes, with an athletic philosophy after Coubertin’s own heart.
According to Brookes, Wenlock’s games were celebrated to, "promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of a prize…."
Unsurprisingly, Coubertin and Brookes struck up a friendship and began to work toward the establishment of international athletic contests. After years of work, Coubertin succeeded in opening the first modern Olympic Games on April 6, 1896.
These first modern Olympics, which took place in Athens, Greece, recreated a tradition that had been banned by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 393 AD.
In the same poem that won him a gold medal at the 1912 Olympic games, Coubertin attributed the greatest virtues of man – beauty, justice, daring, and progress among them – to athletics.
Although international relations have occasionally marred the international spirit of the Olympics, Coubertin’s concluding lines capture the highest ideal behind the games, one that has permeated the spirit of competition among nations since 1896.
“O, Sport, you are Peace! You forge happy bonds between the peoples by drawing them together in reverence for strength which is controlled, organised and self-disciplined,” wrote Coubertin more than a century ago. “Through you the young of all the world learn to respect one another, and thus the diversity of national traits becomes a source of generous and peaceful emulation.”