The Founder of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin

A French Aristocrat Promoted Athletics and Organized the 1896 Olympics in Athens

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics
Pierre de Coubertin. Library of Congress

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, was a most unlikely sports hero. A French aristocrat, he became fixated on physical education in the 1880s as he became convinced that athletic prowess could save his nation from military humiliation.

His campaign to promote athletic activities began as a lonely crusade. But it slowly gained support among advocates of athletics in Europe and America. And Coubertin was able to organize the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

Athletics Became Popular In the Late 1800s

The role of athletics in life had taken on a major role throughout the 1800s, after a long period when society was essentially indifferent to sports, or, actually considered sports to be a frivolous diversion.

Scientists began touting athletics as a way of improving health, and organized athletic endeavors, such as baseball leagues in the United States, became very popular.

In France, the upper classes indulged in sports, and young Pierre de Coubertin participated in rowing, boxing, ​and fencing.

Early Life of Pierre de Coubertin

Born on January 1, 1863, in Paris, Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin was eight years old when he witnessed the defeat of his homeland in the Franco-Prussian War. He came to believe that his nation’s lack of physical education for the masses contributed to the defeat at the hands of Prussians led by Otto von Bismarck.

In his youth, Coubertin was also fond of reading British novels for boys which stressed the importance of physical strength. The idea formed in Coubertin’s mind that the French educational system was too intellectual. What was desperately needed in France, Coubertin believed, was a strong component of physical education.

Traveled and Studied Athletics

A small item in the New York Times in December 1889 mentioned Coubertin visiting the campus of Yale University. “His object in coming to this country,” reported the newspaper, “is to make himself thoroughly acquainted with the management of athletics at American colleges and thereby to devise some means of interesting the students at the French University in athletics.”

In the 1880s and early 1890s Coubertin actually made several trips to America and a dozen trips to England to study the administration of athletics. The French government was impressed with his work, and commissioned him to hold "athletic congresses," which featured events such as horseback riding, fencing, and track and field.

The Founder of the Modern Olympics

The ambitious plans of Coubertin to revitalize the educational system of France never really materialized, but his travels began to inspire him with a far more ambitious plan. He began thinking about having countries compete in athletic events based on the Olympic festivals of ancient Greece.

In 1892, at a jubilee of the French Union of Athletic Sports Societies, Coubertin introduced the idea of a modern Olympics. His idea was fairly vague, and it seems that even Coubertin himself did not have a clear idea what form such games would take.

Two years later, Coubertin organized a meeting which brought together 79 delegates from 12 countries to discuss how to revive the Olympic games. The meeting established the first International Olympic Committee, and the basic framework of having the games every four years, with the first to take place in Greece, was decided upon.

The First Modern Olympics

The decision to hold the first modern Olympics in Athens, at the site of the ancient games, was symbolic. Yet it also proved to be problematic as Greece was embroiled in political turmoil. However, Coubertin visited Greece and became convinced the Greek people would be happy to host the games.

Funds were raised to mount the games, and the first modern Olympics began in Athens on April 5, 1896. The festival continued for ten days and included events such as foot races, lawn tennis, swimming, diving, fencing, bicycle races, rowing, and a yacht race.

A dispatch in the New York Times on April 16, 1896, described the closing ceremonies the previous day. The newspaper noted that the king of Greece "handed to each winner of a first prize a wreath fashioned of wild olive plucked from the trees at Olympia, and laurel wreaths were given to the winners of second prizes. All of the prize winners then received diplomas and medals."

The newspaper also reported, "the total number of athletes who received crowns was forty-four, of whom eleven were Americans, ten Greeks, seven Germans, five French, three English, two Hungarians, two Australians, two Austrians, one Dane and one Swiss." The story was headlined, "Americans Won Most Crowns."

Subsequent games held in Paris and St. Louis were overshadowed by World's Fairs, but the Stockholm games in 1912 returned to the ideals expressed by Coubertin.

Legacy of Baron de Coubertin

Baron de Coubertin gained recognition for his work promoting the Olympics. In 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt, visiting France after a safari in Africa, made a point of visiting de Coubertin, whom he admired for his love of athletics.

During World War I de Coubertin's family suffered hardships and fled to Switzerland. He was involved in organizing the 1924 Olympics but retired after that. The final years of his life were greatly troubled, and he faced severe financial hardships. He died in Geneva on September 2, 1937.

His influence on the institution he founded endures. The idea of the Olympics as an event filled not merely with athletics but great pageantry came from Pierre de Coubertin. So while the games are, of course, held on a scale far more grand than anything he could have imagined, the opening ceremonies, parades, and fireworks are very much ​a part of his legacy.

And it was also Coubertin who originated the idea that while the Olympics can instill national pride, the cooperation the world's nations may promote peace and prevent conflict.