Pierre de Coubertin : biography
Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin ( 1 January 1863 – 2 September 1937) was a French educator and historian, and founder of the International Olympic Committee. He is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. Born into a French aristocratic family, he became an academic and studied a broad range of topics, most notably education and history.
The subject which he seems to have been most deeply interested in was education, and his study focused in particular on physical education and the role of sport in schooling. In 1883, he visited England for the first time, and studied the program of physical education instituted by Thomas Arnold at the Rugby School. Coubertin credited these methods with leading to the expansion of British power during the 19th century and advocated their use in French institutions. The inclusion of physical education in the curriculum of French schools would become an ongoing pursuit and passion of Coubertin’s.
In fact, Coubertin is thought to have exaggerated the importance of sport to Thomas Arnold, whom he viewed as “one of the founders of athletic chivalry”. The character-reforming influence of sport with which Coubertin was so impressed is more likely to have originated in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days rather than exclusively in the ideas of Arnold himself. Nonetheless, Coubertin was an enthusiast in need of a cause and he found it in England and in Thomas Arnold.Muddied Oafs, The Soul of Rugby, Richard Beard, Yellow Jersey Press, 2004, ISBN 0224063944 “Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators,” wrote Coubertin, “gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England”.Physical exercises in the modern world. Lecture given at the Sorbonne, November 1892.
Intrigued by what he had read about English public schools, in 1883, at the age of twenty, Fredy went to Rugby and to other English schools to see for himself. He described the results in a book, L’Education en Angleterre, which was published in Paris in 1888. This hero of his book is Thomas Arnold, and on his second visit in 1886, Coubertin reflected on Arnold’s influence in the chapel at Rugby School.Pierre de Coubertin, Une Campagne de 21 Ans 1887–1908 (Librairie de l’education physique, Paris: 1909)
What Coubertin saw on the playing fields of Rugby and the other English schools he visited was how “organised sport can create moral and social strength”.Pierre de Coubertin. The Olympic Idea. Discourses and Essays. Editions Internationales Olympiques, Lausanne, 1970. Not only did organised games help to set the mind and body in equilibrium, it also prevented the time being wasted in other ways. First developed by the ancient Greeks, it was an approach to education that he felt the rest of the world had forgotten and to whose revival he was to dedicate the rest of his life.
As a historian and a thinker on education, Coubertin romanticised ancient Greece. Thus, when he began to develop his theory of physical education, he naturally looked to the example set by the Athenian idea of the gymnasium, a training facility that simultaneously encouraged physical and intellectual development. He saw in these gymnasia what he called a triple unity between old and young, between disciplines, and between different types of people, meaning between those whose work was theoretical and those whose work was practical. Coubertin advocated for these concepts, this triple unity, to be incorporated into schools.Hill, p. 6
But while Coubertin was certainly a romantic, and while his idealised vision of ancient Greece would lead him later to the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, his advocacy for physical education was based on practical concerns as well. He believed that men who received physical education would be better prepared to fight in wars, and better able to win conflicts like the Franco-Prussian War, in which France had been humiliated. Additionally, he also saw sport as democratic, in that sports competition crossed class lines, although it did so without causing a mingling of classes, which he did not support.