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Olympic enthusiasm finally seems to be eclipsing Olympic cynicism here in the UK as the Games begin.  There has been a tidal wave of articles in the press about the Olympic Games however I am surprised not to have read much about the father of the Modern Olympics, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Recently I investigated the beginning of the Modern Olympic movement for the British Jesuit’s on-line journal Thinking Faith.  De Coubertin belonged to an aristocratic Catholic family in the late nineteenth century who were being buffeted by anti-elite and anti-church currents in post-revolutionary Napoleonic France.  As a young man growing up in uncertain times he fell under the spell of a charismatic Classics teacher, Father Carron, at the Jesuit College of  Saint Ignatius in Paris.  Concerned that France, after a heavy defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, was in decline, de Coubertin found Father Carron’s classes about Olympia and ancient Greece a welcome escape from decline into past glories.  He became convinced that to reverse the decline in French fortunes their needed to be a widespread educational reform.  Impressed by the British Empire, he went on a tour of British schools and universities. Starting with the Jesuit colleges of Beaumont and Stonyhurst, even meeting Cardinal (now Blessed) John Henry Newmanhe became convinced that competitive sport played a much more central role in forming characters, particularly as it was often coupled in the boarding schools with a form of ‘muscular Christianity’ often inspired by Pauline metaphors.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, half-length portrai...

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, half-length portrait, standing, facing front (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However on his return to France his suggestions for educational reform had cold water poured on them. Discouraged but not giving up, he started dreaming of a bigger canvas to put his ideas into action.  The  International Olympic Committee was founded,  the motto ‘Citius, Altius & Fortius’  (Faster, Higher and Stronger) was borrowed from a Dominican priest, Father Diddon.  The first summer games  of the Modern Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896.  De Coubertin was to spend the rest of his life promoting his Olympic movement, even visiting the sports-oriented Pope Pius X to help him promote and widen ‘Olympism’.  However inspite of the Jesuit and Catholic roots to this enterprise, de Coubertin was to drift away from his early faith.  As he became more and more critical of Christianity he started to see ‘Olympicism’ and its attendant pageantry as being a replacement for religion.  He believed that the Olympic movement would awaken religious thoughts in its participants.  This distortion of his vision reached a climax in the infamous 1936 Olympics, where de Coubertin, after witnessing ‘Hitler’s Games’,  stated that only the Germans really understood his vision and expressed a desire that an institute would be founded to hold all of his letters and manuscripts after his death. If that has whetted your appetite you can read the whole of the article on Thinking Faith by clicking below.

Article ‘Dreaming of Olympia’