Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, was born into a French aristocratic family on January 1, 1863. His family had a long history of military service, and Coubertin briefly attended Saint-Cyr, the French military academy, before finding his passion as an educator. Coubertin was primarily interested in physical education and admired the nature of athletics in England’s elite public schools. He was also inspired by an 1889 trip to the United States where he became familiar with the American philosophies of physical education and the popularity of intercollegiate sports. On this trip Coubertin befriended a like-minded sporting enthusiast, United States Civil Service Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.
Coubertin believed that athletics had more than a simple physical benefit but could also help build character and bring people together. He was also inspired by excavations at Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympics, which unearthed sites and artifacts from the ancient games. Coubertin wrote many books and articles on physical education and was active in several sporting organizations. This activity culminated in June 1894 with an international conference of seventy-nine delegates from twelve countries. The stated purpose of this conference was to discuss amateurism, but Coubertin used the event to announce his plans for reviving the Olympic Games, which he hoped would encourage amateur athletics and diminish world tensions. His plans were unanimously endorsed. Coubertin was directed to form an international committee to organize the games, which became the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The first modern Olympics were to be held in Athens in 1896. Coubertin organized the opening and closing ceremonies, sent invitations, planned the program, and selected the design of the medals given to event winners. The 1896 games had nine sports and forty-three events. There were 311 male athletes from thirteen countries, but only eighty-one were from outside Greece. Event winners were given a silver medal and a crown of olive branches. The second place finisher received a bronze medal and a crown of laurel. The customary gold, silver, and bronze medals began at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri.
Coubertin took over the presidency of the IOC after the Athens games, a position he would hold until 1925. The 1900 Olympics in Paris and the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis were not successful and were overshadowed by world’s fairs held at the same time. However, the games rebounded in 1906 at the Intercalated Games in Athens. This requires some explanation; the original plan for the modern Olympics had games every four years in a new location, but in-between these games (intercalated) there would be a second series of Olympics always held in Athens, Greece. This only happened in 1906 as political turbulence in the Balkans and then the First World War ended this aspect of the Olympics. Even with the demise of the intercalated games, the Olympics were back on track to becoming the premiere international sporting event.
Coubertin introduced the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He also participated in the games that year as 1912 was the first Olympics to hold art competitions, which lasted until 1948. Coubertin, participating under a German pseudonym, won the literature gold medal for his poem “Ode to Sport.” Coubertin and the IOC relocated to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1915. He retired from the IOC after the 1924 Olympics in Paris but remained Honorary President until his death in 1937.
“Coubertin, Pierre, baron de.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998. Print.
Findling, John E, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996. Print.
Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics, a History of the Modern Games. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Print.