Home » VI. Modern Olympism » Selections from Pierre de Coubertin

Selections from Pierre de Coubertin

(All selections have been taken from Pierre de Coubertin, Olympism. Selected Writings [International Olympic Committee, 2000].)


Ethical considerations have received only occasional and involuntary support from physical exercise. In conclusion, sport is merely an indirect stimulus for ethics. In order for it to become a direct stimulus, we must make the purpose of sport the creation of a sense of solidarity, which will cause sport to reach beyond itself. This is the sine qua non for cooperation between sport and ethics.

At awards ceremonies and congresses, speechmakers have exercised their talents at length on this subject, which lends itself to lofty pronouncements. Nevertheless, data to back them up remains quite vague. So we owe a debt of thanks to Lieutenant Hébert, a French naval officer, who wrote an interesting brochure on masculine education and “physical duties” in which he defined those duties in great detail.

According to Hébert, these duties are summed up in two basic rules: use all means necessary to develop your physical abilities, and maintain those abilities by abstaining from anything that could debase them. Surely never has a more direct bridge been built from one side of the river to other, from sport to ethics. To abstain from “anything that could debase physical abilities”, is to abstain from excess of any kind. This is a law of pure ethics, apparently, at least, for later we shall see the limitations implicit in this wording.

No law of this kind has ever been enforced. It would be futile to turn to Hellenic civilization to find any traces of it. The level attained by the Greeks in this regard was not very high. A remarkable sense of social balance often replaced ethical rules. Moreover, our own civilization would do well to return to the Ancient Greeks’ approach to this issue. Our civilization would draw principles of desirable elasticity from them, but not of higher ethical standards. The culture of sports in Greece, moreover, was never as widespread as we have believed. If we read them closely, many authors convey widespread notions of long-standing hostility on the part of public opinion with regard to physical exercises. Besides, those who engaged in exercise were not at all seen as models of virtue and continence. In our days, in England, the country most active in sports, it would probably be going too far to say that sportsmen are more virtuous, in the strictest sense of the word, than other citizens. Thus, although men have sometimes practiced the first of the “physical duties” I listed above, generally men have not gone so far as to submit to the constraints required by the second set of duties. Here and there, some have “used all necessary means to develop [their] physical abilities”. But to maintain those abilities, men have not “abstained from anything that could debase them”. Ethical consideration have received only occasional and involuntary support from physical exercise. It is evident that by calming the senses and occupying the imagination and leisure time of youth, physical exercises have been useful in serving the cause of virtue. But aside from a short period of training or the obligations imposed by professional interest, we have yet to see men voluntarily abstain, through the simple desire to perfect their bodies, from any act that might affect and diminish that perfection.

Since we have not seen such behavior, must we conclude that it cannot be? Is it even desirable in the first place? This is the question we must answer first.

Constraint presumes some sort of leverage. What is the leverage in this situation? There may be several: utilitarianism, for example, or altruism, or even self-interest. We can easily imagine a man “using all necessary means to develop his physical abilities” motivated by a sense of the advantages he may gain, and the superiority that such advantages will give him over his peers. This is a legitimate and efficient point of view. We can also imagine that he might aim for that goal through a noble desire to be useful, and to serve the interests of the group. Yet in both cases, in order to maintain the abilities he acquires, a man would not necessarily abstain from every excess. The go-getter and the devoted individual will engage in excesses because they will wear themselves out in their efforts—excessive mental exertion, or even excessive solidarity and fraternal zeal. The only one who will not commit these excesses is an individual for whom self-concern is strong enough to tame the passions if need be, or to suppress any unwise fervor. But would this person not be a monster? He would be Nietzsche’s Superman, in the domain of physical culture. Adoring his own body, which has become his idol, he would gradually subordinate everything to his concern for establishing and maintaining bodily perfection. One shudders to think of the infinite, refined ferocity, and indeed of the potential barbarism that human nature, influenced in this way, would harbor. Just a few such persons in the crowd would have a powerful impact, making a significant imprint on the society of their day.

As I said before, it is entirely possible for such a creature to exist. Although no such individual has existed in any clear-cut way in the past, there have been notable precursors. Current circumstances tend to favor its definitive arrival. Scientific progress gives today’s man in-depth knowledge of his body, and gives him a wide range of appealing approaches to physical culture. Furthermore, uncertainty and an apologetic approach to religion means that there is now room for new religions or new approaches to religion. When man turns away from God, is it not the most natural thing for him to turn to self-worship?

Those who believe in “the goodness of nature”, the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dismiss such fears. They confuse physical education with moral education, harboring the illusion that although the second does not engender the first, the first implies the second. As they see it, a physically educated man is unfailingly won over to virtue. For him, worship of the body is devoid of danger, since that religion contains its own countermeasures.

All this is based on the confusion of character and virtue. The qualities of the character are not based on ethics. They are not part of the domain of the conscience. These qualities are courage, energy, will, perseverance, and endurance. Great criminals and even avowed scoundrels have all possessed them. They can be used to do ill just as well as good. That is why the doctrine of direct moral development through physical development is false and troubling. It derives from belief in a “standard” man, the dangers of which I have already noted and challenged. Man is a composite made up of elements that react one against the other; yet those elements cannot be substituted for one another. Muscular perfection, in and of itself, ensures neither mental perfection nor moral perfection.

That is why this expression of physical duties that I am discussing is incomplete, and must be modified. “Use all necessary means to develop your physical abilities to use them for the common good—maintain those abilities by abstaining from anything that could debase them pointlessly”, that is how the sentence should read. These simple words added to the original text put everything back into the proper place, chaining the deplorable “superman” in his crib. The altruistic principle proclaimed in this way may seem platonic, and it is to a certain extent, but it remains key. As public opinion grows to consider this corrective measure part of the individual law of physical culture, it will tend to disapprove of individuals who transgress that law too openly, rejecting altruism of any kind in favor of self-promotion. The word “pointlessly” underscores the dependent stance that the muscles must always keep with respect to thoughts and feeling, and with respect to social utility.

To conclude, sport is merely an indirect stimulus for ethics. In order for it to become a direct stimulus, we must make the purpose of sport the creation of a sense of solidarity, which will cause sport to reach beyond itself. This is the sine qua non for cooperation between sport and ethics.

One final word: you will note that in the course of this study, I have used the terms “sports” and “physical culture” almost interchangeably. The reason is that in my view, the only difference between these terms is theoretical. In theory, physical culture is distinct from sport. In practice, there will never be any voluntary physical culture (intensive physical culture, of course, the only form under consideration here, the one Lt. Hébert meant), that does not involve the sports aspect.

“Le Sport et la Morale” in Revue Olympique, February 1910, pp. 20-22. Reprinted in: Essais de Psychologie Sportive [Essays in Sports Psychology]. Lausanne/Paris, Librairie Payot 1913, pp. 129-137.


Did I present modern Olympism last time as being imbued with the revolutionary spirit, when I said that its purpose was to tear down the dividing walls in education? Yet knocking down walls means transforming the layout of a building, not destroying the supporting walls or even altering the look of the architecture. I do not want to incur this reproach, being among those who consider revolutions violent and almost always fruitless. Most revolutions kick in doors that were in the process of opening, and the sudden brusqueness of the gesture causes the door to fall back on itself and close once again. What is more, the only true revolutions are those movements that intend to put ready-made institutions into place suddenly, each detail of which has been worked out in advance. This has nothing at all to do with Olympic education. Olympism is not a system, it is a state of mind. The most widely divergent approaches can be accommodated in it, and no race or time can hold an exclusive monopoly on it.

Olympism is a state of mind that derives from a twofold doctrine: that of effort, and that of eurythmy. Notice how much the association of these two elements, the taste for excess and the taste for due measure, is in keeping with human nature. Though apparently contradictory, they are the basis for any total virility. Is there any man, in the full sense of the word, who is constantly worried about being sparing in his strength, limiting his initiatives, and who takes no pleasure whatsoever in going beyond what is expected of him? At the same time, however, is there any man in the full sense of the word who is displeased at seeing his intense zeal crowned with joyful tranquillity and self-control, surrounded by order, balance, and harmony?

Neither the tendency toward effort nor the habit of eurythmy develop spontaneously in us. They require apprenticeship and training. Don’t count on the hypotenuse of the square, even backed up by the fables of La Fontaine, to take their place. These virtues become part of our nature, taking root in us through practice. That is what makes organized athletic activity superior, the fact that it imposes both measure and excess on anyone engaging in it.

“Lettre olympique IV” in La Gazette de Lausanne, no. 319, November 22, 1918, p. 1. 


If someone were to ask for the recipe for “becoming Olympic”, I would say that the first prerequisite is to be joyful. No doubt, my answer seems surprising. The term “Olympic” incorrectly evokes an idea of tranquil balance, of forces in perfect counterbalance, a scale in perfect equilibrium. Mens sana … the old saying that pops up in speeches when prizes are awarded. But come now! This is hardly human, or at the very least, hardly youthful! It is an ideal for old fossils! In life, balance is a result, not a goal, a reward rather than something to be sought out. It is not achieved by taking every possible precaution, but by alternating one’s efforts.

Well I ask you, what feeds effort but joy? As Jules Simon once said, “When one climbs up to the mountain tops, one must see joyful humanity … Let us be joyful!” That was how he ended his opening speech at the Congress on Physical Education held in 1889, a congress that did so much good in guiding French opinion, particularly that of young people in the schools, into new directions. His hand rested on my arm, punctuating his original speech with an energetic gesture. He preached by example, the dear man. He had known disappointments and difficulties. Life’s problems had never spared him, and well-deserved victories had escaped him. To see him view life from such an obstinately joyful angle proves that in this business, physical health is not everything, and that the joy in question is not exclusively animal in nature.

Now we have gone from Olympism to the Gospel. “Love your neighbor as yourself”, commands the Good Book, in teaching the paths of salvation. Rejoice in humanity that is constantly being reborn, advises Olympism. Have faith in it, pour out your energy on it, mix your hopes with its. Egotistical joy is not an intermittent sun. Altruistic joy is a perpetual dawn.

“Lettre olympique VII” in La Gazette de Lausanne, no. 388, December 11,1918, p. 1.


In Paris, people fuss, they fuss intensely. That could be the refrain of an appropriate song, the verses of which would go on and on. Rather than list the things that people in Paris do fuss about, it would be quicker to list what they don’t.

They are also fussing about the Olympic Games. When they learned that the new municipality of Strasbourg was having a stadium built bear the Kehl bridge in order to give the unemployed something to do, the Parisians wanted to hold world championships there in 1920. In addition, the committee of the YMCA, an organization that gets involved in lots of things because of the great services that it has rendered in many areas, is talking about a “Super-Olympiad” to be held this spring in the Paris area. What on earth is a “Super-Olympiad?” When he entered Babylon, not even the victorious Alexander, as eager as he was to Hellenize the East, came up with such a thing.

Our friends are growing alarmed at this disorder, which threatens the Olympic calendar. They are growing alarmed at all these conflicting plans. They should rest assured. Recently a generous initiative presented the Olympic flag, inaugurated in 1914, to the universities of the New World. The flag features five multicolored rings blazing against a snow white background. Now the Greek government is going to join in the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Restoration of the Games by erecting a marble stele in the ruins of Olympia to commemorate the importance of the event.

All this goes to show that the Olympic idea is coming out of the crucible of war even more alive than when it went in. We should expect that the Seventh Olympiad (which occurs in 1920, not 1919) will suffer somewhat from the excitement that its very approach is arousing. That is hardly what matters. When I restored the Olympiads, I did not look to what was nearby, I looked to the far-off future. I wanted to give the world, in an enduring way, an ancient institution whose guiding principle was becoming necessary for its health.

It is this same principle, and the many applications that contemporary civilization authorizes of it, that I am trying to analyze in the course of these Letters, which my readers in the Canton of Vaud are welcoming with great support … and now I will get back to my subject.

“Lettre olympique XIII” in La Gazette de Lausanne, no. 31, February 1,1919, p. 1.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In accepting your gracious invitation and agreeing to give the first of your series of addresses I am not only obeying the dictates of an unshakeable philhellenism but reviving within myself a precious and far-off memory. More than twenty-three years ago now, on an evening in November 1894, I was invited to speak to members of your celebrated Athenian club “Parnassus”. I described to them what was to be expected from the propagation of sport. Some months earlier the restoration of the Olympic Games had been proclaimed in the great amphitheater of the Sorbonne Palace at Paris; this initiative had set the seal on the task to which I had devoted myself since 1886, and ensured its final success. I had thus come to bring greetings to the Greeks in the name of Neo-Olympism and to persuade them to consecrate its existence by permitting the Games of the first of the modern Olympiads to be celebrated under their auspices at the foot of the Acropolis. Enthusiasms were born and grew around this idea—and also violent antagonisms. I have forgotten neither the one nor the other.

Today, when more than a quarter of a century has passed since these events, it is easier to see their significance and scope. We knew already with certitude, before general war was let loose, that the sporting renaissance created national strength through the cultivation of individual energies. The present great tragedy has proved it in an unanswerable and bloody fashion. Now sport can do something more for us; if we know how to let it, it will be able tomorrow to safeguard the essential good without which no durable reconstruction will be possible—social peace.

I rejoice that I have been given the opportunity to begin preaching the second part of the Gospel of Sport among a Hellenic community, as I did the first in times past, and that I thus have the opportunity once more to place my endeavor under the patronage of that civilizing force whose past merits every honor and whose future deserves every confidence—Hellenism.


The idea of invigorating and perfecting military preparation by means of physical exercise is very old. In Chaldea as in Egypt and also in the Far East, governments of a warlike and conquering tendency made use of such a system, and it is probable that they helped things along by appealing to the sporting instinct when they encountered it—incidentally it was rare and undeveloped. The sporting instinct is not an animal instinct. Neither the idea of progress nor the idea of risk which are so to speak its two poles appear accessible to animals. The cat and the polo pony—the most sporting in appearance—seek nothing beyond the game; their muscles amuse themselves, that is all. Now the sporting instinct is something very different. It is above all a power instinct; I personally have reached the conclusion that it was born of man’s contact not with the weapon but with the horse. The armed man was not necessarily a sportsman; the man on a horse had to become one, willy-nilly. I would like to quote in this connection a suggestive passage from Herodotus which unfortunately I do not have to hand.

Thus the remotest antiquity knew and practiced military preparation through physical exercise; but civic preparation was invented by you, the Greeks. The former could be ensured by the sole action of authority; the latter necessarily called for the voluntary cooperation of the individual. The sporting instinct was for the one only an occasional reinforcement, but for the other a vital condition. Thus you became the fathers of sport. You organized and codified it, you made it a permanent institution, a factory of collective strength.

Olympism was to some degree both the crown and the emblem of this organization. At fixed periods all the other manifestations of national life grouped themselves around a considered athleticism. The athlete collaborated with the artist and the philosopher for the glory of their native land. At the same time he embodied its potential strength, since his training enabled him to become its defender at short notice. Thus when the Persian peril threatened Hellenism between 500 and 449 B.C. unexpected armies and navies barred the way to the ambitions of Darius and Xerxes and the greed of their advisers. There had been hesitation before the massive forces of the adversary; more than one city was inclined to submit to the ultimatum. Athens rose up. Victory proved it right. Now if many centuries later—for history has eloquent turnings and sometimes repeats itself strangely—an English general was able to say that the battle of Wateloo had been won on the playing-fields of Eton, how much more accurate still is it to proclaim that the glory of Marathon and Salamis was forged in the precincts of the Greek Gymnasium.

The Greek gymnasium! Of all the institutions of the ancient world the least known, the least studied and perhaps the most fruitful; the institution which best explains the greatness of classical times, since it formed the basis of a superior civilization. When Antiochus the Great wanted to Hellenize Jerusalem, his first act was to open a gymnasium there. He knew that everything else would follow from that.

The Greek gymnasium—to which we will shortly return in order to examine it for ideas suitable to our present needs—was scattered throughout the Greek interior and the Mediterranean coasts and islands. Hellas bequeathed it to Rome, which allowed it to decay. This happened very slowly of course. From Egyptian Alexandria to Sybaris the tradition endured, and was effaced only slowly by the impact of Roman influences, which drew the masses to the Games at the Circus and the sophisticates to the delights of the Thermae. A passage in Seneca gives us a vivid glimpse of this athletic decline, to which Christianity was shortly to give the deathblow. For it is remarkable to observe the severity shown to physical culture by the Church, which was relatively indulgent towards the products of pagan genius (and we must be grateful to it for this); it attacked physical culture as the source of that “pride of life” which the Scriptures had anathematized. We need not become indignant. In the eyes of History its action is justified; the world of that time had need of asceticism; luxury and plutocracy were threatening it with death. In our day, on the other hand, we were bearing the over-heavy burden of that over-long period of ascetic philosophy, and it was necessary to return towards physical education even at the risk of later going too far in that direction. For humanity is like a pendulum which seeks equilibrium but achieves it only transiently on its ineluctable flight from one excess to another.

Even after the Emperor Theodosius’ edict suppressing the antique Olympiads had broken the thread of athletic tradition, there remained here and there modest gymnasia where obstinate amateurs lingered; but they were no longer lit by the gleams of artistic beauty and intellectual effort, for mind had become divorced from muscle. This obscure epoch deserves research. I should have liked to lead the way myself; I shall not be able, and hope that others may share this ambition. Who knows whether such research might not help us better to grasp the character and scope of those outbursts of energy of which the Greek empire time and again provides a fascinating and mysterious spectacle throughout the thousand years of its stormy history?

Better known to us, although insufficiently studied, are the manifestations of the sporting spirit in the Middle Ages. For in its efforts to regulate Chivalry the Church had for a while to depart from its anti-sporting severity and even to tolerate tournaments. Now it would be a mistake to suppose that tournaments were always the exclusive privilege of the nobility. As proof of this I will only mention the amusing challenge sent by the burgers of Paris to those of the province in 1330 with the permission of King Philip VI. The provincials, who came for the most part from Amiens, St. Quentin, Rheims, and Compiègne, were beaten by the Parisians. There were more than 70 of them all told. A paymaster from the capital and a burger of Compiègne shared the prizes for valor, which were presented to them by a young Parisienne, daughter of a draper. Incidentally one of these jousters had broken a leg and the other had not escaped without a severe buffeting. Here, without a doubt, was the love of risk, which is one of the essential elements of sport. However, it was a rudimentary sport, without training and without organization. The same characteristics were observable in the Homeric matches of ‘soule’—the ancestor of football—which the Sire of Gouberville used to organize around his estate at Cotentin, and which are described in his private journal with picturesque simplicity. The governments of those days do not seem to have approved of these customs. Edward III of England forbade his people any exercise save archery and Charles V of France, himself a great lover of tennis, proscribed it for his subjects. It is certain that the sporting spirit could easily have developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. But feudalism repressed it, and as soon as the Church became detached from Chivalry it returned to its distrust of physical culture, in which it appeared to descry a dangerous forerunner of free thought.

From Rabelais to Rousseau there were apologists for physical education. Basedow and Pestalozzi even made meritorious attempts to pass from theory to practice. Then the great German patriot Ludwig Jahn and the Swede Ling sought to spread their gymnastic doctrines in their respective countries. But Jahn’s one idea was to create a military force capable of achieving German unity, and Ling’s aim was to promote health through scientifically regulated physical activity.

It was left to the great Englishman Thomas Arnold to take up the Greek work at the point where a hostile fate had interrupted it, and to clothe it in an educational form adapted to modern conditions. The world had forgotten how organized sport can create moral and social strength, and thereby play a direct part in a nation’s destinies; had so far forgotten it that the spread of Arnold’s doctrines and example first in England and then throughout the British Empire was an almost unconscious process. Rugby School may thus be truly considered as the starting-point of the British revival. The United States at first remained indifferent to this movement. Noah Webster’s assertion that “a fencing hall is as necessary to a college as a chair of mathematics” found no echo, and on the eve of the Civil War American youth was steeped in the excesses of an unbalanced intellectualism. The fearful shock gave it a rude awakening. Gymnasia were built; they were very different from the institutions that had borne that name in antiquity, and they sometimes pushed scientific pretensions to the point of pedantry, but within their walls sport gradually gained a victory. It was the true descendant of Hellenic sport, but thanks to modern inventions and progress it possessed ingenious appliances and new resources. Its technical range was considerably extended and its formula more precise. It was “the habitual and voluntary cult of intensive muscular effort based on the desire for progress, and capable of going to the point of risk”. That is its definition: it includes the ideas of will, continuity, intensity, improvement, and possible danger; these five elements are the ingredients of sport. It is thus a function of strength and links up with the Stoic philosophy, towards which it may lead its adepts. This is the kind of sport which I had in mind thirty years ago when I made a pact with Jules Simon for the reinvigoration of France. The conviction of the septuagenarian philosopher was no less ardent than my own, and events have fulfilled our hopes. A manlier and broader education soon begot results as fruitful as those whose benefits the England of Thomas Arnold had reaped some time before. In vain did Frenchmen blinded by party spirit undertake the sorry task of portraying to the outside world a decadence which existed only within themselves. History will delineate the rising curve which enabled the Republic to write in forty years the most admirable of colonial epics and to guide youth through the dangers of pacifism and freedom pushed to extreme limits right up to that 1914 mobilization which will remain one of the finest spectacles which Democracy has given the world.

The part played by sport in this revival has been noted across the Ocean and probably better appreciated there than in Europe itself. But France is only one more example of the virtue of Greek formulae perfected by Anglo-Saxon civilization. There are others. In the last fifteen years almost every nation has been paying increasing attention to this long forgotten branch of manly education. None has had cause to regret it. Whatever the methods employed—state intervention or private initiative—the cultivation of individual energies by means of sport has blossomed everywhere into a national force. Sweden and Germany recognize it, as do Belgium and Switzerland. Well then, have we nothing more or nothing of a different kind to ask of sport? Can it do nothing to satisfy the one need which tomorrow is going to dominate all others, since the task of reconstruction hinges upon it? Can sport not help us to establish social peace?

It is readily agreed that the best foundation for social peace within a democratic society would be the establishment of a happy equilibrium between the inequality introduced by nature among men and the equality which legislation seeks to impose. But where are the bases and bounds of such an equilibrium?

The thing which makes inequality hard to bear for those who are adversely affected by it is its tendency to perpetuate injustice. People revolt against it because it usually has the twofold characteristic of being permanent and unjustified. If it were transient and justified it would no longer arouse enmity. Now we may note that while in other fields it is almost impossible to create such conditions, in the republic of sport they arise of themselves.

What is a sporting result? It is a figure or a fact. You have a maximum height above which you cannot jump, a minimum time below which you cannot sprint a hundred meters. The weight that you lift and the rope that you climb also express in kilos or in meters the value of your effort. If a rock-climber, you are capable of climbing this mountain and not that; if a rider, of mastering this horse but not that other. On all sides you encounter restrictions of a more or less mathematical severity. But you could not see them when you began. Nobody knows his exact limitations in advance. Only one road leads there—training and hard work. And when one has reached the goal, when one has set up one’s own record, i.e. the best result one can reach, effort is still required to stay there. No insurance guarantees you the permanent possession of this record. Only persistent work can safeguard it. There, incidentally—if you will allow me this parenthesis—is the whole secret of sporting education. Sport plants in the body seeds of physio-psychological qualities such as coolness, confidence, decision etc. These qualities may remain localized around the exercise that brought them into being; this often happens—it even happens most often. How many daredevil cyclists there are who once they leave their machines are hesitant at every crossroads of existence, how many swimmers who are brave in the water but frightened by the waves of human existence, how many fencers who cannot apply to life’s battles the quick eye and nice timing which they show on the boards! The educator’s task is to make the seed bear fruit throughout the organism, to transpose it from a particular circumstance to a whole array of circumstances, from a special category of activities to all the individual’s actions. That is what Thomas Arnold did, and what British educators learned from him. But let us come back to our social standpoint. Inequality in sport is based on justice, because the individual owes what success he obtains only to his natural qualities multiplied by his will-power; it is moreover a very unstable inequality, because this ephemeral form of success exacts continuous effort if it is to endure even for a little. These are interesting data for Democracy. It is not surprising if in sporting circles we see an easy blending of authority and freedom, and above all of mutual help and rivalry. Now Democracy needs to be able to blend these ingredients, but naturally finds a thousand difficulties in doing so. Sporting authority is inevitably due to merit recognized and accepted. Choose a football or rowing captain for any other reason than his technical worth, and the team’s success is compromised. Furthermore, if a badly understood restriction chafes any member of a team and interferes too far with his individual freedom, his teammates feel the ill effects. Thus the sportsman has before his own eyes a permanently-valid lesson in the necessity of command, control and unity, while the very nature of the comradeship around him obliges him to see in his comrades both collaborators and rivals—which from the philosophic angle seems to be the ideal principle of any democratic society.

If we add to this that the practice of sport creates an atmosphere of absolute frankness, since it is impossible to falsify results which are more or less numerical and whose only value lies in being open to general scrutiny (even with himself a sportsman cannot cheat successfully), we shall reach the conclusion that the little republic of sport is a sort of miniature of the model democratic state.

Is there a way of attaching the one to the other, as the cell to the organism? There is an absorbing problem for our times! In the same way that individual sporting education consists in extending to all the individual’s actions the manly qualities engendered around sporting activity, there would then be a social sporting education the aim of which would be to employ the modest mechanisms of organized sporting activity in the apprenticeship to public life. We find this already in the ingenious conception of the Arnoldian public school; but this time there would no longer be any question of a selected class of scholars, but of an operation upon the whole social body. Is it possible?

Let us now return to the Greek gymnasium and observe it from this angle. We find that its principle is a triple cooperation, the importance of which might perhaps have escaped us. In the first place there is a cooperation of subjects; sport, hygiene, science and art are found mingling together. In the second place there is a cooperation of ages; three generations are present—the adolescent, the adult, and the old. And in the third place there is professional cooperation; the practician and the theorist, the man of science and the man of letters, the politician and the private individual, the guild member and the independent, rub elbows in a sort of beneficent promiscuity. How could this fail to foster qualities of understanding, reconciliation, and appeasement? The young man and the older man, the artist or philosopher and the athlete, do not differ so widely in their ideas, interests and passions that they cannot clasp hands. When they do not know one another it is because they have been kept apart, have been prevented from becoming acquainted and learning to esteem one another. Let us not forget however to note one essential point: it is not around the idea of the public weal that all these forms of cooperation can gather, but around that of “muscular joy”. That is the great lesson of the Greek gymnasium. To try to reconstitute it on any other basis would be like seeking once again a Utopia in which there are no debit accounts. Sport was the master of the household in the Greek gymnasium; it welcomed Mind and bowed before it as though before a distinguished guest. In order to act upon youth it is necessary to understand its ardent desire to live, and in order to understand this, it is necessary to profess the cult of oneself to the utmost. A failure to understand this higher principle would make any attempt to restore the ancient gymnasium barren.

For this is the theme on which I wish to end, far though I am from having exhausted the subject. We must restore the municipal gymnasium of ancient Greece and it will give us social peace. We have facilities for this task that the ancient world never knew. Let me enumerate some of them for you. First of all the technical developments which I mentioned just now, and which a beneficent industry has produced lavishly in the field of sport. What joy the splendid youth of Hellas would have felt in far-off times had it possessed the foil, that docile weapon, the supple and firm boxing glove, the coaxing bicycle, and above all the outrigger, that marvelous craft the very feel of which lends the rower wings! What an intoxication for the bygone athlete had our numerous gymnastic appliances been to hand! Indeed, never has sporting pleasure been made more attractive than in our days, nor its opportunities for exercising its fascination more numerous. Running tracks, facilities for jumping, climbing and throwing, premises or terraces for combat sports, an open-air riding school, a boathouse on the neighboring river if nature or man have made it navigable—these are capital outlays with a hundred per cent return for any municipality intelligent enough to make them. A similar improvement is taking place in the field of hygiene. While air-therapy and sun-therapy have not needed to make much progress, water-therapy has found at once its most ingenious and least aristocratic because at once inexpensive and exquisite formula—the shower bath. When one knows at what a trifling cost shower-baths can be installed and maintained, it seems incredible—and unflattering to the public authorities that they are not in operation in every town of any size. It will come. And what could be more natural than to situate shower baths near sports grounds and sports buildings?

So here we are with an embryo of a modernized classical gymnasium. In what form can we invite art to enter it, apart from the architecture that is to form its setting? In the classical gymnasium there was no doubt dancing, there was certainly singing, and think what choral song might become today with the repertoire which the centuries have stored for it! Byzantine hymns, war songs and love songs from Poland and Russia, from England and Scandinavia, from France and Spain, from Germany and Italy … there is a profusion of them, forming a polyphonic treasure of incomparable richness. A vocal quartet is not very difficult to form and little by little it will turn into a massed choir. Add to this if you will the open-air theatre; art will then be fittingly lodged in the new gymnasium.

But this is not all. Formerly there used also to be philosophy. The master taught under the porticos a few paces away from the athletes. He was a more accessible person in those days, less distant from the ordinary run of mortals in his ideas and more down-to-earth in his language. It would be idle to seek to call him back and his cooperation might well prove a great disappointment. But history is there to take his place, history whose teachings we today realize were so tragically lacking in contemporary society at the moment when it drew near the abyss, history whose broad lines and long vistas—intelligible to all—have been disappearing under the meticulous search for the isolated detail, under lists of useless dates and a dry desert of documentation, history, the sole instructor of the coming democracies, the sole sure guide for the masses along the paths of wisdom.

I am well aware that explanations are necessary and that one cannot introduce so in a few words this novelty of a sort of popular university based on scientifically vulgarized history teaching. I am ready to welcome objections and to reply to them. Here I must be content with simple exposition.

The four bases of the Greek gymnasium are thus within our grasp and its task remains the same, but increased by two circumstances which require mention. Firstly, that canker of ancient societies which slowed down their progress and sterilized their efforts—slavery—has vanished. Secondly, there has arisen the scourge of modern times—alcoholism—whose haunt, the public house, will be destroyed only by replacing it. I must confess that the indifference of anti-alcoholic societies in this respect has always been a matter of regret to me. In thirty years they have given us no support in our sports propaganda campaign. They have remained deaf to the appeals that we have addressed to them with a view to effective collaboration, and have always preferred to keep to direct warfare and try to kill the public house in the sole names of virtue or of science. They must know, however—for it has been proved—that alcoholism has no more powerful antidote than athletics and that there is a sort of physical incompatibility between alcohol and training; moreover, isn’t the “unwinding” which the manual laborer seeks in the pub a social necessity? Isn’t it the same “unwinding” which the business-man seeks in his club, and if so what right has he to ask of the manual laborer an abstinence which he does not practice himself? Grave hours are at hand for democracy. Insatiable plutocratic appetites and the lust for power pushed to madness on the one hand, and the revolt against too long-suffered injustice on the other, combine to keep civilization under the threat of an aftermath of war which could be worse than the war itself. Henceforward it will no longer be possible for any caste to govern the world, to order it to move or to stop—or even to slow it down for a moment. The City of the Future can be built strongly and durably only through the collaboration of all its citizens. Let us apply the motor forces of this collaboration at the points where it is reasonable to harness and group them. Let us not fall into the Utopia of complete communism. Equality must stop at the threshold of the family hearth, for men will never give it access to their homes or allow it to interfere in family affairs. Intimate social relationships are governed by heredity, tradition, and everyday habits. They are expressed in minute but persistent differences of language and modes of life. And it is logical that it should be so. But it is no less logical that public life should cease to be influenced by this sort of particularism. And why should song and gymnastics not be greedily sought occasions for meeting and contacts between young people regardless of class or means? May the Greek gymnasium therefore be restored in the modern community; may it open to new generations the way to an intelligent and pure civic sense, and to fraternal and joyful cooperation.

“Ce que nous pouvons maintenant demander au Sport…” from Conférence faite à l’Association des Hellènes Libéraux de Lausanne, le 24 février 1918. Lausanne, Edition de l’Association des Hellènes Libéraux de Lausanne, 1918 (22 pages). English version in Coubertin, The Olympic Idea, Schorndorf, 1967, pp. 43-51.


In the introduction to this edition and to this chapter, the speech Coubertin gave in 1935 on “The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism” was characterized as the most significant Olympic testimony that he gave in his final years. In it, Coubertin once again presents all the main characteristics of Olympism. The lecture given on August 4,1935, recorded at the radio station in Geneva, was the first in a series of talks a year before the opening of the Games of the Eleventh Olympiad in Berlin. Coubertin was seventy-two. This was an opportunity that would never come again. Once again, Coubertin presented his thoughts to a vast audience. This speech completes the preceding lecture, “Olympia”, which dates from 1929. In that speech, he established the link between antiquity and the historical development of the ideas that are the basis of Olympism. In this lecture, however, Coubertin analyzes the closed system of thought. It was in this speech that Coubertin entrusted his Olympic will and testament to future generations, a testament on the basis of which each of the partial values of Olympism is still evaluated today.

As the founder and honorary president of the Olympic Games, I was asked to present the first of the messages to be broadcast by radio that will explain the meaning of the Games. I was quick to accept this honor. I believe that the best way to go about this is to present my initial thoughts and the philosophical foundations on which I tried to base my work.

The primary, fundamental characteristic of ancient Olympism, and of modern Olympism as well, is that it is a religion. By chiseling his body through exercise as a sculptor does a statue, the ancient athlete “honored the gods”. In doing likewise, the modern athlete honors his country, his race, and his flag. Therefore, I believe that I was right to restore, from the very beginning of modern Olympism, a religious sentiment transformed and expanded by the internationalism and democracy that are distinguishing features of our day. Yet this is the same religious sentiment that led the young Hellenes, eager for the victory of their muscles, to the foot of the altars of Zeus.

From this sentiment derive all the cultural expressions that constitute the ceremonies of the modern Games. I had to impose these ceremonies one after another on a public that was opposed to them for a long time, seeing them merely as theatrical displays, useless spectacles incompatible with the seriousness and dignity of international athletic competitions. The athletic religious concept, the religio athletae, took root slowly in the minds of competitors, many of whom still experience it only in an unconscious way. But they will come around, gradually.

It is not just internationalism and democracy, the foundations of the new human society now being constructed in civilized nations, but science as well that is involved in this sentiment. Through its constant progress, science has given man new ways to cultivate his body, to guide and straighten nature, and to snatch the body from the constraints of unbridled passions to which it had become subject in the name of individual freedom.

The second characteristic of Olympism is that it is an aristocracy, an elite. Of course, this aristocracy is completely egalitarian in origin since membership is determined solely by the physical superiority of the individual, by his muscular ability—improved to a certain extent by his willingness to train. Not all young men are destined to become athletes. Later, no doubt, through enhanced public and private hygiene and through astute measures intended to improve the race, it will be possible greatly to increase the number of individuals capable of handling intense athletic education. It is unlikely that we will ever reach more than about half, certainly no more than two thirds, of each generation. Currently we are far from that figure in all countries. Yet even if such a result were to be achieved, it would not necessarily follow that all these young athletes would be “Olympians”, i.e. men capable of contesting world records. I have presented this idea before, in an axiom (now translated into various languages) unconsciously accepted by nearly everyone: “For every hundred who engage in physical culture, fifty must engage in sports. For every fifty who engage in sports, twenty must specialize. For every twenty who specialize, five must be capable of astonishing feats.”

To try to make athletics conform to a system of mandatory moderation is to chase after an illusion. Athletes need the “freedom of excess”. That is why their motto is Citius, altius, fortius: faster, higher, stronger, the motto of anyone who dares to try to beat a record!

Yet being an elite is not enough. This elite must also be a knighthood. Knights, above all else, are “brothers in arms”, brave, energetic men united by a bond that is stronger than that of mere camaraderie, which is powerful enough in itself. In chivalry, the idea of competition, of effort opposing effort for the love of the effort itself, of courteous yet violent struggle, is superimposed on the notion of mutual assistance, the basis of camaraderie. In antiquity, that was the Olympic spirit in its purest form. It is easy to see the tremendous consequences that application of this principle can have when it comes to international competitions. Forty years ago, people thought that I was deluding myself with my plans to restore the impact of this principle in the Olympic Games. But it is becoming clear that not only can and should this principle exist in the solemn setting of the quadrennial Olympic Games, but that it is already being seen in less solemn circumstances. From country to country, its progress has been slow but steady. Now, its influence must reach the spectators themselves. This, too, has already taken place, in Paris, for example, at the football match last March 17. We must come to a point on such occasions, and especially at the Olympic Games, that the applause is expressed only in proportion to the feat accomplished, regardless of national sympathies. A truce must be called regarding exclusively nationalistic feelings, which must be put “on temporary leave”, so to speak.

The idea of the truce is another element of Olympism. It is closely related to the notion of rhythm. The Olympic Games must be held on a strictly astronomical rhythm, because they are the quadrennial celebration of the human springtime, honoring the successive arrival of human generations. That is why we must adhere to this rhythm strictly. Today as in antiquity, an Olympiad may fail to be held if unforeseen circumstances present an insurmountable obstacle, but neither the order nor the number of the Olympiad may be changed.

The human springtime is neither childhood or adolescence. In our day, in many if not all countries we are making a serious mistake by placing too much significance on childhood, granting it a certain degree of autonomy and allowing it excessive and premature privileges. The theory is that we gain time this way, and increase the period of useful productivity. This approach comes from a mistaken interpretation of the expression “Time is money”. This expression was not devised by a race or a specific form of civilization, but by a people—the American people—who were going through an exceptional and temporary period of productive opportunities at the time.

The human springtime is expressed in the young adult male, who can be compared to a superb machine in which all the gears have been set in place, ready for full operation. That is the person in whose honor the Olympic Games must be celebrated and their rhythm organized and maintained, because it is on him that the near future depends, as well as the harmonious passage from the past to the future.

How better to honor this than by proclaiming a temporary cessation of hostilities, disputes, and misunderstandings, at regular, set intervals for this express purpose? Men are not angels, and I do not believe that humanity would profit from having most men become angels. But the truly strong man is one whose will is powerful enough to make himself and his group stop pursuing its desire or passion for domination and possession, regardless of how legitimate such pursuits may be. I would welcome most warmly an interruption in hostilities in the midst of war between armed opponents, in order to celebrate athletic, fair, and courteous Games.

From what I have just said, one must conclude that the true Olympic hero is, in my view, the individual adult male. Should sports teams, therefore, be excluded? This is not absolutely essential, if one accepts another essential element in modern Olympism, as it was accepted in ancient Olympism: the existence of an Altis, or sacred enclosure. At Olympia, plenty of events took place outside the Altis. A whole community of life thrived all around it, even though that community did not enjoy the privilege of appearing inside the enclosure. The Altis itself was like a sanctuary reserved for the consecrated, purified athlete only, the athlete admitted to the main competitions and who became, in this way, a sort of priest, an officiating priest in the religion of the muscles. Similarly, I see modern Olympism as having at its core a sort of moral Altis, a sacred Fortress where the competitors in the manly sports par excellence are gathered to pit their strength against each other. The objectives of these sports are to defend man and to achieve self-mastery, to master danger, the elements, the animal, life. These athletes are gymnasts, runners, riders, swimmers and rowers, fencers and wrestlers—and then, around them, all the other types of athletic life one might want to include, such as football tournaments and other games, team exercises, etc. They will be honored in this way, as is fitting, but on a secondary level. Here, too, is where women could participate, if this is felt to be necessary. Personally, I do not approve of women’s participation in public competitions, which does not mean that they should not engage in a great many sports, merely that they should not become the focus of a spectacle. At the Olympic Games, their role should be above all to crown the victors, as was the case in the ancient tournaments.

There is one final thing: beauty, the involvement of the arts and the mind in the Games. Indeed, can one celebrate the festival of the human springtime without inviting the mind to take part? But then we face the weighty issue of the reciprocal action of the muscles and the mind. What should their alliance, their cooperation, look like?

No doubt, the mind is the dominant figure. The muscles must remain the vassals of the mind, provided that we are focusing on the highest forms of artistic and literary creation, not the lower forms to which ever-increasing license has been given in our time to the great detriment of civilization, of human truth and dignity, and of international relations.

I know that in response to my request, the Games of the Eleventh Olympiad will open to the incomparable sounds of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, sung by powerful choral groups. Nothing could make me happier, because during my childhood this particular movement stirred and moved me deeply. The harmony of the piece seemed to communicate with the Divine. I hope that in the future choral music, which is so well-suited to translating the power of the hopes and joys of youth, will accompany their Olympic feats more and more. Similarly, I hope that history will hold a major place alongside poetry in intellectual exhibitions held along with the Games. This is only natural, since Olympism is part of history. To celebrate the Olympic Games is to lay claim to history.

History is also the best guarantee of peace. To ask people to love one another is merely a form of childishness. To ask them to respect each other is not utopian, but in order to respect each other they must first know each other. The only true basis for peace will come from taking into account the precise chronological and geographical outlines of World History as it can now be taught.

Now that I have come to the close of my days, I take advantage of the coming Games of the Eleventh Olympiad to express my best wishes to you, along with my thanks. At the same time, I express to you my unshakable faith in youth and in the future!

“Les assises philosophiques de l’Olympisme moderne” in Le Sport Suisse, Vol. 31, August 7, 1935, p. 1; and special print of the Sport Suisse, Geneva 1935,4pp.