Pierre de Coubertin’s Philosophy of Olympism
Coubertin’s views were deeply rooted in reality, with which they were connected by numerous ties. Therefore, when reconstructing his views, it is necessary to carry out a wider analysis of the cultural and social context at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Additionally, despite more than one hundred years of the apotheosis of the French aristocrat, we can observe extremely critical standpoints versus his vision and opinions, yet Coubertin’s ideas became an extremely interesting subject of studies.
Pierre de Coubertin in his texts asked questions of an existential and essential nature. Philosophy is the science, which offers an adequate apparatus of ideas to reflect on these topics. It is philosophy that focuses on the existence of man and undertakes the issues of the concept of man, describing his place in the world, a particular society and in a culture. Therefore, it is worth looking for answers in Coubertin’s works to the philosophical questions: who is the man practising sport? What is the place and role of sport in the contemporary world? Answering these questions will allow Coubertin’s views to be placed in concrete philosophical and social trends at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Anyone who starts studying philosophy cannot avoid confrontation with the most difficult questions that can be asked. The Olympic idea survived centuries, inspiring generations. It helped people find a way of life and organised whole communities so much, that their members call themselves “the Olympic family,” even though they come from various parts of the world. The foundation of such close bonds is a universal idea and it is fitting enough to call the time of the Olympic Games a “festive” period. What is then Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic idea, which did more than any international agreement? The idea, which did not require huge amounts of money and strong armies, to achieve its aims? Which makes us wait impatiently for the next Olympic Games, during which the financial capital is replaced by the enthusiasm of participation and an army of soldiers - by numerous volunteers?
THE SUBJECT AND SCOPE OF RESEARCH
Pierre de Coubertin invented the neologism “Olympism”; for him, the institution of the Olympic Games together with the accompanying global movement were to become the tools used in the education of the youth of the world, by practising sport together with intellectual activities. This ambitious education program aimed at creating harmony between body and mind, in line with the motto: mens fervida in corpore lacertoso. The subject of the research is Olympism as a syncretic philosophy, which combines ancient Greek plots, Western Christianity and democratic cosmopolitanism thoughts, the Greek idea of paideia and the English concept of education through sport defined by Thomas Arnold. Extensive literature on the subject offers numerous descriptions of Olympism, which extend or narrow down its scope and content. Different definitions are shaped depending on an author’s needs, the level of familiarity with Baron de Coubertin’s philosophy, the aim of a definition and the field of science, within which making the definition is attempted, in particular. This pluralism of definitions is possible, maybe even necessary, because the French Baron never attempted to precisely formulate the concept of Olympism. He might have tried to do that, however, the young and developing Olympism was not ready yet for such a precise and final designation. It is also possible that this is a multifaceted, many-sided and dynamic phenomenon, therefore it is not, and it will never be possible to define it precisely. The following definition included in the Olympic Charter shall be used for the purpose of this work: Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. In this work, Olympism is understood: 1. in the context of its ancient prototype, i.e. the ancient Greek custom of organising sport competitions; 2. as a modern, Coubertin’s equivalent of the ancient Greek games; 3. as an ideology, a system of values, idea or social movement.
THE RESEARCH AIM AND QUESTIONS
The main aim:
The main aim of the dissertation was an attempt to systematise Pierre de Coubertin’s thoughts and opinions and present them in a synthesis. This was accompanied with a presentation of the results of the discussion, which took place in magazines and books on the subject of Olympics, focusing on the main ideas of Olympism. Such a discussion has not been presented in a single publication yet. The 150th anniversary of Coubertin’s birth encouraged the creation of such a summary.
As Coubertin was not a sensu stricto philosopher, one could neither assume the possibility to recreate a complete vision of the world in his creation nor answer all questions appropriate for individual subdisciplines of philosophy.
Therefore, the achievable aim was defined as an analysis of the selected philosophical concepts, which could be abstracted from Coubertin’s theoretical works. Thus, the work involved application of a philosophical structure and its concept apparatus to Coubertin’s ideas. The path from philosophy to Olympism was taken.
The detailed aims can be presented in 4 points, which reflected the content of individual chapters.
1. Outline of the social and cultural background of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Olympic idea appeared and later matured.
2. Anthropological reflection in the thesis aimed at presenting Coubertin’s concept of man, which determines his place in the world, in a society and culture. The following question was asked: who is the man that practices sport? Another aim was to demonstrate Coubertin’s analysis of the Olympic sport phenomenon which, according to the pars pro toto principle, described a sportsman and - in general - a man.
3. Taking into consideration more general concepts, the social philosophy of the French baron was reconstructed. The Olympic project is not just a self-improvement program for an individual but also - perhaps above all - service to society, first local (France) and next, international.
4. The last part of the dissertation includes a presentation of opinions on Olympism in Pierre de Coubertin’s version. This is the only chapter which describes the times after the life of the French baron, including later opinions on the original Olympic idea.
THE RESEARCH METHODS
The selection of methods in philosophical reflections depends on the general philosophical concept, school or trend. Therefore, the methods applied in the dissertation are: The philosophical method of perspective, conceptualisation and interpretation, characteristic for the philosophical school and trend represented by Coubertin (positivism, naturalism).
M. Heidegger’s hermeneutic method was used, which proves that every understanding is based on a previous one. The hermeneutical interpretation of Pierre de Coubertin’s output may take one of the three paths: 1. Intentio auctoris (the author’s meaning), 2. Intentio operis (the meaning of the text), 3. Intentio lectoris (the reader-oriented meaning). Within this research it was important to reach the sources of the philosophy of Olympism, i.e. Coubertin’s theoretical texts, passing over later commentaries and interpretations. Therefore, the intentio auctoris method was selected. The dissertation was of the analytical, descriptive and synoptic character; therefore it was also necessary to apply methods involving analyses and interpretations of the available sources and literature, in order to achieve the defined aims.
CHAPTERS CONTENT OUTLINE
I. The spirit and logos of modern Olympism
When reconstructing the genesis of modern Olympic Games, frequently certain catchy phrases have been used, as if a particular event, a person or a personal experience of time and place influenced the image of Coubertin’s Olympism idea. However, these seemingly romantic descriptions were supported with rational studies and prior, precise social diagnosis. This, the Olympic project loses its romantic trait but gains in scientific credibility. Philosophical foundations of modern Olympism, which were part of the social studies trend at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, demonstrate that a youthful flush of emotions of a young French baron, enchanted by the Ancient Olympia, was just a spiritus movens for the further work on the program for France and the world, reflecting current social demand.
Common sense dictates that the Olympic Games, even though they were previously resurrected, sometimes for a brief period, are the work of a single man. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was also convinced of the importance of his work, when he implemented the global project.
During the Congress on the Revival of the Olympic Games in 1894, when the toast was raised to the ancient, several thousand years old idea returning at the start of the 20th century, nobody from those voting for the project realised that the vote result was not just an act of their will but also the objective status of the world outside of the room they were in. Coubertin made himself the first apostle of the new sport religion, however, a number of social, cultural, economic, political and other factors were at the foundation of the project.
The results of the analysis of the phenomenon demonstrate that it was the work of society itself, which demanded expression of its needs and desires. These needs were realised in various forms, through the World Exhibition idea and new forms of mass entertainment (e.g. cinema, sport stadiums), among others. From this perspective, Olympism has a social origin, itself not being such a great catalyst of social changes, as Coubertin would expect.
The Olympic Games were resurrected with the help of a small group of Coubertin’s friends, who were persuaded to join the project. The noble genesis of a modern Olympic Games, which were more or less modelled on their ancient equivalent, attracted more and more supporters, probably more active as fans than participating competitors. Popular interest in Olympic sport considerably increased later, after the wave of organisational, marketing and financial successes. That interest was growing mostly among enthusiasts of sport itself and the commercial success related to it, and not so much among those interested in the Games’ humanist message.
The roads parted already at the very beginning of the modern Olympism history. One road was set by Coubertin and the other was chosen by the maturing Olympic movement itself. Olympism in its content and ideology, originally an instrument of social pedagogy, similarly to many cultural phenomena went through the emancipation stage, after which its subsidiarity became autotelic and it broke ties with its pedagogical origins.
II. Prolegomena of Olympic anthropology
Olympic anthropology is eclectic and comprises philosophical ideas from different epochs. The flagship humanism expressed by the philosophy of Olympism required looking into the past where human existence was contemplated, his destiny and the role in the universe. When reconstructing Coubertin’s ways of thinking, a large fragment of the history of humanism was unveiled, rooted mainly in M. Montaigne, J. J. Rousseau, H. Saint-Simon, A. Comte, H. Taine, H. Spencer and many others.
Inspirations in reference to the classical epoch in Greece were presented during the reconstruction of Coubertin’s Olympic anthropology. I returned to the cradle of the Olympic Games - the ancient Olympia. Not because sport was born there. Greeks did not invent sport. Ancient Greeks were referred to as an ideal example. Olympic anthropology was presented through the prism of the Platonic kalokagathia, i.e. the axiological and ethical “unity.” By transferring this ideal to the 19th century philosophy, Coubertin contributed to reconnecting the once lost Hellenic eurythmy.
The positive inspirations found by Coubertin in ancient literature were presented in the first part of the sub-chapter, main assumptions of Olympic anthropology. But negative inspiration is also possible. Then, criticism of one’s predecessors initiates building one’s own ideas. This case was no different. Coubertin’s diagnosis of the contemporary Christian European culture declared that Christianity lost its original harmony to soul and its elements: faith, will and reason. This wasted accomplishments of ancient Greeks, who also valued the body. Coubertin could not accept the concept of man without joy coming only from physical fitness, the beauty of the human body shaped in the past in palaestra and gymnasium.
His anthropological assumptions, although through the body, involved man in natural determinism, at the same time they gave a more autonomous character, thanks to which man could play a special role in nature, be the master of his own fate without participation of supranatural powers. For Coubertin, sport as a specific field of human activity is not only a product of culture, but also natural, innate tendencies of man.
III. Social philosophy
The publication of Coubertin’s works coincided with the emergence of social sciences in Europe. He lived in the epoch, which still heard a strong echo of the works of H. Saint-Simon, A. Comte; K. Marks was already writing; E. Durkheim, M. Weber and S. Freud were his peers. Based on the analyses of Coubertin’s output, one may define him as a post-enlightenment scientific movement member, who saw the tools for describing the world in science. According to him, the slogans about the class war, organisation of a peaceful society, religion, can be described and tamed with the use of scientific achievements.
Coubertin’s social philosophy contains two social programs, according to the territorial scope criterion:
1. A social program for France (narrower)
2. An Olympic program for the world (wider)
The local program was purely pragmatic. It served as the means for physical and moral reconstruction of the French nation, which continued its road to cultural supremacy both in Europe and elsewhere. It is worth emphasising that these were still the times of colonial France. The program contained precisely defined actions, aimed at increasing the morale of the French, which was based on foreign educational models. When creating the program, Coubertin applied the logic of the aim. However, the global project was dominated by the logic of the value, one in particular. It was taken from the original, ancient Greek Olympic idea - ekecheiria, and the 19th century international peace movement. The first, local project was pragmatic but the other one was clearly idealistic.
A political, economic and social doctrine, which originated in the second half of the 19th century, opposed liberal individualism on one hand and social collectivism on the other; it aimed at improving the situation of all social classes by propagating solidaristic ideas. Class solidarity is a doctrine declaring the predominance of a state over an individual, simultaneously considering individualistic postulates. Coubertin supported this concept. However, this solidarity was not complementary with the catholic or Christian-democratic one, but closer to E. Durkheim’s concept.
The social, post-enlightenment thought in the 19th century France and Europe rejected religious habits and ceremonies and broke away from the Church, accused of supporting illiteracy and monarchy. Such rejection required replacement by substitution. Coubertin then proposed to establish the institution of Olympic Games as a repository of a new, lay religion. Here, Olympism as a tool of social reform was combined with global Olympism, which transposed the local idea to the whole of mankind.
IV. Opinions on Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympism
Despite the gradual social approval of the Games, there were always critical opinions, which confronted great Olympic ideals with life. In consequence, we are faced with the Olympism, which matured in the climate of a continuous dialogue between Coubertin, his supporters, sceptics and declared opponents.
The voices from the opposing groups meet where the presence of negative phenomena in Olympism is discussed; Coubertin’s supporters obviously declare, that the negative elements come from the outside. In response, the opponents see the flaw of Olympism in its foundations, namely in the original vision of the Games first ideologist. Solution of the disputes is not just an academic task. The games are an actual event and offer a certain axiological and moral alternative to the world. In the event arguments of either of the parties dominate, they will be the basis of the visions and sense of Olympism future and presence in culture.
Opinions on Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympism can be divided in the following way:
1. Olympic enthusiasm (Olympic apotheosis) - an opinion that Olympic sport has all the features, which raise its competition above sport.
2. Moderate optimism - an opinion that Olympic sport is basically another event, equal to other global competitions and when it is managed properly, it is an excellent opportunity to support humanist values.
3. Olympic pessimism - an opinion that Olympic Games are less than sport and the whole organisation serves only particular interests of certain social groups.
Coubertin’s Olympic idea was welcome in the world because it was flexible enough to be approved by both traditional and conservative social and political groups and new, modernist societies. Therefore, it can easily be proved that Olympism served both bourgeoisie and proletarian ideologies. As the values flow direction between Olympic movement and the world outside the Olympic idea is double-sided, it can be hoped that human culture will more and more implement Coubertin’s social ideas.
The final assessment of his work cannot do him wrong. Olympism cannot be criticised for faulty theoretical assumptions. However, great ideals always fade in attempts to implement them. In the times of scientific minimalism, Baron de Coubertin was not afraid to set brave, idealistic and utopian goals. But how much worth would be an idea, which implementation would not require heroic efforts?
His contemporary role in society certifies his input in the field of culture. The Olympic flag is one of the most recognised symbols, even more so than religious symbols. Coubertin is referred to as “a legendary titan,” “a symbol of noble, youthful enthusiasm,” “the apostle of sport religion,” and he lives in the minds of all members of the proud “Olympic family.”
Keywords: Olympism, Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Games, the Olympic movement, the philosophy of Olympism