restricted access 6. Olympic Restoration
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Olympic Restoration Coubertin and the European Monarchy It is difficult for Americans to understand the march of political events in France, and their details, because they lose sight of the struggle between the aristocrat and the democrat. . . . Many of those who still have monarchical beliefs will only admit that the great rural proprietors, or at most the great industrial magnates and the great bankers, can have the pretension to govern their country. The idea that a lawyer, a doctor, a journalist, has any right to sit in the Chamber or the Senate seems to them absurd. Pierre de Coubertin, The Century Magazine, 1897 It has become commonplace to state that the Olympic games of recent memory reflect the tensions of a global society. The exclusion of athletes who protested against racial discrimination during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico reflected a global movement toward tolerance. The murder of Israeli athletes and coaches during the Munich games has been seen as part of a pattern of global terrorism. The boycotting of games held in the Soviet Union and in the United States in the 1980s reflected Cold War politics. And the commercialization of the Olympics since the 1990s re- flects the growing liberalization of the world economy. I point to these obvious examples because I intend to look at the Olympics’ nineteenth-century origins and suggest that the games have six | Olympic Restoration 156 always been used for social or political ends, that the Coubertinian ideal of sport for sport’s sake served a very specific agenda. Previous chapters have examined the embourgeoisement of sports and games previously reserved for the nobility. I will argue here that the Olympics originally represented Pierre de Coubertin’s attempt to both resist this undermining of noble privilege and to create an instrument capable of reinvigorating the European monarchy. olympics and nationalism What were Coubertin’s objectives, and why did he push to “reestablish ” the Olympics in 1896? Bill Henry, in his book entitled An Approved History of the Olympic Games, presents the consensus answer, namely, that the baron Pierre de Coubertin, disturbed by the humiliating French military defeat of 1870, reorganized the Olympics in an effort to strengthen a weakened country: “The period in which young Pierre de Coubertin was inspired to revive the Olympic Games was . . . a postwar period . His country, France, had been overrun by Germany in 1870. . . . Coubertin stood poised at the threshold of life disillusioned, disturbed, and dissatisfied with the pathways that lay before him. Analyzing the situation, Coubertin, at the risk of oversimplification , felt that since his country was in fact composed of individual people, the way to a better France lay in the development of better Frenchmen.”1 According to Henry, after studying the English system Coubertin concluded that athletics would provide the path to improving his country in the aftermath of the 1870 defeat at the hands of the Prussians. The baron thus undertook educational reform in his country, and this led him eventually to “see if some Olympic Restoration | 157 way could not be found to . . . make it possible for the youth of many nations to benefit by a meeting of the minds and of the muscles . This was the birth of the modern Olympic games.”2 This explanation is echoed by David C. Young in his 1996 book, The Modern Olympics: “It is a commonplace of modern Olympic history that Coubertin’s interest in physical education, sports, and even the Olympics was rooted in patriotism. He conceived the idea that France had lost the Franco-Prussian War because of the physical degeneracy of the young men in the French army; on the other side, he thought, the superior physical training the youth in the German army received in their German schools put them at a great military advantage.”3 Young does go on to suggest an error in this “commonplace,” namely that Coubertin’s idea to revive the Olympics was not his own but that of Dr. W. P. Brookes, a physician who encouraged exercise in French schools and even founded an Olympian Class in 1850.4 However, Young does not refute the fundamental commonplace: the link among 1870, patriotism, and the Olympics. Even the reliable Allen Guttmann falls victim to the idée reçue: “Pierre de Coubertin was still a child when France suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. . . . Like most Frenchmen, the young Coubertin burned with a desire to...