Pourquoi la panthéonisation de Pierre de Coubertin n’est-elle pas davantage d’actualité en 2024 ?

Why is Pierre de Coubertin not revered in his home country?

This summer will see France host the Summer Olympics for the third time, having previously staged the event in 1900 and 1924. France is also the homeland of Pierre de Coubertin, the man whose work to ‘re-establish the Olympic Games in a modern form’, begun in 1892, led to the ‘revival’ of the Olympic Games in 1894. Coubertin was born in Paris on 1 January 1863, but he spent much of his later life between France and Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva, where he died on 2 September 1937.

In 2022, the Olympic gold medallist Guy Drut and the writer Erik Orsenna (a member of the prestigious Académie Française) launched a campaign to have Coubertin’s ashes interred in Paris’s Pantheon, alongside other great French men and women. However, President Macron turned down their demand, preferring to ‘pantheonize’ the American-born French singer and resistance fighter Josephine Baker and the communist resistance hero Missak Manouchian. Even France’s Olympic Committee (CNOSF) appears to be in no hurry to pay homage to Coubertin. As long ago as the Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympics, President Charles de Gaulle reportedly said to French IOC member Jean de Beaumont de la Bonninière: ‘The idea is worth considering, but Coubertin is not Jean Moulin.’ In fact, Coubertin received little official acclaim in France, to the surprise of some of his contemporaries, who, following his death, remarked on the fact that he ‘did not even have the Légion d’Honneur’.

In contrast, many other countries awarded Coubertin their highest honours during his tenure as IOC president, from 1896 to 1925, and every Olympic Games host country since 1948 has feted the event’s founder. Through postage stamps and statues, Olympic cities around the world, from London 1948 to Tokyo 1964, from Helsinki 1952 to Mexico 1968, and from Melbourne 1956 to Beijing 2008, have offered tribute to the man who revived the Olympic Games. So why is France so reluctant to honour Coubertin?

From the very start, Coubertin failed to find official favour. As early as June 1896, the French government turned down a request from the liberal parliamentarian Jules Siegfried to award Coubertin the Légion d’Honneur when he returned from the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. Four years later, he was excluded from organising the Concours internationaux d’exercices physiques et de sport in Paris, which was no Olympic Games, because he had joined the anti-Dreyfus camp and refused to allow the radical republican government to interfere in sport. In fact, Coubertin had a highly ambiguous attitude towards republicanism and democracy. Although he was one of the young aristocrats who accepted the new republic quite early, in 1887, he had done so ‘on constitutional grounds’, on the condition that the state respected the Catholic Church’s privileges and freedoms. His aristocratic background also left him open to criticism for his social elitism.

Nor would France’s radical government forgive him for supporting his brother, Médéric Albert de Coubertin, who had resigned his position as a colonel in the dragoons in 1903, after being ordered to expel Carthusian monks from their monasteries. Coubertin’s ensuing rapprochement with Catholic sports organisations and his subsequent Olympic embassy to the Pope further aggravated his position in many people’s eyes. In 1917 Baron Seillière attempted to rehabilitate Coubertin via a book entitled Pierre de Coubertin, un artisan d’énergie française, which highlighted his services to his country at the start of the Great War. But these efforts met with limited success, as shown by the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques’ refusal to elect Coubertin as a member, a snub that contributed to his decision to move to Switzerland, first to Lausanne and then to Geneva.

Following World War I, it took intense pressure from France’s foreign ministry and French sports leaders’ threats to repudiate Coubertin for him to agree, reluctantly and resentfully, to award the 1924 Olympic Games to Paris. These Games could have been Coubertin’s crowning glory, but the victory of the Cartel des Gauches, an alliance of radical and socialist republicans led by the radical Édouard Herriot, ruined his hopes. Admittedly, France’s president, the moderate radical Gaston Doumergue, attended the ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the revival of the Olympic Games, held at the Sorbonne on 23 June, but Coubertin had hoped for more, possibly even direct promotion to the rank of Officer of the Légion d’Honneur. Instead, he had to be content with becoming the first recipient of the Medal of Honour for Physical Education in 1930.

Coubertin subsequently brought discredit upon himself through the comments he made in the press during Nazi Germany’s preparations for the Berlin Olympics. He was not, as he wrote to France’s ambassador to Switzerland in May 1933, ‘fooled by the Nazis’ activities’, but he nevertheless argued against boycotting the Berlin Games in the name of keeping politics out of sport. The Third Reich showered him with honours and provided him with financial support so he would come to Berlin for the Olympic Games opening ceremony. To avoid embarrassing his successor, the Belgian Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, Coubertin stayed away from Berlin, as he had stayed away from Los Angeles in 1932 and from Amsterdam in 1928, but in his letters he hailed ‘the grandiose success of the Berlin Games’ and expressed his admiration for Hitler, noting that he preferred him to Mussolini.

The fact that Coubertin’s strongest supporters were anti-republicans and anti-democrats also tarnished his reputation. It was, for example, German, Italian and Japanese parliamentarians who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936. Coubertin was hugely disappointed when he learned that the Nobel Committee, appointed by Norway’s parliament, had passed him over in favour of the German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who had been imprisoned and tortured in a concentration camp. After Coubertin’s death in 1937, the person who lobbied for a stadium in Paris to be named after him was Armand Massard, the president of France’s national Olympic committee from 1933 to 1967. Massard, a former Olympic fencer, was a member of the ultra-nationalist Croix-de-Feu organisation who rejected the republic and advocated authoritarian government. And the tribute paid to Coubertin by supporters of the anti-democratic Vichy regime on 23 June 1944, seventeen days after the Allied landings in Normandy, did nothing to enhance his reputation.

But what about Drut and Orsenna’s case for pantheonizing the ‘Olympic spirit’ in the person of Coubertin? Their two main arguments were that he had helped to introduce sport into schools and that the Olympic Games had admitted women athletes as of 1928, two decades before they obtained the right to vote in France. However, Coubertin never campaigned for schools to offer sport to all children — he felt that school sport should remain the preserve of young men from the social elite who attended secondary school and university — and he opposed women taking part in any sport on the Olympic programme. In fact, it was his successor, Baillet-Latour, who oversaw the admission of female athletes, a move supported by future IOC presidents Siegried Edström and Avery Brundage, who saw including women in the Olympic Games as a way of controlling women’s sport.

Drut and Orsenna’s third argument was that Coubertin’s Olympic Games contributed to the fight against racism. Notably, they cited the impacts of African American athlete Jesse Owens’ triumph in 1936 in front of Hitler and of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black-power salute on the podium in Mexico City in 1968. How could they not know that the Nazis admired black athletes for their ‘animality’ and their unique ability (according to the Nazis) to perform with their bodies? Or that the IOC’s president, Avery Brundage, an American white supremacist, reacted to Smith and Carlos’s gesture by banning them from the Olympics for life? Indeed, the IOC has still not rehabilitated Smith and Carlos. Some people try to relativise Coubertin’s anti-Semitic, racist and colonial views on the grounds that they were common opinions in his day. Such apologies not only unwittingly acknowledge that Coubertin was no visionary; they also overlook the fact that some of his contemporaries, including figures in French sport, held more progressive views on these issues.

Look hard enough and it is possible to find reasons to respect Coubertin’s memory, such as his efforts to associate sport with pacifism, his endeavours to promote the French language within the Olympic movement, and the way he turned the IOC into a diplomatic force bent on protecting its autonomy. Just as important was his idea that sport should remain neutral with respect to politics and money, which was also a way of protecting the Olympic movement from outside control, whether authoritarian or democratic.

When all is said and done, is there a real need to pantheonize Coubertin, a man who, to spite his homeland, refused to be buried in France and who instead chose to create a personal cult in Greece? Indeed, his will stipulated that his heart be laid to rest in the stele erected in his honour in Olympia in 1927. So, it is in Zeus’s shadow that he has built a global legacy.

Contact details:

Professor Patrick Clastres
Mobile: 0033 633 22 14 93

Email: Patrick.Clastres@unil.ch

Other articles published in Le Monde :