Although the Olympic Games date back to the ancient Greeks, they owe their revival and present-day popularity as the leading international sports competition to a French educator and aristocrat: Pierre de Coubertin, whose 150th anniversary was commemorated in 2013. Born in 1863 in Paris, he was the founder and long-time president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games.
The ancient Olympic Games were religious and athletic festivals held every four years in Olympia, Greece, in honor of the Greek god Zeus, from 776 BCE through either 261 or 393 CE. Male representatives of Greek city-states competed over the years in disciplines such as wrestling, running, long jump, and discus throw. Besides athletics, artistic expression also was a major part of the games: sculptors, poets, and artisans paid with their creations tribute to the human body and expressed religious worship. Significantly, the Olympics were a period of martial truce. During the Games, the participating cities had to temporarily settle their disputes and cease their armed interventions.
The first Olympic Games of the contemporary era were held under the auspices of the IOC in Athens in 1896, bringing together 241 male athletes from 14 nations (compared to about 10,500 participants from 204 National Olympic Committees in the most recent summer Olympics in London 2012). Baron de Coubertin wanted to restore the ancient Olympics in every way, envisioning an international encounter of athletes to promote understanding across cultures and the peaceful interaction and coexistence of nations. In fact, despite many impediments in the run-up, the first modern Olympics were a great success and, at that time, the largest international sporting event. Subsequently, the games kept growing in dimension, scope, numbers of disciplines and participants, and global public and media attention.
Apart from being inseparably related to the Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin also was a humanist and pedagogical reformist, valuing intellectual development as much as physical education and excellence. He believed that the competition and the struggle to overcome one’s opponent was more important than the victory.
The Spurlock Museum boasts a large collection of Olympic artifacts and memorabilia, donated by Avery Brundage, fifth president of the IOC and University of Illinois alumnus. The metal medallion was issued in 1937 in France at the occasion of Pierre de Coubertin’s passing and in order to honor his merits and global contributions in athletics. The medallion’s obverse displays de Coubertin’s profile, surrounded by the words "Pierre de Coubertin 1863–1937". The reverse shows a quote from de Coubertin in French—"L’effort est la joie suprême: le succès n’est pas un but, mais un moyen de viser plus haut" ("Effort is the supreme joy: success is not a goal but a means to aim higher")—surrounding the Olympic flame.
Written by Simone Kaiser 2014.
- The International Olympic Committee. “Factsheet: The Olympic Games of Antiquity.” [PDF Link] (external link) Updated May 2012.
- The International Pierre de Coubertin Committee. http://www.coubertin.ch/ (external link)
- Commemorative Olympic Medallion: "Pierre de Coubertin 1865–1937" (1977.01.0714).
- The Athens 1896 Summer Olympics (external link) (via Olympic.org)
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