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Pierre de Coubertin
and his Relation to the Catholic Church
From: W. Schwank & A. Koch (ed.): Begegnung. Schriftenreihe zur Geschichte der Beziehung zwischen Christentum und Sport, volume 5. Aachen 2005, p. 33-75.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation
Those who deal more closely with the person of Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), the founder of the Olympiad of modern times, and with the Olympic ideology created by him, will come across his relations to representatives of the Catholic Church - particularly in the time when he began his project.
There is mostly pointed also to the fact that central statements of Coubertin about sport and Olympism developed in meetings with church representatives, for instance the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius - Faster, Higher, Stronger", formulated by the Dominican Henri Didon. Time and again there is referred also to Coubertin's meeting with Pope PIUS X (1903-1914), who gave his "blessing", as it were, to the Olympiad and to Coubertin's conceptions. On the other hand there is often emphasized from the Catholic side, how one had nevertheless stood from the outset at Coubertin's side, and had supported him in his ideas.
Hence it is worthwhile to examine more closely this partial aspect - the relation of Coubertin to the Catholic Church - namely the question how this relation appears in Coubertin's writings, and how it is understood there. Could it be that he - at least in the starting time - only looked for and found in the representatives of the Catholic Church possible or actual confederates? Do not especially some of his statements about "religion" indicate that he long since had left the ground of the religion of his childhood and youth? Does not this dissociation manifest itself clearly in the setting up of the "muscle religion" of Olympism, with its "quasi-religious salvation promises"? (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 162)
With these questions is marked the course of the following considerations. Proceeding from Coubertin's Catholic childhood and youth and his relations to representatives of the Catholic Church, his views on the relation of Christianity to sport and sporting exercises are to be stated and critically examined, his ideas of a "muscle religion", and finally his efforts artistically to represent this "muscle religion".
The investigations are limited to a large extent to those writings of Coubertin translated into German. The biography of Marie Thérèse Eyquem (1972), which almost reads like a hagiography, has - as far as Coubertin's life is concerned - only limited value, likewise the statements of Carl Diem on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the IOC 1944 in Lausanne (Diem, 1965).
As Alkemeyer rightly states, the reader learns by them only quite conditionally something "about Coubertin's situation in the social area of French society", hardly something "about his position on the field of educational discussions at that time, about forerunners and contemporaries" etc. (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 42).
All the more is spoken about Coubertin's "vocation", about the "prophetic power of his genius", and about his "mental format of a universal historian", in whom "the ruler of fate" - thereby probably God is meant - "united all those gifts that were necessary to recall one of the most shining thoughts of occidental culture ... into the light of the world" (Diem, 1965, P. 7, 8 and 9). Anyhow, it is time to bring out his figure "from the sacral twilight" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 44).
The writings resp. statements of Coubertin are quoted only with the respective abbreviations. These are to be taken from the bibliography.
For valuable references and information for my essay I return thanks to Professor Dr. Norbert Müller and to the archivist of the French Province of the Jesuits.
A Catholic Childhood and Youth
About Coubertin's childhood (born in 1863) there exist apparently only few meaningful testimonies. He originated both on his father's and mother's side from an ancient stock, which - after the defeat of France in the French-German War 1870-1871 - mourned the good old days. One could not make friends with the Republic. Thereby one was in good society - for precisely the French Catholics were Royalists.
The Catholic religion was apparently natural for Coubertin's family. About the mother is said that she was "extremely pious"; "Pierre had very soon understood that his mother professed her belief in a Credo at the dogmas of which there was no shaking" (Eyquem, 1972, p. 21). In another place is said, "Pierre was educated as Catholic and like his parents a faithful follower of the Pope, but in his way" (Eyquem, 1972, p. 25). But it is not told in what respect he was "in his way" a faithful follower of the Pope. It is indicated that he had been already as a small boy urged by his pious mother to "play mass"; but that he gave up "mass playing" when he noticed that his mother had gladly seen him as monk or priest.
But that the family seemed to be not so "completely" Catholic follows from some remarks. About a grandfather is said, he had been a freemason. That would mean that the grandfather was anti-clerical and anti-church, yes, perhaps even anti-Christian. The French freemasons' lodges were still shaped by the thoughts of Enlightenment, and represented religiously a deism - hence a view of religion that rejected central Christian dogmas. If one bears in mind Coubertin's later religious development, then one would almost like to assume that these Enlightenment ideas in the family exerted a large influence on him.
That the religious attitude in Coubertin's family was "strange", follows from the fact that a grand-uncle from the mother's side, who was priest, was "outlawed" in the family.
This grand-uncle (he is named "this uncanny clergyman") was a friend and pupil of de La Menais (1782 - 1854), who mutated from an ultramontan royalist to a liberal, even socialist Catholic, and had been inflicted several times with church sanctions, respectively indictments.
The judgement of the mother about this grand-uncle read, when the young Coubertin stood up to take care of his neglected burial place: "How useless, his eternal damnation is certain to us all!" (Eyquem, 1972, P. 36) In Pouret's opinion this uncle had fascinated Coubertin and inspired him to his "Novel of a Reconciled" (Pouret, 1973, P. 85)
One can therefore not help feeling that the young Coubertin grew up in a religiously conflict-loaded family. That's why his "extremely pious" mother apparently saw a way out in sending her son to a Jesuit College, to heal him so from his heretical opinions.
Coubertin's Relation to the Jesuits
Coubertin was pupil of the by Jesuits led Saint Ignatius College in Paris, Rue de Madrid. Here he got - as Krüger means - a "one-sided education" (Krüger, 1980, p. 522). But it is not proved wherein this "one-sidedness" lay.
In Eyquem's Coubertin Biography is indicated that he in the High School could "even be less himself than at home"; this is substantiated with, "it would not have been advisable to express one's own ideas, yes, to express something independent at all" (Eyquem, 1972, P. 33). Here too detailed references are missing.
Eyquem then indicates particularly that there was exacted from each pupil a "strict self-discipline, good behaviour and daily prayer":
"There prevailed a moral that knew no difference with those who did good or bad, or thought it, a moral that anticipated already God's judgment ... The doctrines of the church became the basis for everyone, and at any time the obligatory way of life ... The Jesuit Fathers insisted ... on dogmas, moral, manners and good behaviour." (Eyquem, 1972, p. 33-34).
What is meant by the cryptic suggestions about self-discipine, good behaviour, manners and moral, is not explained; also not, wherein the "critical state" of these educating principles lies.
About the Jesuit College Saint Ignatius in the Rue de Madrid for nonresident pupils there is a detailed description by Delattre (1955, P. 1392 - 1422). The institute existed from 1874-1908. For the erection of the necessary college buildings was intended - among other things - also a "gymnasium" (= "gymnase"). For the games of the pupils on the campus there were available six "playgrounds" (= "cours") on which the individual "departments" did their games; these were obligating for everyone.
The report of a former pupil names a set of games: Catch, walking on stilts, wall ball, different "war games", in the winter particularly skating on the frozen-over playgrounds (Delattre, 1955, P. 1403). Another former pupil reports: "I remember the frolicsome games that we did with passion; and I am always surprised to hear, as today's sportsmen explain solemnly, that the college pupils could not play" (Delattre, 1955, p. 1403).
Perhaps this is a reference to the later devaluing public expressions of Coubertin about the "games" at his college in the starting time of the institute. There is nevertheless an interesting reference to the "Baron de Coubertin" in the report of a former schoolmate from the year of his death 1937: "I see still before my eyes how Baron de Coubertin with outstanding clarity recited a fable of La Fontaine." A further remark is probably just as informative, because it refers to the instruction in the old languages Greek and Latin,
for the imparting of which one exuberantly returns thanks (Delattre, 1955, P. 1405). Obviously here is related to Father Jules Carron.
Coubertin visited the College Saint Ignatius from 1875-1880. A document of the archive of the French Jesuit Province says, Coubertin had taken part in the "philosophy class" and completed it. For the pupils there was in the curriculum - apart from the games in the spare time - no mandatory instruction for "physical exercises", only a facultative offer for fencing and "gymnastic". Coubertin's appreciation of fencing is without doubt based on his participation in this facultative offer. But what the things named "gymnastic" really were cannot be found out. Nevertheless, there were obligatory "games" for all pupils in the spare time.
Considering the negative judgements in the biography of Eyquem and of historians about the school life in the College Saint Ignatius, one is then surprised to some extent, when, as it were, in the same breath is said Coubertin had marvelled at his teachers "above all their education, their educational skill, their piety and self-assurance"; they succeeded "with large power of persuasion", "so that Pierre willingly followed them"; but "their example had changed nothing on him at all" (Eyquem, 1972, P. 33-34).
He admired especially his teacher of many years in the humanistic subjects and in rhetoric, Father Jules Carron (1839-1923). He "exerted ... a very strong influence on him. He awoke in him the sense for measure, and the love for that country the philosophers of which were poets, writers and artists, and which had been ready for the fall, in order to conquer then the whole world: Greece - that country the discordant provinces of which were united peacefully by the call of one place alone, by the call of Olympia" (Eyquem, 1972, P. 34). Pouret says that Father Carron had imparted to the young Pierre the knowledge "of the history of Greece and Rome, and with it a very solid classical education" (Pouret, 1973, P. 81); he had opened his eyes "for the beauty of the Greek culture" (Pouret, 1978, P. 124).
Alkemeyer points to another "absurdity" in Coubertin's relationship to the Jesuits. For Coubertin the British colleges were places of an exemplary permanent competition, of "a system of constantly revisable self-rating, according to the performance in the school hierarchies"; but what he named a "typical British idea", this "meritocraty" (according to one's merits), he got to know in his college in the Rue de Madrid; he has obviously integrated the "competition system dominant in Jesuit Colleges, and their elitism into his own reform proposals" (Alkemeyer, 1996 a, p. 82).
At the age of twenty Coubertin went in 1883 to Great Britain, where he - probably by intercession of his former teachers - got to know different boarding schools of the Jesuits; about one of them - Diem calls it incorrectly "Jesus Kolleg" (Diem, 1959, p. 9) - he writes in detail: "First I visited the Jesuit College of Beaumont in the neighbourhood of Windsor" ("Kampagne", p. 12).
This boarding school of the Jesuits left a deep impression on Coubertin. He heard from a Polish friend, "that the aura of liberty and individualism, which had begun to spread over the English colleges, had already reached Beaumont" (Eyquem, 1972, p. 45). From his friend he heard also that in the college newspaper the best swimmer was mentioned, who would get a price from the association of former pupils on occasion of a banquet. "A dozen of Jesuit Fathers will be present there, and by their humour and their free and easy nature they will certainly cause a sensation" (Eyquem, 1972, P. 45).
Particularly the acquaintance with other British boarding schools, above all with the College of Rugby, which had been crucially moulded by the headmaster Thomas Arnold, inspired him for his own educational ideas. The sport at these schools became for him, as it were, the "means" to overcome the backwardness of the colleges in France. But many difficulties arose for him in the pursuit of this aim. Just the church colleges closed to a large extent their mind to Coubertin's reform ideas. Thus, the Jesuits of his old college in the Rue de Madrid were deaf to his ideas:
"Of the Jesuit Colleges I knew that they observed the spreading reform with the largest aversion. Nevertheless, I made the attempt with the day college in the Rue de Madrid, which I had visited. But I met an absolute 'non possumus'. At the same time the Jesuits prided themselves - which was by no means justified -, on imparting in their colleges the perfect physical training, because many of them took eagerly part in the games of their pupils. But they were not inclined to go beyond those childlike games, and rejected in principle any sport done under the direction of pupils, because this would bear the consequence that the young people would meet by the contests with other young people who went to public or non-denominational schools" ("Kampagne" p. 19 - 20).
These statements show a Coubertin who was obviously annoyed about the fact that his educational ideas did not find applause in his old college. He acknowledged that the Jesuits took care of the physical training of the pupils. But the fact that one did not want to join public play and sport activities was for him the stumbling-block. He had no understanding for the special way of the Jesuits' boarding schools, which e.g. had also been taken in other countries (cf. Koch, 2003). In no case however the refusal of Coubertin's ideas can be interpreted as a general refusal of physical training or as body enmity.
It could also be possible that Coubertin regarded the "physical training" and the "childlike games", as they were usual in his old school, as not up-to-date, because he considered first of all the "combat-emphatic", the "agonal character", and the "nimbus of danger" of sport; therefore for him even gymnastics were only "disciplines hindering and restricting the individual action and efficiency", respectively other kinds of sport (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 90-91). Only the "sport" understood in this sense, namely the "pedagogy ... of the total risk" (cf. Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 96), had for him the characteristic of "productive pedagogy" ("Ol. Gedanke" p. 115).
Coubertin was convinced that "his" sport "was bound to an unbridled contest" and "lived from the freedom to let one's steam off" (Lenk, 1976, p. 405). The "physical exercises" practised by the Jesuits in their colleges were therefore only "pastime" for him, whereas his "sport" must seem to his old teachers as an educational precarious thing, yes, as something that had to be rejected.
Sport as "Remedy" Against Sexual Aberrations in the Youth
At first sight it seems as if this section had hardly something to do with our actual topic, Coubertin's relation to the Catholic Church. But that is not the case, because her enmity against sexuality is repeatedly mentioned as one of the reasons why the the church is accused of disdain and enmity against the body.
Therefore it does surprise when one finds in the educational writings of Coubertin, who would probably by nobody named 'enemy of sexuality', remarks which refer "morality" largely to the field of sexuality, and which say that the dangers of the sexual instinct were to meet by a "successful hygiene of spirit and body" ("Schule", p. 159).
Coubertin expresses his views to this topic under the heading "moral instruction and religion". There he writes:
"Remarkable and too little noticed treatises have referred to the importance of this difficult problem. Each accumulation of boys harbours the danger of a premature awaking of the sexual instinct, according to a generally confirmed law (often observed by animals), and the danger is quintupled by stimulating the fantasy, done by today's so widely spread pornographic publications, against which one cannot completely protect the youth. Climatic and race characteristics seem secondary, as one would like to assume, and the colleges in the north are not ahead to those in the south, as they allege so readily.
From the well-tried remedies supervision is one of the most ineffectual. As severe as it is, it will be broken. The fear of God in which the church colleges trust, does not work better. The bad habits flourish at those colleges just as well as at others, and it looks as if a certain mysticism would sometimes favour their developing. There are nevertheless remedies. The life of day-pupils is one of them, but only as long as the family - aware of its responsibility - dedicates its whole attention to this part of its very delicate task, and does keep in mind the dangers of the daily way from the school to the parents' house in a more or less spoiled atmosphere of a city.
Generally spoken, all the things suitable to fight boredom and anaemia, those two large promoters of immorality in colleges, are the best means against immorality. Nothing excels a healthy, balanced, cheerful existence. The importance of such a topic cannot be pictured in one volume, because it exceeds the task of this writing. If I touched it by the way, so only because I noticed everywhere that the evil exists, and that one takes the wrong steps by appealing to moral control in order to redress it, while the best means to oppose it is a successful hygiene of spirit and body" ("Schule", p. 158 f).
In this opinion Coubertin is obviously affected by his view on education in English boarding schools. They were to him exemplary, while his judgement on French high schools was scathing. Thus Coubertin regarded the Rugby College, which had been moulded by the pedagogue Thomas Arnold, as an exemplary college. Arnold had succeeded in finding "the precise formulation of the threefold role of sport for pedagogy: Its physical role consists in bringing the body into balance, to strengthen the muscles, to soothe the senses and the imaginative power" ("Schule", p. 97). This "calming down" of the senses and the imaginative power is certainly also differently interpreted. In reality Rugby was rather a "sexual concentration camp", as Alkemeyer remarks;
Arnold, allegedly so liberally minded, was the advocate of a strict observance of behaviour, custom and moral: "His main enemies were called masturbation and homosexuality" (Alkemeyer, 1996 a, p. 73).
Hence Coubertin's views of a sporting education refer not only to the body, but also to "morality" - an opinion that runs at the bottom through Coubertin's entire educational thinking about the effect of body education; the sportsman trains together with the physical also a "mental-moral musculature" ("Schule", p. 110). Only the control of the own "unsettled passions", above all of sexuality, would elevate man over the mere animal (see Alkemeyer, 1996 a, p. 97f).
Critical for Coubertin is above all the time of puberty, in which the juvenile has already the body of a man, but is still controlled and confused by "malicious instincts (cited by Alkemeyer, 1996 a, p. 126). It is necessary to overcome quickly this unstable condition, and to lead from the status of the still instinct-controlled boy to "true manliness".
Coubertin regarded as touchstone the probation in the sporting fight. In contrast to the amusements which "degrade" the young man, the pleasure of sport contributes to his perfection and refinement; therefore the sport is "so closely linked with moral" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 105). The discipline practiced in sport "does ... not ... bend and suppress the human instincts, energies and passions, but collects and canalizes them into the individual accomplishment of the tasks and examinations" (Alkemeyer, 1996 a, p. 99); the sport is "a school for a noble mind and for moral purity" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 116).
These statements of Coubertin on "moral", respectively on the "dangers of the sexual instinct" for young people, are obviously common property of the contemporary pedagogy. These statements do hardly differ for instance from the opinions of Catholic pedagogues and moral theologians. For them too the sporting exercises are considered as a proven means against the dangers and aberrations of sexuality
(cf. Koch, 2002 a, p. 82 - 86). Hence this view is not only to be found by Christian authors. That Coubertin takes this view relativizes also his reproaches directed at Christianity, respectively the (Catholic) church that they devaluated the bodily-physical reality, and therefore also the physical exercises.
By Coubertin's statements on sexual moral something else becomes clear, that determines his entire view of the aim of education. "Sport" is for him an "instrument" in the "service" of human formation. It is therefore about a "functional" understanding of sport activities. The actual characteristic of sporting activities, the play character, does not exist in this system of pedagogy. The fact that "physical exercises" feed on the impetus of life lies outside of this approach.
Coubertin and his Relations to Representatives of the Catholic Church
Obviously Coubertin tried during his whole life to find confederates for the realization of his reform ideas. In this context the Dominican Father Henri Marie Didon (Diem labels him incorrect "Jesuit": 1965, p. 22), Cardinal Merry Del Val, Permanent Under-Secretary under Pope Pius X, Pius X, and Cardinal Mercier of Mecheln are especially to be mentioned as representatives of the Catholic Church. While Cardinal Henry Newman, whom Coubertin met by his visit in England (cf. Eyquem, 1972, p. 57,), Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), about whom is said however that "these things were totally foreign to his nature" ("Kampagne", p. 144), and Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) are only short mentioned.
Father Didon (1840 -1900), in France a well-known writer and preacher (cf. Platz, 1931), was probably the first notable church representative who entertained sympathies for Coubertin's educational ideas: "Only Father Olivier, ... director of the college of Juilly, and Father Didon showed cautious interest." (Eyquem, 1972, p. 79).
Yes, Coubertin attributed the progress of sports in Catholic private colleges to Didon's influence, since he had become Rector of the college of Arcueil in the neighbourhood of Paris. During his visit in Arcueil 1891 Didon invited Coubertin to the foundation of the college sport association; both took part in the following "paper-chase" ("Schule", p. 50f). "It was Father Didon who described the nature of sport with those three words, which he let embroider on the pennant of his school sport association in Arcueil: Citius, Altius, Fortius "(Eyquem 1972, P. 135).
Coubertin, as you know, successfully suggested in 1894 on the foundation congress of the IOC in Paris' Sorbonne this motto. Two years later the first Olympiad in modern times took place in Athens, and Didon sat as honour guest beside the Greek king. In Athens he also preached at Easter day a much noticed sermon in the Catholic Church. He spoke then of his admiration for the classical education of the Greeks; it included and taught the physical strengths. This education must enter again into the education of young people (cf. Müller, 1996, p. 57).
One year later Didon will be the celebrated orator of the Olympic congress of Le Havre. Coubertin reports that Didon "put lots of people into ecstasy by his flaming speeches - a special charisma of him" ("Erinnerungen", p. 53). Topic of the "grandiose lecture" ("Kampagne", p. 107) was the character-moulding characteristics of sport - hence experiences gathered by him during his term of office in Arcueil: "The moral effect of physical exercises on children and young people, and the influence of effort on character formation and personality development" (Lochmann, 2000, p. 15)
Whether Coubertin has been, as Müller means, "crucially moulded" by Didon in his educational ideas, especially in those concerning the sporting exercises, and whether Didon "supplied Coubertin with the model for his considerations about the importance of effort, self-conquest and persistence for the sporting contest, in a word: about the moral forces of modern sport" (Müller, 1996, p. 61), may be left undecided.
But it is hardly imaginable that Didon would have given his blessing to the inhuman consequences of sport, which are system-immanent to Olympism and become more and more evident today, but which originate without doubt in Coubertin's ideas:
"The attempt to impose on the combatant sport a guideline of obligatory moderation is a utopia. Its followers need unrestrained liberty. Therefore one has given them the motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 151). "Yield therefore to it, you disciples of unnatural belief in moderation: We will continue to put that motto into practice which Father Didon once gave his pupils on their life way, and which became the motto of the Olympic thought: Citius, Altius, Fortius" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 216).
Several times Coubertin reported about his Rome visit in 1905 (cf. Schwank, 1979, p. 210-213, and 1996, p. 30ff). On the one hand he was interested in the planned realization of the Olympiad in 1908 in Rome; on the other hand in (as he meant) a necessary acknowledgment of sport by the Catholic Church. Coubertin's interlocutor was first probably Cardinal Undersecretary of State Merry Del Val (1865-1930). Coubertin notes that the Cardinal had been a pupil of Eton ("Erinnerungen I" p. 77); he had told him that Pope Pius X (1835 - 1914) had as archbishop of Venice acknowledged and promoted the performances of the Gondolieri; he had, shortly before Coubertin's Rome visit, also permitted a gym association "to show him in the Vatican Gardens its abilities" ("Schule", p. 144).
Coubertin's alleged object by his Vatican visit was - as already mentioned - above all that the Catholic side should be interested in "pleading for the matter of sport, or in supporting its practice. The excommunication which had been inflicted formerly on the antique Olympiads - was it really directed against the pagan customs only?" ("Schule", p. 143) In his "Memories" it says that Coubertin had been interested in getting "from the Vatican the abolition of a kind of prohibition (interdict)
which in many clerical circles had impeding effects in regard to sport pedagogy"; this aim has been "perfectly" achieved ("Erinnerungen I" p. 75).
Of course, here has to be noted that, as far as the antique Olympiads are concerned, not any excommunication has been inflicted (excommunication is inflicted on persons); the prohibition of the games in Olympia comes from the Emperor Theodosius I (379-395). There is not any canon of a church synod that inflicts the games with the anathema, but there are surely canons against the participation, respectively against those who take part in these games. But also in modern times there is no church prohibition or "interdict" (so translated in "Erinnerungen" p. 70) regarding the sport pedagogy.
When Coubertin in this connection says, there is a "Bible word which can be interpreted as complete condemnation of sports", and quotes as authority the passage about the "haughtiness of the body" as "one of the worst sources of sin" ("Kampagne", p. 143), then there is at the bottom of it obviously a wrong understanding of the text concerned, or a wrong German translation (cf. Schwank, 1979, p. 211, note 52). At other places the words "life pride" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 54) or "haughtiness of life" ("Schule", p. 93) are used by Coubertin.
St John's First Letter (2:16) speaks of the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and of the boasting of life". "Lust of the flesh" means then in no way sporting exercises; not even the disorder and the endangering caused by the sensual animal instincts are meant (Coubertin calls them the basic dangers especially of juveniles), but generally any action against God's commandments. Hence the quoted text is by no means directed against the "joy of life", which is - according to Coubertin - "the nature and characteristic of sport" ("Kampagne", p. 143).
In Coubertin's report about his Vatican visit is then said that Merry Del Val had spoken about "sport with the understanding of a man of world and of a grand seigneur".
Then it says, "Hence it was easy for me to get from the Pope words full of benevolent sympathy for the Olympic spirit revived again. Pius X seemed to be quite interested in the Roman Olympiad. There was no doubt that the Catholic groups of the Italian youth welfare organizations would have gotten permission for their participation" ("Kampagne", p. 144).
Similarly, it says in the "Memories":
"The head of the Catholic Church was interested in the plan of a Roman Olympiad and spoke extraordinarily kindly about it. He promised also a tangible proof of his feelings in the near future" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 77).
However, whether Pius X - as Coubertin writes many years later in 1929 -, did bless "my renewal founded on paganism", is a statement which can be duplicated only with difficulty ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 136). In case Coubertin understood his demand for a "return to paganism ... as the cult of humankind, or better: as cult of this (earthly) life" ("Achtung", p. 22), and wanted and got for that the Pope's approval, then Pius X would have given up fundamental faith teachings. Coubertin obviously interpreted the "papal benediction", usual given at the end of an audience, as consent to the views represented by him. This is in no way justified.
There will be again told in detail about a high church dignitary, namely Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926), Archbishop of Mecheln, on the occasion of the Olympiad in Antwerp 1920. In the morning of the opening of the games Cardinal Mercier held a service in the cathedral; but it was no public, obligating service for the participants.
Coubertin substantiated this procedure with the fact that an obligation could "displease mature men ...". "But if one invited them outside the games to a celebration into the church, then we just granted religion - like all other moral strengths of mankind - a place within the Olympiad. But the celebration had to be neutrally in its form,
in order to stand above all denominations. No mass, no marching in of priests into the sanctuary. The 'De Profundis' as remembrance hymn for those who had in the last four years dropped out, and the Tedeum as hopeful hymn for success. One could name them worldly hymns that gave opportunity to a beautiful musical reproduction.
A speech could follow, provided that it was freethinking. This unusual program had a fast effect on spirit and heart of Cardinal Mercier. By the tragic fact that this time the list of the Olympic dead was so frightening long, the celebration became particularly large and solemn. I believe that all those who were present got a deep impression from the words which were spoken by the famous prelate and which were framed by the wonderful harmonious sounds" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 160-161).
However, this passage from Coubertin's "memories" makes blatantly clear which rank the "relations" to the Catholic Church had for him. It was opportune in those first years to win the representatives of a "large moral power within humankind". This aspect was obviously crucial for Coubertin. He had long since left the ground of the religion of his childhood and youth. This is proven less by positive statements against clericalism and dogmatism especially in the Catholic Church, but rather by his views on religion in general.
In the light of those statements the representatives of the church appear therefore only as welcome confederates, as docile assistants in the pursuit of the Olympic ideas and as unsuspecting promoters of the Olympic ideology or "religion". Only once Coubertin mentions a contact with the Vatican in April 1923: "The members of the IOC ... went into the Vatican. There their president after a previous long audience received from Pope Pius XI again the assurance that the Olympic thought had his whole sympathy" ("Erinnerungen I" p. 180). But details of this "long audience" are not known.
Coubertin's Views on Christianity
and Its Relation to the Body and to Physical Exercises
Time and again Coubertin dealt in his writings with Christianity and its relation to the body and to physical exercises. As much as he on the one hand speaks highly of individual personalities and representatives of Christianity because of their positive attitude, he has on the other hand an almost fundamental distrust - as he expresses himself - of the Christian "doctrine". Eyquem cites statements of Coubertin, that he "could hardly imagine a more backward and more intolerant program" (Eyquem, 1972, p. 65). This negative view of the Christian "doctrine" is most clearly expressed in his thoughts on "school, sport and education". But also in many other places are critical expressions of Coubertin about this topic.
Coubertin treats the "history of humankind" in two chapters of the mentioned writing ("Schule", p. 58-77). The statements concerning our topic begin with the description of the situation of the Christians in the Roman Empire. There one is surprised by the following sentence: "Opinion and faith are free; the Christians, too, enjoy the same liberty as the remaining people, and Christ takes his place in the Pantheon, if his followers are ready to grant a place in their divine services not just to the idols but to the emperor as living idol" ("Schule", p. 65).
Apart from the philological question whether this sentence is to be understood conditional or as statement: The Christians were not ready in the first centuries to enter in any form into the emperor cult. The many martyrs paid with their blood and life. To sacrifice before the picture of the emperor was not an insignificant religious ritual for them (which could be done also by "atheists"); for them it was equivalent to apostasy from the Christian faith. Christianity did not understand itself primarily as "religion" (the Christians were suspected even of atheism and were accused of "irreligion": cf. to it Ratzinger, 1968, p. 118), but as "faith".
In his overview about the medieval history the far-reaching influence of Christianity on man is hardly mentioned by Coubertin. That changes when he comes to speak about the Reformation. Here it says: The Reformation brought in its wake an opposite movement, namely "the establishment of the 'Society of Jesu' and the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent is perhaps one of the most important movements of modern times."
It changed "religion, politics and philosophy as well as literature ... Against the exaggeration of the Reformation it set the exaggeration of a new dogmatic and irreconcilable Catholicism. It drove away the philosophers who had been up to then the worldly companions of theology. It created the index, this dungeon of thoughts, and the inquisition, this bloody parody on jurisdiction. Finally it killed the Greek genius, banished the orthodoxy into the Slav world, and let revive Latin influences, which were reflected in the following century in literary works of such beauty that the delighted world forgave them their emotionally coldness" ("Schule" P. 73-74).
The qualified and unqualified reproaches mentioned in these sentences, as it were, in one breath, can take away one's breath. The Jesuit Order was in no way founded for the protection against the Reformation, although it later carried decisively the "counter-reformation". The oldest "index" of books inflicted with censure was published in 1544 by the theological faculty of the Paris University; the Trent "index" dates only from the year 1564. The "inquisition" is not a "child" of the Trent Council, but came into being already in the time of the high Middle Ages; in 1231 it got by Gregor IX as its actual task the fight against the heretics.
In any case, the inquisition can naturally be charged with much wrong, so the burning of Giordano Bruno and the condemnation of Galileo's opinions. But what is meant with the killing of the "Greek genius" and the "emotional poverty" of the Latinists (the Latin Church?) as consequence of the Trent Council is nowhere verified.
As regards the philosophers who were "driven out", this can hardly refer to Descartes, who was a quite faithful son of the church; and just as little to Blaise Pascal.
In the section "The Sport in the Change of the Centuries" ("Schule", p. 86-100) Coubertin treats also the role of the (medieval) church. The "sport impulse" of human beings had met an "enemy" that was not less to be dreaded than the feudal exclusiveness: the church. "From the beginning Christianity has met athleticism with refusal" ("Schule", p. 92).
"It filled people with more than disdain of their bodies, namely with disregard. It taught about this body not only that it was bad from the beginning, but that it was filled with sinful tendencies which were pitfalls for the soul ... Its teachings ... caused an imbalance in the human nature, the far-ranging consequences of which reach up to our days yet."
These consequences showed themselves clearly in the "antagonism of spirit and flesh" ("Schule", p. 93-94). The "contempt" of the body, typical for the Middle Ages, was a "tremendous mistake" with not to be foreseen "scientific and social consequences" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 6). Anyhow, for Coubertin it was quite certain "that Christianity was responsible for the division of man in body and spirit" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 151); it is about time, "after a long and body-hostile and spirit-directed 'wrong' age of 'asceticism' to realize the harmony of body and soul" (Wirkus, 1992, p. 309).
That the Church Fathers rejected the late antique athleticism is an uncontested fact. With this refusal they were in "good society" - for instance of a Seneca or a Marc Aurel. However, they then rejected primarily the cult of idols, which was e.g. connected with the antique games, but also the brutal and degenerate business of the gladiators. That they therefore condemned also body care and physical exercises, yes, even called the body in itself wicked, is not only an unproven
assertion, but has decidedly to be rejected because of the evidence of the Christian literature.
What is more, if there are statements of Church Fathers and church writers with a body-devaluating tendency, then the reasons for this undervaluation of the body lie precisely in the Greek-Platonic understanding of the body, in no case however in the Biblical view. There the human being is seen in its oneness and wholeness (cf. for this Koch, 1965 and 1978). The body undervaluation, which is quite present in Christianity up to our time, is to be attributed above all to the "Greek genius" sworn to by Coubertin. His reproach:
"One cannot put for centuries the fleshly human being under a ban, and then assume the child would not suffer under this constant curse. One cannot declare humility, obedience and self-degradation to corner pillars of the progress of humankind, without steering pedagogy into an unnatural direction" ("Schule", p. 23), (this sentence) is directed against Coubertin himself; this view is, by the way, in clear contrast to his opinions (stated above) about human sexuality and the education of children and young people, where clearly an "antagonism", even a "dualism" is held.
As for the Middle Ages, there Coubertin's judgements are wrong. The different "physical exercises" were deeply rooted in people's life and were cultivated over centuries. The human body was therefore "neither ... rigorously negated and on principle despised", but also not, "in the sense of a much later time, regarded as a value in itself" (Körbs, 1938, p.11). Obviously, Coubertin did not know the corresponding facts or ignored them. In each case his negative judgements about the Middle Ages show that his historical knowledge is doubtful and betrays clearly the dependence on anti-Christian prejudices of that time.
Here are added and commentated still other statements of Coubertin, which shall prove his view of a sport and body-hostile Christianity, respectively church.
In 1895 he writes in the "bulletin" of the IOC: The antique "athleticism allows to be degraded and to go down into the Roman circus arena. Christianity finished it" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 8). Similar it says later, "Christianity finally exstinguished the flames on its (i.e. athleticism's) altars" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 129). The Greek "athleticism" and the Roman "circus" were two completely different things. That is by the way also the reason why the Greek "athletics" survived the Roman "circus", e.g. in the "Olympiads" living on in the neighbourhood of Antiochia in Syria.
In connection with his visit to Pope Pius X in the year 1905 Coubertin writes that a "Bible word existed which can be interpreted as complete condemnation of sport"; as proof he cites the expression "pride of the body", "one of the worst sources of sin" ("Kampagne", p. 143).
In a speech in 1918 in Lausanne it says likewise, "Christianity has given athletism 'the mortal blow'". Then it says, "It is remarkable to see that the church ... was strict about the physical culture, for she pursued here the source of that 'pride of life' which the Scriptures condemned" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 53f). Above (p. 47) has been stated already that this interpretation does by no means justice to the matter treated in the text.
In the same speech of Coubertin it says further:
"The sport impulse would have spread in the Middle Ages over whole Europe. But it was oppressed by feudalism, and after the church had broken away from chivalry, she returned again to her distrust of physical culture in which she seemingly noticed a dangerous forerunner of independent thinking" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 55).
How far the church (just in the high and late Middle Ages she was a very heterogeneous creation - according to the countries in which she existed) had in the physical culture to fear a "dangerous forerunner of independent thinking", one would be glad to hear. But there are no adequate proofs, because there are none.
The time of the Renaissance was deeply moulded by Christianity and was nevertheless not an enemy of "independent thinking" (cf. Körbs, 1938).
That Coubertin criticizes the Christian view of the body, respectively its body undervaluation is indisputable. In many details this criticism is certainly also correct and qualified. He does it however on the background of his own clearly dualistic view of man's bodily being. Characteristic for that is this statement:
"Spirit-soul and character are riders who ride the animal body that is stronger than they, and to the arbitrariness of which they would find themselves delivered, if they would not bridle it with an art that suffices to steer and tame its strength" (cited by Malter, 1971, p. 28, note 42).
Even clearer, and more shocking it says in another text:
"Now flesh, feeling and instinct gain the victory, now it is gained by spirit, will and consciousness; because exactly these two despots are fighting in us for the first rank, and their quarrel tears us often up in a cruel way" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 127). Also Plato could not have formulated more clearly the anthropological dualism.
Malter refers in this connection to the origin of this view, namely from where this dualistic conception of human nature comes. Coubertin was rooted in the Cartesian view: "His considerations" were "always led by Descartes' duality of res cogitans and res extensa"; the "unity of man" was "a totality consisting of two parts" (Malter, 1996, p. 9). That's why one demanded the "harmonization" of body and spirit:
"Coubertin's 'Olympism', i.e. the doctrine of 'brotherhood between spirit and body', is the attempt - though not according to the subjective intention but probably to the matter in question - to overcome by practising (sport) the Cartesian despair at a seemingly indissoluble affair: the separation of res cogitans and res extensa".
Sporting activities offer people the possibility to bring to an end this separation of body and spirit". "Sport can impart the experience of a completed harmony between spirit and body." The "eurhythmics of life" is the bodily-delightful experiencing of that desired harmony, "an experience of earthly bliss, a paganism which has to retain humanity, because it represents an ideal of human life fulfilment" (Malter, 1996, p. 10-11).
Whether Coubertin's conceptions of a "harmony between spirit and body" and of a "eurhythmics of life" lead nevertheless to a "cult of the body", hence "get stuck in the body cult", one may differ in opinion. Laudable is at any rate Coubertin's conviction that the sportsman is a "human being of discipline and knows the borders of mere sensual happiness". Sport saves from "the intellectual-arrogant contempt of the body, and what is more, from the destruction of body and spirit by sensual pleasure" (Malter, 1996, p. 14-15).
Coubertin's "Muscle Religion" -
an Affront Against Christianity
As you know, Coubertin understood Olympism as "religion". "The first and substantial element of the old as well as of the new Olympism is: to be a religion" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 217). Yes, he calls Olympism a "philosophical religious doctrine" (cited by Eyquem, 1972, p. 243). The members of the IOC represent for him a "collegium of priests", that has however to keep its independence and may neither let itself be guided "by a flat pursuit of profit nor by artificial cravings for acknowledgment" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 143 f).
But this view of Olympism as religion does not drop "from the sky"; it is rather prepared in his thinking, i.e. in his mental development. It is therfore appropriate to take first notice of Coubertin's view on "religion" in general. Important statements are in his contribution "Moral Instruction and Religion" ("Schule", p. 150-159).
In his understanding of "religion" he is obviously crucially influenced by August Comte (1798-1857) and Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), who lectured at the "College for Political Sciences" in Paris and was a representative of "applied positivism" (Boulongne, 1996, p. 39); at this "school" Coubertin got his academic formation.
For Coubertin it is necessary to direct the view not "rigidly to the religion familiar to him"; he had to shake "the barriers into which the churches tried to restrain the thirst for knowledge". For him the church "doctrine" or the "dogma", as it is expressed especially in the "creeds" turned out to be chains. They are too narrow "for a half-way emancipated thinking, and for research. The doors of the houses of God closed for people with a free spirit ... They do no longer try to get into the places of worship but meet all around. Some of them erect lonesome altars there. ... The service to the 'universal God' is born."
This change, comparable to an earthquake, had happened by the influence of science, and had not stopped before the churches. "Here does not emerge a new religion, but new views of religion and its practice, new kinds of faith and hope." In any case, one can see "the strengthening and renewal of the religious feeling, a fact the importance of which for pedagogy may not be ignored" ("Schule", p. 150-152). Into which "direction" the effort is to go, Coubertin says in the following sentence:
"I do not belong to those who believe that mankind can get along without religion. I take the word here in its most general sense, not as belief in a certain form of the divine reality, but as turn to the ideal of a higher life, as the desire for perfection" (cited from Eyquem, 1972, p. 109).
For the education of the juvenile conscience above all "the idea of God, in its superabundance and its natural purity" is indispensable. This "moral instruction" may however in no way be guided "by the dogmatic teaching method of the church. ...
It is not his task to enumerate dogmas and even less to compare them with each other". What young people need is "a clear and worthy representation of moral, based on the idea of God" ("Schule", p. 157); a "moral instruction under exclusion of the idea of God" is impossible ("Schule", p. 196).
These statements of Coubertin about "religion" are not the attempt to define "religion" from "religious contents", but rather from its "functions". For him above all the imparting of moral belongs to these "functions". From this viewpoint the Christian religion can only appear as a "divine educational establishment". It is therefore not the duty of the priest "to preach the gospel but to preach the moral law". In this task he must not allow to be led "by the dogmatic teaching method of the church" ("Schule", p. 157). The Christian religion is reduced for Coubertin to the love of one's neighbour. Eyquem writes in her biography: "Love of the neighbour is the mainstay of Coubertin's whole work. He is deeply moulded by Christ's teachings, even if he makes reservations to what has become of them in the course of time" (Eyquem, 1972, p. 126) He does not want to be argued out of acknowledging "the good that the spirit of the Gospel created in regard to the social reality" ("Achtung", p. 29).
Here it becomes clearly recognizable that Coubertin is moulded by the ideas of the French "Enlightenment". The Christian revelation religion had lost for him all "supernatural" elements, and is limited to a few, rationally comprehensible and approachable truths, namely first to the existence of a God who is understood as the highest and infinitely good being, and as guarantor of moral, and then to the obligation of all people to love and respect each other. Religion and Christianity have for Coubertin only a "social integration value" (Alkemeyer, 1996b, P. 76).
In this context also Coubertin's view of the nature of the Christian churches is characteristic. For him it seems to be a fact that the churches (like all "religions") developed on the soil of the "Dead cult".
There was only one cornerstone, only one principal stay, namely the Dead cult. All institutions - dogmas, rites, and priests - are striving for this aim: to draw time and again strength there" ("Achtung", p. 17). Thus, this "Dead cult" implies "the highest religion of mankind, it stands above all churches ... and neither logic nor reflection, nor any discovery can stand their ground against it" ("Achtung", p. 16). "A church is a union of people who are united by hope." This "hope for a subsequent existence" is the "large reservoir of religious thinking" ("Achtung", p. 18). Also the Christian religion with its different ramifications is the materialization of that thinking.
To this view of Coubertin is to be said that there is firstly a large difference between the "hope for an eternal life", as it is characteristic for Christianity, and the "Dead cult". This is - at least in the modern sociology of religion - understood as "ritual actions on dead human beings" and as "post-mortal ritual veneration" (Bürkle, 2001, p. 127). In this sense the "Dead cult" has certainly a great importance in many religions, particularly in the "natural religions", the more so as to the dead is attributed an importance for their descendants. Of course, the Christians also honour the memory of the dead, as e.g. with the celebration of the "All Soul's Day" or "Memorial Day". The reference point or the actual "reference person" of the Christian faith is however not a dead body but a "living person". Therefore Coubertin's thesis that also the Christian religion originated in the Dead cult finds no support in the modern sociology of religion.
It is to be pointed still to a further important difference of "Olympism" to Christian thinking. The historical understanding in Christian thinking is "linear", "eschatological". The historical time moves toward an end. But Coubertin's historical understanding is "cyclic". "The affinity to a ... revolving time model is unmistakable" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 154). One could therefore interpret this view as a relapse into mythical thinking. In "Olympism" appear - in view of disenchantment and differentiation, rationalization and mechanization -
"the longings for a remythologization" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 161-162). The "mythical thinking" is represented "by the course of the stadium, a course that returns to its beginning" (Gebauer, 1996, p. 15).
In Coubertin's statements about "religion" appears a fundamental difference of thinking. "Religion" is for him primarily - as has already been explained - a "religious feeling" which manifests itself in "rituals" and "ceremonies", not least in the love of one's neighbour.
The concept "religion" includes however more, and something else. "Religion" is a way of human existence characterized by the relation to a last "sense reason", which as the creating and sense-giving absolute reality concerns the interpretation of all beings. This existence related to a 'sense reason' that is experienced and accepted as "absolute", resp. "unconditionally" valid corresponds to the existential reference to a "sphere of the absolute". In this sense also "atheistic" world views are to be understood and named as "religion", if they want to impart to their "faithful" a "sense of life".
Here has also to be pointed to an important fact. Christianity did not define itself by the term "religion" (as it e.g. applies to Greece and Rome) but by the term "faith" (cf. Ratzinger, 1968, p. 25).
"Religion" and "faith" are in no way identical. The Christian "faith" does not exist primarily in a system of rites and behaviours which express a "religious feeling"; it rather means the option that the reality which makes possible a true human existence is a personal vis-à-vis, who revealed itself in Jesus of Nazareth and with whom the believer gets in touch.
Coubertin's "religion" or "Olympism" has nothing to do with the Christian view of religion and faith; one may not lose sight of that, as it apparently happens by Hörrmann (1968) (cf. Spitzer 2003, p. 68-69);
who gets along without "transcendence", i.e. "without a revealing God". What Coubertin understands "as religion must be considered as an atheistically atrophied stage of a phenomenon that has been handed down within the history of civilization" (Stygermeer, 1999, p. 157).
We meet these ideas of Enlightenment also after the French Revolution, e.g. by Augusts Comte who wanted to establish his sociology as a "human science similar to religion, and as the crown in the hierarchy of all sciences" (Weis, 1995, p. 139), and who had a large influence on Coubertin with his "religion of humanity". The admiration of the "great nature" of humankind stood in its center. This "religion" (Comte speaks of the "religion terrestre", i.e. an "earthly religion": Malter, 1971, p. 19) serves the acting of people for the public weal, for which he used the expression "altruism". By it the close "relationship" of Coubertin's "sport religion" with Comte's conception of a "civil religion" becomes evident.
Coubertin followed Comte just in the view that the morbid condition of society could only be overcome when people in a "full altruism" place their strengths to the service of the whole. "The society of the future will be altruistic or it will no longer exist. One has to choose between altruism or chaos" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 142). In another place Coubertin speaks of the "cult of the present life" ("Achtung", p. 22):
"The cult of the earthly-bodily existence, which consists in the effort and in the meditation of this effort by means of imagination, gets the character of a happening from which salvation is hoped by the enhancement of life" (Malter, 1971, p. 21).
This view of "religion", as it can be seen also by Coubertin (cf. Koch, 2002b, p. 93-94), manifests itself in its understanding of Olympism as "religio athletae" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 218). He recommended to a secularized world the "continuation of the service at the again lighting up Olympic fire" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 133). Characteristic is also his "Ode to the Sport",
in which the "religion of muscle power" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 47), i.e. of a biologism of Darwinian coinage, is clearly expressed. Coubertin is in no way interested in any kind of transcendence but in the "cult of man":
"There is "a paganism - the true one - from which mankind will never free itself and - I dare the seeming blasphemy - from which a release would by no means be good: I mean the cult of the 'human being', of the human body, of spirit and flesh, feeling and will, instinct and consciousness" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 127).
One gets indeed the impression, as if even the mention of God's name in the early years (as the "reason" of any moral) was later replaced by the cult of the "human being": man should be for man "the highest being". To adapt the sport religion of neo-Olympism to the modern times "Coubertin replaced the gods of the antique by myths of the modernity: on the one hand by 'nation', on the other hand by the universal concept 'highest being=human being'. In neo-Olympism sport is interpreted by Coubertin simultaneously as service for the 'native country, the race and the flag'" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 179-180):
"There is only one cult that can cause today a durable connection among the citizens, namely that which will develop around the sporting exercises of the youth, the symbol of the unrestricted survival of the race and the hope of the nation" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 67).
Do such expressions not arouse the impression of a proximity to an intolerable "social Darwinism"? If the unrestricted "fight for existence", the "struggle for live" is proclaimed ("Kampagne", p. 146), where remains then an area for the unfit, the failures and losers? Are "full human beings" only those "who in measuring their abilities in the contest with nature and their peers will stand their ground?" (Herms, 1997, p. 66)
The Presentation of the "Muscle Religion" in Art
In Coubertin's view of religion became apparent that he was not so much interested in the development of scientific or philosophical "teachings". For him "the aesthetic expression and the cult rituals and symbols of the Olympic ceremony were far more important than precise definitions of the 'Olympic idea'". For this reason he set highest value on the "chapter about the ceremonies" and the "splendour ... of a powerful symbolism" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 40).
But how can be represented this hope to heal by sport a society threatened by degeneration, and with it the "cult of the 'human being'"? For Coubertin "the chapter about 'ceremonies' is therefore ... one of the most important that we have to arrange" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 40).
According to his opinion this is only possible by the interaction of the arts. He sees in the different arts the guarantee to save the Olympiads "from the everyday life of life purposes, dissonances and discordant notes". The "games" should penetrate the place and the people with a spiritual strength "that fills everything and makes the whole divine" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 149 - 150).
In the first place Coubertin has in mind thereby architecture; he demands the spatial separation between "altis", i.e. the holy district, and the "profan city", as it was realized already in the antique Olympia ("Ol. thought ", P. 29). Architecture should attract "the visitors like a place of pilgrimage", and should inspire "reverence" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 27).
Whether and to what extent Coubertin was independent in regard to the "Olympic ritual" and his "ceremonies" or was influenced by contemporary, especially sociological ideas cannot be proved in detail. But fact is that there are not only striking parallels in the "pseudo liturgies" of the French Revolution (cf. Pieper, 1964, p. 97-104) or in August Comte's "Religion of Humanity", in the centre of which stands the ritual veneration of the "great being", of mankind (cf. Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 163-167). Above all there are parallels with the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).
For him symbols and rites have a great importance for every society. "Only by symbols, rituals and collective customs ... can be given to an otherwise abstract community a palpable reality" (Alkemeyer, 1996 A, P. 168).
Among the different arts Coubertin intended an important role for music in the Olympic ceremony. It is therefore not by chance that Coubertin found crucial suggestions for it in Richard Wagner (1813-1883). As you know, he was deeply impressed by Wagner's music dramas. In 1904 Coubertin did not participate in the Olympiad in Saint Louis. Instead he was with his wife in Bayreuth and became enthusiastic at the "deeply moving sounds" ("Erinnerungen I", p. 70) of Wagner's "Lohengrin". Thus, Wagner's music dramas inspired him for his conceptions of Olympic "ceremonies". Obviously he had a liking for the "Wagnerian aesthetics" - for him "a dogma that gets more and more convinced followers" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 42).
That means for Alkemeyer: "In deliberate contrast to a word- and writing culture led by the intellect, Coubertin designed the Olympic ceremony therefore as Wagnerian synthesis of the arts. In Wagner's Bayreuth ... the 'Olympic horizon' had opened to him for the first time before his mental eye". (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 148).
Wagner intended and aimed at "an alliance of art and cult"; for him it was a matter of a "lively represented religion" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 151). Here lies the origin for the arrangement of the Olympic ceremony.
No wonder that Coubertin was deeply impressed by the opening ceremonies of the Olympiad 1936 in Berlin, shaped by the National Socialists. Already in the forefield of the Berlin "games" he said to Diem in September 1934, "that he could rely for the time being only on Germany as guardian of Olympism, because it alone would understand the Greeks and would create the new man" (cited by Lennartz, 2000, p. 211).
After the Olympiad he said enthusiastically that it had been illuminated "by Hitler's strength and discipline"
- so in his vote of thanks to the Berlin organizers (cited by Gebauer & Wulf, 1996, p. 251). It is therefore also not surprising that Coubertin suggested to the Reichssportführer (leader of the German sports) von Tschammer and Osten in March 1937 to "establish an institute in Germany, to which he wanted to leave his letters, recordings and manuscripts about Olympism and the games" (so Diem by Lennartz, 2000, p. 219):
"I believe that a Centre of Olympic Studies would help ... more than anything else to keep alive and to promote my work, and to save it from wrong tracks, as I fear it might happen" (cited by Lennartz, 2000, p. 219 and 242).
The suspicion is not unfounded. All these expressions revealed an essential relationship between Olympism and National Socialism, respectively between those two ideologies (cf. also Teichler, 1982): "They met in the adoration of the body." (Gebauer & Wulf, 1996, p. 16).
Upon the background of the statements just made in the last section are to be assessed the single aspects treated in the preceding chapters.
Obviously, Coubertin has already early given up the faith of his childhood and youth. So it is quite astonishing that he did not know or ignore e.g. the Christian doctrine that God's creation as whole is good, and so the human body, too. His study at the "University for Social Sciences" may primarily be responsible for this attitude. He admits, "I left the university as an enlightened spirit" (cited from Eyquem, 1972, p. 64).
Coubertin was pupil of the Jesuit College Saint Ignatius in the Rue de Madrid in Paris. By his former teachers his ideas of "school sport" and "physical culture" fell on deaf ears. One gets the impression that he imputed a fundamental refusal of body care and physical exercises to all those who did not agree with his educational opinions.
Add to this that the concept "sport" was (and is) so imprecise that by it could apply to very different exercises, games and competitions. Just Coubertin is a good example for the fact that the most different forms of physical exercises - particularly in the first years of his "campaign" - were called "sport". That his former teachers did not want to "give their blessing" to everything is therefore quite understandable. On that occasion one should also consider that Coubertin's "evaluations" of the games in the Jesuit Colleges were made from the distance of twenty five years.
Contrary to the Jesuits, who obviously did not share Coubertin's view on "sport", he praised several representatives of the Catholic Church, particularly the Dominican Henri Didon and Pope Pius X. In them he found - this was his impression - promoters and advocates of his educational ideas about school sport and sport in general.
But to find out which "motives" both sides had in their meetings is very difficult. The suspicion that Coubertin looked for allies for his efforts cannot be denied. One has almost the impression he had "pocketed" the representatives of the church for his movement. This assumption is also suggested by the statement of Carl Diem, Coubertin's personal friend, that Coubertin had been a clever tactician. He had been blessed with the "smartness of an advocate", and had skilfully "camouflaged" his projects (Diem, 1971, p. 1136). What is more, Lämmer says Coubertin had "in a mixture of cleverness and romantic glorification ... straightened the antiquity so as he needed it for his noble aims" (Lämmer, 2003, p. 136).
Reversely, one can certainly assume that Didon and all the more Pius X did probably not see what really mattered to Coubertin; that they regarded "sport" as something else; that they wanted to "attach themselves" perhaps from opportunism to the Olympic movement, in order not to lose the connection to the modern time. But at any rate, one cannot duplicate Coubertin's statement
from the year 1929, that the Pope had given his blessing to his "renewal based on paganism" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 136). Indeed, Weis would then be right with his remark that Christianity had obviously no longer protested "against the modern humanistic athletic neo-paganism" (Weis, 1995, p. 139); it had betrayed and forgotten the overcoming of the mythical thinking of antiquity, reached by many fights and victims.
At many points it becomes evident: Olympism, as Coubertin wanted and understood it, does not know transcendence in the Christian sense. Christianity and the Christian churches with their faith convictions are therefore by Coubertin increasingly misunderstood, yes, even clearly refused. Is therefore impossible to call him a "convinced Christian" (see Stygermeer, 1999, p. 158). The Christian transcendental thinking is foreign to him; he even stands in a clear "opposition to the genuine religiosity of transcendence" (Wirkus, 1990, p. 119).
This fact of an internal distance to Christianity cannot be overlooked. "In Olympia the people celebrate themselves. A religion without God leads to the divinization of man and its performance." (Moltmann, 1989, p. 435) The Olympic top-performance sportsmen are therefore for Coubertin "the earthly representatives of the highest being of the Olympic muscle religion"; they are the "icons", the "incarnations", the "sample copies" of mankind" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 182). "Sport is transfigured ... to the source of all good deeds, to the spring of beauty and justice, courage and honour, fertility and progress, peace and joy" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, p. 87) This "message", this "sporting gospel" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 52), this "model of modernity which should get a sense causing function" (Alkemeyer, 1996b, p. 79), is unacceptable not only for Christians.
That Coubertin possessed "the mental format of a universal historian" as Diem writes (1965, p. 8), seems quite doubtful when one reads his historical studies dealing with the assessment of body care and physical exercises. His statements have substantial shortcomings
- not only because he could not yet know some research results, for instance Körbs' studies about the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Körbs, 1938), but also for the reason that he mostly did not prove his assertions.
There is e.g. no text of a Christian writer of the antiquity and the Middle Ages, that says that the human body is in itself bad or wicked. One fails to see in this connection the appropriate detailed authorities, and the naming of the authors who represented these "doctrines". Obviously Coubertin dealt "very freely with the historical truth, partly from ignorance, partly from calculation" (Lämmer, 2003, p. 135).
Coubertins sweeping statements disqualify him therefore as historian. He got his 'knowledge' seemingly only from - also for the historian doubtful - secondary literature. Yet the source material would have been at his disposal, especially the Christian texts of the first millennium in the Migne volumes. In this connection the statement is of interest that Coubertin's knowledge of the Greek antiquity consisted "obviously substantially from the Greek and Latin school reading, the rhetoric and history lessons at the Jesuit College in Paris" (Müller, 1997, p. 7). Diem already had noticed by a visit in Lausanne: "The library is rather thin - only a large chest of drawers" (cited by Lennartz, 2000, p. 202).
Coubertin is obviously so prepossessed in favour of his Enlightenment prejudices that he is unable critically to question or verify his judgements. History is apparently for Coubertin only interesting as an "instrument of a socio-ethical activism referred to the present time", i.e. in its "usability for the present" (Malter, 1971, p. 4), and thus only as "means" to justify his reform ideas, in particular his Olympism: "To celebrate the Olympiad means to appeal to history" ("Ol. Gedanke", p. 154). The characterization just of this procedure by Wirkus is therefore correct: "Coubertin's conception of history is from the beginning 'coloured' by his aim utopia" (Wirkus, 1992, p. 308). He was not interested in a rational analysis of facts,
but in changing the existing conditions. He is "pragmatist and voluntarist" (Wirkus, 1990, p. 112), who as a "reviver ... did only obey his instinct that was even more powerful than his will" (cited by Zentner, 1935, p. 45). This characterization, too, refers to an internal relationship with National Socialist conceptions.
With his historical judgements about religion and Christianity in general and about the assessment of the body and the physical exercises above all by the Catholic Church, Coubertin influenced and moulded generations of sport scientists. Here has certainly to be named Carl Diem. But even in recent time the long-known thesis of a body-hostile Christianity is still repeated; so when Jacob denounced "the still today substantial body hostility" especially of the Catholic Church (Jacob, 1994, p. 210). It is time to dissociate oneself from those inappropriate sweeping statements. The wrong conclusion is still drawn that the lower valuation of the human body (in relation to the spirit or soul) meant contempt of the body or hostility against it, and resulting from it the condemnation of physical exercises.
One is unable to resist the impression that Coubertin - convinced of the "gospel" of Olympism, and seeing himself in the role of the "preacher" - saw his mission in converting everybody to the "universal religion of Olympism". He knew only "confessors". The sceptics and doubter, the denier of his "gospel" are 'sentenced': they did not recognize the signs of the time.
Finally, another conclusion is unavoidable. If in the few points addressed in this essay, already several errors, misunderstandings and unproven statements are evident, then that may be the case in other problem fields too.
It is time to make this critical "stock-taking" of Coubertin's thinking. It would also show that the founder of the modern Olympiad had neither the quality of a "genius" nor that of a "universal historian". (cf. Diem, 1965, P. 7-9)
Then his figure will step out "from the sacral twilight" (Alkemeyer, 1996a, P. 44).
He will then appear as somebody who - despite his due to present-day conditioned conceptions and ideas, even despite various mistakes - was one of the great activators for the cultivation of physical exercises and today's sport.
Writings on Pierre de Coubertin
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Diem, C. (Ed.). (1996). Olympische Erinnerungen. (cited "Erinnerungen II"). Frankfurt/Main.
Diem, C. (Ed.) (1967). Der Olympische Gedanke. Reden und Aufsätze. cited "Ol. Gedanke"). Schorndorf.
Alkemeyer, T. (1996a). Körper, Kult und Politik. Von der "Muskel-Religion" Pierre de Coubertins zur Inszenierung von Macht in den Olympischen Spielen von 1936. Frankfurt/Main.
Alkemeyer, T. (1996b). Die Wiederbegründung der Olympischen Spiele als Fest einer Bürgerreligion. In: G. Gebauer (Ed.). Olympische Spiele – die andere Utopie der Moderne (s. 65-100). Frankfurt/Main.
Archiv der Französischen Jesuitenprovinz Paris: Mitteilungen vom 19. 11. 2002 und 10.01. 2003.
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Diem, C. (1971). Weltgeschichte des Sports. 2 Bände. Stuttgart.
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Koch, A. (1965). Die Leibesübungen im Urteil der antiken und frühchristlichen Anthropologie. Schorndorf.
Koch, A. (1978). "Leibesübungen" im Frühchristentum und in der beginnenden Völkerwanderungszeit. In: H. Ueberhorst (Ed.). Geschichte der Leibesübungen. Volume 2 (p. 312-340). Berlin.
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Koch, A. (2002b). Sport als säkulare Religion. Stimmen der Zeit, 127, 90-102.
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Körbs, W. (1938). Vom Sinn der Leibesübungen zur Zeit der italienischen Renaissance. Berlin.
Krüger, A. (1980). Neo-Olympismus zwischen Nationalismus und Internationalismus. In H. Ueberhorst (Ed.), Geschichte der Leibesübungen, Volume 3/1 (p. 522-568). Berlin.
Lämmer, M. (2003). "Ewiges Olympia?" Entstehung und Zerfall eines kultischen Sportfestes – Die olympische Idee der Neuzeit. In K. GALLAS & U.–D. Klemm, Griechenland. Begegnung mit Geschichte, Kultur und Menschen (p.133-151). Stuttgart.
Lenk, H. (1976). Zu Coubertins olympischen Elitismus, Sportwissenschaft, 6, (1976).
Lennartz, K. (2000). Begegnungen. Carl Diem und Pierre de Coubertin. Stadion, 26, 193-244.
Lochmann, M. (2000). Die pädagogische Grundlage des olympischen Wahlspruchs "citius, altius, fortius" im Werk seines Urhebers Henri Didon. In W. Schwank & A. Koch (Ed.), Begegnung, Volume 2 (p. 9-34). Aachen.
Malter, R. (1971). Der "Olympismus" Pierre de Coubertins. Köln.
Malter, R. (1996). "Eurhythmie des Lebens" als Ideal menschlicher Existenz. In N. Müller & M. Messing (Ed.), Auf der Suche nach der Olympischen Idee (p. 9-15). Kassel
Moltmann, J. (1989). Olympia zwischen Politik und Religion. Concilium 25, 432-437.
Müller, N. (1996). Henri Didon. Der Urheber der olympischen Devise "citius, altius, fortius". In N. Müller & M. Messing (Ed.), Auf der Suche nach der Olympischen Idee (p. 49-62). Kassel.
Müller, N. (1997). Coubertin und die Antike. In Nikephoros 10 (p. 289 ff.). Here cited from the manuscript (p. 1–15).
Müller, N. (1981). article "Olympische Erziehung". In O. Grupe & D. Mieth (Ed.), Lexikon der Ethik im Sport (p. 385-395). Schorndorf.
Pieper, J. (1964). Zustimmung zur Welt. Eine Theorie des Festes. (2. edition). München.
Platz, H. (1931). Ein französischer Vorkämpfer des katholischen Fortschritts: Henri Didon. Hochland 28 (1931), 338-351.
Pouret, H. (1973). Les maitres à penser de Pierre de Coubertin. Olympic Academy Report (French edition). (p. 80-88): likewise Athen 1978, p. 123-127.
Ratzinger, J. (1968). Einführung in das Christentum. München.
Schwank, W. (1979). Kirche und Sport in Deutschland von 1848–1920. Hochheim.
Schwank, W. (1996). Pius X. und Pierre de Coubertin – ein Begegnung im Zeichen Olympias. In "Forum Kirche und Sport" - Schriftenreihe der Wissenschaftlichen Kommission des Arbeitskreises "Kirche und Sport" der katholischen Kirche Deutschlands. Volume 2. (p. 29-56) Düsseldorf.
Spitzer, G. (2003), Baron Pierre de Coubertins Konzept der Religion der Athleten und die Rezeption in Kirche und Sport. In H. G. Ulrichs (Ed.), Körper, Sport und Religion – Interdisziplinäre Beiträge. (p. 67–82). Idstein.
Stygermeer, M. (1999). Der Sport und seine Ethik. Zur Grundlegung einer Dogmatik des Sports. Berlin.
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Wirkus, B. (1992). "Werden wie die Griechen". Stadion, 16, 103–128.
Wirkus, B. (1992). Olympismus als Geschichtsphilosophie und Ideologie: Koordinaten einer philosophischen Standortbestimmung. Stadion, 16, 302-325.
Zentner, K. (1935). Pierre de Coubertin. Ein Beitrag zur Entwicklung des modernen Sports. Borna-Leipzig.