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Rugby School motivated founder of Games

Posted: Wednesday July 7, 2004 9:41PM; Updated: Wednesday July 7, 2004 9:41PM
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LONDON, July 8 (Reuters) -- Alone in the Gothic chapel at Rugby School one evening in 1886, a dapper Frenchman sporting an impressive handlebar moustache experienced a life-changing revelation.

"My eyes fixed on the funeral slab on which, without epitaph, the great name of Thomas Arnold was inscribed," wrote Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin. "I dreamed that I saw before me the cornerstone of the British Empire."

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The epiphany did not just change the course of Coubertin's life. It also led to the formation of the modern Olympic movement, starting with the 1896 Athens Games.

Coubertin's father was an artist and his mother a musician. He was an aristocrat, visionary and intellectual who studied and wrote on history, literature, education, sociology and a host of other subjects.

His special passion was for education and his hero was Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School in central England from 1828 to 1842 and a primary character in Thomas Hughes's famous chronicle "Tom Brown's Schooldays."

In particular, Coubertin admired the emphasis on organised games in the British public school system.

Born in Paris on New Year's Day in 1863, Coubertin grew up in that extraordinary era when most of today's major sports were either invented or codified in Victorian England.

Coubertin contrasted the systems he studied on his many visits to England and Ireland with the state of schooling in France. The comparison was not favourable to his native land.

French children, he wrote, are "being stuffed with knowledge."

"They are being turned into walking dictionaries. Even as their intelligence is force fed, the way geese are force fed, their physical strength is being sapped, their moral energy drained."

ANCIENT GLORY

Coubertin believed France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, a conflict which completed the unification of Germany, confirmed his thesis that the French were physically inferior to the English.

An active sportsman who practised boxing, fencing, horse riding and rowing, Coubertin was influenced by the archaeological digs at Olympia between 1875 and 1881 which gradually revealed the full glory of ancient Greece.

After encountering stubborn resistance to his campaign to reform the French educational system, Coubertin widened his horizons.

"To shore up the frail edifice that I had just built it seemed to me that restoration of the Olympic Games -- this time as totally international games -- was the only appropriate solution," he wrote.

Coubertin's original enthusiasm for the ancient Olympics had been sparked by his humanities teacher at his Jesuit school in Paris.

But it was again in Britain, specifically the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, that Coubertin found further inspiration.

Doctor and teacher William Penny Brookes had founded an annual Games based on the ancient Greek Olympics "to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock."

There was a similar strain of Victorian paternalism in the approaches of Arnold and Brookes.

According to some reports, Arnold was persuaded of the need for sport on the curriculum to divert the boys from such subversive activities as burning down the senior common room.

ALE HOUSES

Brookes was partly motivated by a wish to keep the men of Much Wenlock out of the many ale houses in the town.

In 1890 Coubertin paid a visit to Much Wenlock, where an oak tree was planted in his honour, and two years later he explicitly expressed for the first time at a lecture at the Sorbonne his ambition to "re-establish a great and magnificent institution, the Olympic Games."

With great energy and determination, Coubertin pursued his dream. In 1894 he arranged an international congress of 78 leaders from 37 athletic unions who agreed to restore the Games and form the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Coubertin had thought originally the Games could be staged in Paris in the early years of the new century but was persuaded by Dimitrios Bikelas, a philologist living in Paris, that Greece should be the hosts in 1896.

Bikelas became the first president of the IOC under a short-lived rule that the leader of the Olympic movement should be a representative of the next country to stage the Games.

The first Games of the modern era were acclaimed as a great success and Coubertin became IOC president as the next Games were scheduled for Paris in 1900.

He held the post until 1925 by which time the Olympics were firmly established.

In 1915, Coubertin moved the IOC headquarters to Lausanne in neutral Switzerland and he remained committed to the Olympic ideal until his death in Geneva on September 2 1937.

He was buried in Lausanne and his heart interred in the hallowed sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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