Like many people, I consider New Year’s Day to be an opportune time to reflect on the past while looking to the future.
This is especially true today, as Jan. 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin.
Coubertin’s personal motto was “look far, speak frankly, act firmly,” but even he could not have foreseen how his vision for the Games would grow into one of the most significant cultural events in human history, affecting, in one way or another, billions of people around the world and touching almost every household on the planet.
He would, of course, be delighted to know that 118 years after establishing the International Olympic Committee ( IOC ), the Olympic Movement is stronger than ever. And it is safe to assume that he would have been astonished by what transpired in 2012.
Last year, London produced what will unquestionably be remembered as one of the greatest Olympic Games of all time. The Youth Olympic Games continued to take root and grow with the successful launch of the first winter edition, in Innsbruck, Austria. Important milestones were achieved in relation to the participation of women in sport and in legacy and environmental planning, among others. Initiatives to spread the Olympic values continued to develop and improve, in particular those undertaken in collaboration with the United Nations using sport as a tool for development. Our efforts to protect the integrity of sport were strengthened and expanded. And despite the worst global recession in the last 60 years, the IOC’s financial situation is the healthiest it has ever been.
Still basking in the afterglow of such a remarkable Olympic year, it is easy to overlook what a Herculean task Coubertin faced when reviving, almost singlehandedly, the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century.
He advocated that organized sport strengthened not only the body but also the will and mind, while at the same time promoting universality and fair play, ideas that are widely accepted today. But in his time, sport was considered by most to be a frivolous pursuit that was actually detrimental to learning and intellect. His calls for the restoration of the Games, therefore, were often met with indifference or outright resistance. Years later he admitted that many felt his idea was “a dream and a chimera”.
In the face of such obstacles, Coubertin remained resolute, selflessly donating his time, toil and personal fortune in an attempt to breathe new life into the Olympic Games of antiquity. He did so not for personal gain, but for the good of humanity, believing that sport bred values such as excellence, friendship and respect.
Armed with considerable intellect and moral certitude, and a great deal more of fortitude, he gradually gained the support and confidence of a small but growing group of likeminded individuals. In a surprisingly short period of time, these same individuals would become the founding members of the IOC in 1894. Two years later, Athens would host the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
Coubertin was the second president of the IOC and its longest-serving, with a 29-year term of office ( 1896-1925 ). He devoted much of the rest of his post-presidential life to ensuring the continuation of the Games and the purity of competition. The Olympic Movement faced a fair amount of turmoil during his lifetime, but it was thanks to Coubertin that it survived, leaving a legacy from which billions of people still benefit to this day.
In addition to the Olympic Games themselves, Coubertin gave us the Olympic rings — one of the most recognizable symbols in the world — the opening and closing ceremonies, the athletes’ oath and the Olympic Museum, among others. But it was the Coubertin-penned Olympic Charter containing the Olympic values that has had the most profound influence on the Olympic Movement.
It is the Olympic Charter that differentiates us from other sporting organizations. The IOC is not in existence merely to hold a sporting competition every two years. Our mandate is to place sport at the service of humanity, with competition harnessing that which is best in our society and countering that which is malign. The Olympic values continue to be the thread that runs through everything we do.
Would Coubertin be happy with everything that has transpired since his death in 1937? Of course not. We have had our fair share of hurdles to overcome as well, but it is precisely because of the moral and ethical compass that is the Olympic Charter that we have been able to navigate through these difficult periods.
One thing is certain: Coubertin would be delighted that his core ideals have lived on. Arguably, they are more relevant today than ever.
It is no understatement to say that all we admired about Olympism in 2012 would not have been possible without Pierre de Coubertin. It is up to us to ensure the Games remain relevant, viable and clean for another 118 years and beyond.
Coubertin gave all of himself to his cause. On this New Year’s Day, the entire Olympic Movement tips its hat to the man who started it all.
The writer is President of the International Olympic Committee.