France and a rich Baron are the very essence of the Olympics, writes Senior Correspondent Mike Osborne who will be covering the third Games to be hosted in Paris next year.
A failed French sportsman whose life-long passion to restart the ancient Olympics laid the foundation for the modern Games had some little-known help from two Australian athletes.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin – who as a boy tried rowing, fencing, gymnastics and boxing with little success – became the father of the modern Olympics after dedicating his life and fortune to the movement.
His bold vision to re-establish the Ancient Greek Games, which celebrated the Gods of Olympia some 3000 years ago, received early support from an English-born Australian and a New Zealand-born Tasmanian.
As an 11-year-old boy Coubertin was inspired by an archeological dig at Olympia that unearthed artefacts from the ancient Games dating back to 776 BC.
These Games were held in Olympia every four years through the Greek and Roman eras until about 393 AD, when the once noble Games declined due to war, religious conflict and bribery.
Coubertin believed in the concept of amateurism as the purest form of sport and felt the original Olympic ideals would benefit his industrial world.
Aged 29 he floated the concept to revive the ancient games of Olympia in a lecture at the Sorbonne university in Paris in 1892.
It evoked little response but Coubertin, an academic who studied education and history at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, was not deterred.
The advantage of being born an aristocrat – he would eventually inherit his father’s title of Baron – helped open many doors.
Two years after his first attempt, at another Sorbonne conference on the principles of amateurism in June 1894, Coubertin added an item to the agenda – “On the possibility of restoring the Olympic Games.”
This congress lasted a week and ended with the assembly deciding unanimously to relaunch the Olympic Games.
On the suggestion of a Greek delegate Demetrius Vikelas, it was decided that Athens would be the first host city of the modern Olympics in 1896. It also decided the Games would be held every four years with Paris the venue for 1900.
With the general principles agreed, Coubertin established an independent, international guardian body to steer the new movement – the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Greek Vikelas was the first President, a mostly nominal role ahead of the Athens Games, with Coubertin becoming secretary-general to run the show.
The first IOC had 13 members from 11 independent nations including New Zealander Leonard Cuff, representing Australasia.
Cuff – a long-jumper, sprinter and hurdler who would later captain NZ in cricket and represent Canterbury in rugby – was at the time honorary secretary of the NZ Amateur Athletics Association.
Cuff had taken an Australasian athletics team to Europe in 1892 where he befriended Coubertin, then secretary general of the Union of French Athletics Associations.
It was Cuff that Coubertin turned to when he needed to enlist global support for his Olympic concept.
Cuff, along with the energetic Australian sports administrator Richard Coombes, helped promote the Olympic concept across Australasia.
Cuff left his native New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1899, eventually settling in Launceston. When Cuff died in 1954 he was lauded as the godfather of Tasmanian sport after representing the state in bowls and golf and working as a sports administrator.
But it was Cuff’s colleague Coombes, a former London walking champion who emigrated to Sydney 1886, who took up Coubertin’s Olympic cause with great gusto in Australia.
Cuff resigned from the IOC in 1904, suggesting to Coubertin that Coombes, then president of the Amateur Athletic Union of Australia, would better serve the organisation. Coombes became Australia’s first IOC member in 1905, a position he held for nearly three decades.
Thanks to Coombes and Cuff’s early promotional efforts, a young Australian accountant named Edwin Flack found his way to the 1896 Athens Olympics.
A keen runner, Flack had been working in London and was the only Australian competitor in Athens.
His dual victories in the 800m and 1500m, and a third placing in the tennis doubles, solidified Australasian interest in Coubertin’s new Olympic Games.
After Athens, Coubertin took over as IOC President and remained in office until 1925, steering the movement through a perilous early period.
After the success of 1896, the Paris 1900 Olympics were considered an administrative disaster. The 1904 Games in St Louis, Missouri were also shambolic. Plans for the 1908 Games in Rome were destroyed by the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
But Baron de Coubertin’s Olympic belief was: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
And fight he did.
Without the huge sponsorship revenues enjoyed by today’s Olympics, Coubertin virtually bankrupted himself by spending all his inheritance and also that of his wealthy German-born wife Marie Rothan (including selling her art collection with paintings by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens and Goya) to keep his Olympic dream afloat.
London stepped in at short notice to host a successful 1908 Olympics, followed by another well-received Games in Stockholm 1912, where the Coubertin-created sport of modern pentathlon made its debut.
Inspired by the pentathlon at the Ancient Olympics – which consisted of a foot race, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus modelled on the skills needed by a soldier defending a fort – Coubertin created the modern version representing a 19th-century cavalry soldier. From behind enemy lines the soldier must ride an unfamiliar horse, fight with pistol and sword and swim and run to safety.
The sport has evolved over time into a different format but still consists of fencing, swimming, riding, shooting and running.
Coubertin also designed the famed Olympic Rings in 1913 – representing the five global Olympic regions with five coloured rings on a white background.
Then World War One forced the cancellation of the planned Berlin 1916 Games and the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp delivered a 600 million franc loss for Belgium.
But the hugely successful “chariots of fire” Games in Paris 1924 really put the Olympics on the world map as the premier global sporting event.
Wanting to give his native France a chance to redeem itself after the many catastrophes of the earlier Paris 1900 Games, one of Coubertin’s final acts as IOC president was to transfer the 1924 Games from Amsterdam to Paris.
He stepped down as IOC president in 1925, but remained honorary President until his death 12 years later.
He came out of retirement briefly to help Berlin win the right to host the 1936 Olympics. In exchange, Germany nominated him for the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize, which was won by anti-Nazi campaigner Carl von Ossietzky for exposing the clandestine German military build-up.
Coubertin died from a heart attack in 1937 and was buried in Blois de Vaux Cemetery in Lausanne, although his heart, according to his wishes, was taken to Olympia to be interred in a memorial erected in his honour by the Greek government.
Michael Osborne has been a journalist for more than four decades including 35 years with the national news agency Australian Associated Press, rising from junior reporter to Editor.
He was AAP Editor for 11 years and served four years as Head of Sport and Racing. He was also posted to London and Beijing as AAP’s Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent.