Pierre de Coubertin: Uncovering the Controversial Legacy

Who was Baron Pierre de Coubertin? As the Olympics are set to be celebrated in Paris from July 26 to August 11, Xavier Bétaucourt and Didier Pagot have just released a comic book about the French creator of the Olympics. A biography between light and shadow.

The official communication surrounding the modern Olympic Games does not seem to highlight its creator, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The reason? Some elements of his life spark controversies. The comic book, “Pierre de Coubertin, between light and shadow” by Xavier Bétaucourt and Didier Pagot, published by Steinkis editions, reveals an unknown side of the man.

The narrative device imagined by the two authors allows us to follow a conversation between Edgar Pirolu, a journalist, and a second fictional character. Both are heading to the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Games. Games at the heart of the most crucial controversy concerning Coubertin: the close ties he allegedly maintained with Hitler and his admiration for Nazi ideology.

Through this discussion, we see the nuanced stance of the two authors of this comic book “Pierre de Coubertin, between light and shadow” (Steinkis editions). They make the fictional character of the journalist say that Pierre de Coubertin would be “more complex than he seems”: both “reformist and conservative.”

Further in their comic book, the two authors make the character of Edgar question what the baron really thought of these games in Berlin; they give him this opinion: he was being used.

A narrative caution that recent research by journalist Aymeric Mantoux corrects: “It’s a thank-you letter from Coubertin to Hitler for all the engagement the Reich had with the Olympic Games project […] Coubertin was very involved in the preparation of the Berlin games,” he asserts on France Culture for the release of his biography “Pierre de Coubertin, the man who did not invent the Olympics” (Faubourg editions).

The two comic book authors emphasize other hidden facets of the baron. We learn that while he presented himself as in favor of hosting the Olympic Games on the African continent, his primary concern was not to treat all participants fairly, regardless of their country of origin.

Expanding the Olympic Games to the African continent was a means for him to control and monitor the local population. “From the first days, I was a fanatical colonialist,” wrote Pierre de Coubertin in his memoirs (CIO Archives, 1936).

We also discover through this comic book that Coubertin’s views on women had a misogynistic turn. He always opposed the creation of competitions open to women. Sport and femininity were unthinkable in his eyes.

An Olympiad for women would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.
In “La Revue Olympique,” No. 79, July 1912, Pierre de Coubertin clarifies his thoughts: “The true Olympic hero is, in my eyes, the individual male adult. The Olympics should be reserved for men, the role of women should be primarily to crown the winners.”

The legacy left by Pierre de Coubertin appears today as very problematic. Some want to celebrate the character in its entirety. Others only want to remember his name and not his memory, and try to excuse his ideological positions.

Thus, his great-great-niece highlights the context of the time to excuse her ancestor’s remarks. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) emphasizes that “the number of women participating in the Olympic Games multiplied by six under the presidency of Baron de Coubertin.”

An official tribute is planned at the Sorbonne on June 23, but the Minister of Sports, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, does not plan to attend. According to her entourage, she is participating “in an event as part of Olympic Day and the Torch Relay.”

The Grévin Museum has chosen to include him in its wax portrait gallery by July. And the 7th arrondissement town hall will host an exhibition organized by the Pierre de Coubertin Family Association titled “Genius of Sport” starting on June 24.

The legacy left by Pierre de Coubertin remains controversial. To this day, some want to celebrate the character in its entirety while others only want to remember his name, not his memory.