Ian Buruma

A flame lit at Rugby

Ian Buruma on how the modern Olympics began with an epiphany in a school chapel

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 Pierre, Baron de Coubertin (1863-1937) was a very odd cove. Inspired as much by a rural fête in Shropshire known as the Much Wenlock Olympics as by ancient Greece, he invented the modern Olympic Games. The original spur for his sporting endeavour was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which ended in a terrible French defeat. Coubertin, scion of a minor aristocratic family, became obsessed with French weakness. His aim was to, as he put it, ‘rebronze’ the male population, to bolster French virility through regular exercise and sports.

When we think of sports now, we think mainly of athletics (derived from ancient Greece) and team sports (derived from England). In the Baron’s day, the dominance of Greek and British games was not yet so clear. The Germans, stimulated by a hearty nationalist named Friedrich Jahn (1778-1852), also known as the Turnvater, still preferred mass callisthenics, or Turnen, hence Jahn’s sobriquet. He was the inventor of stretching, straining and swinging in unison, exercises he regarded as typical expressions of the German spirit.

The US, as late as the early 20th century, was still split between British-style sporting enthusiasts and healthy gymnasts in the German spirit. A school in Chicago is still named after the Turnfather. France was not big on either type of exercise. So it was quite a feat of Coubertin, an indefatigable committee man, to have convinced his own countrymen, as well as the Americans, the British, the Greeks, the Germans, and a few other nations, to compete in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. These games included athletics and fencing, but also such Anglo-Saxon pursuits as tennis

The decision to devote his life to games came to the baron, at least according to legend, as a kind of epiphany in the chapel of Rugby school. His visit there, in 1883, was the result of his admiration of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and particularly of Thomas Arnold’s ideas on ‘muscular Christianity’. Dr Arnold was not much of a games man, more a horseman in fact, and a keen flogger of boys, but his regime of fresh air and exercise, put into practice at Rugby school, seemed just the thing, in Coubertin’s eyes, to rebronze the effete and demoralized French male.

Sinking to his knees at the marble feet of Dr Arnold, Coubertin glimpsed what he described as ‘the cornerstone of the British empire.’ And this was, of course, something entirely admirable. The key to British virility, and thus to the building of a great empire, was public school education, that leafy but Spartan factory of a global ruling class. This is the way the products of the public schools saw it, and so did continental admirers, such as Coubertin.

To call Coubertin, and other Anglophiles of his type, reactionaries would be a mistake. They were conservative, to be sure, but also liberals of a kind. Real reactionaries, who pined after the ancien régime of church and monarchy in France, such as Charles Maurras, founder of the anti-liberal, anti-semitic Action Française, despised everything about the British, including their love of games, and Maurras despised Coubertin, and his enthusiasms, just as much.  

The reason why men like Coubertin, who were often déclassé aristocrats, or upwardly mobile businessmen, or successful members of minorities who might be wealthy but felt socially excluded, admired Britain, was due to what Italians used to call gentlemanismo: the cult of the gentleman, impeccably dressed, well-mannered, self-disciplined, effortlessly commanding, and so forth. The point of this was that gentlemen were not necessarily born as such, but made, through education, including all that running around on the playing fields of public schools.

Whereas the Junker class of Germany, or the aristocracy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was more like a caste, the upper class in Britain was more porous. A man of wit and education could gain a foothold; think of Benjamin Disraeli, a figure whose status would have been unimaginable anywhere else in 19th century Europe.

Britain had pulled something off that baffled many Europeans: having avoided a revolution, the British managed to perpetuate a socially unequal society by continuously refreshing the ruling class. And this was done by creating a class of gentlemen at the public schools. In Coubertin’s words: ‘Let us renounce that dangerous pipedream of an equal education for all and follow the example of the British people who understand so well the difference between democracy and equality.’

In short, gentlemanismo allowed one to reconcile social inequality with a sense of being liberal. Coubertin believed in freedom, as long as liberal institutions were exclusively run by a gentlemanly elite of men in blazers. This elite can be deeply philistine, of course, and the hearty exclamations of ‘play up! play up! play the game!’ sometimes disguise less pleasant qualities such as raw self-interest. Here is George Orwell (Wellington and Eton) on the upper class English voice: ‘And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will — people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful.’

Coubertin’s brand of bluff gentlemanismo is certainly more attractive than the malevolent rightwingery of Charles Maurras. But reactionary cynicism sometimes affords a deeper insight into the dark side of human behaviour than complacent liberalism. The last time Coubertin’s voice was heard in public was in Berlin, at the opening of the Nazi Olympic Games, a year before his death. Even as Hitler was preparing to conquer the world, Coubertin was still blathering on about being a good sport. He might have meant it too. Which is more than can be said of some of his successors in the sporting aristocracy, whose self interest is barely even disguised.