Pierre de Coubertin: Founder of the Modern Olympiad and Gold Medalist in Literature

pierre-de-coubertin
Father of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, baron de Coubertin

“The judges have been reading for hours, but it appears as if they are finishing up. Yes, they are now conversing with each other in hushed tones, peering over their notes, sometimes pointing animatedly at particular places on paper. Are they done? They appear to have completed their ruminations and discussion, and I must say, their body language cannot hide the fact that controversy seems to be in the air. Wait, one of the judges is raising the sign. There it is! The winner of the gold medal for Literature in the 1912 Olympic Games….is….George Hohrod and M. Eschbach for ‘Ode to Sport’!”

That’s right, in 1912 at the Stockholm, Sweden Olympics, medals were awarded in the areas of Architecture, Music, Painting, Sculpture and Literature. The father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, had a deep-felt philosophy that sport could have a powerful influence on building character, and believed that the ancient Greeks had the right idea – that developing the intellect and the physical in tandem was a way to build better human beings and better societies.

 

1912 gold medal in sculpture
Walter Winans, An American Trotter, Gold Medal 1912 Olympic Art Competitions in Stockholm in the “Sculpture“ Category.

Barbara Goff provides greater detail into this ancient Greek philosophy in this fascinating essay entitled “Ode to Sport: Poetry and the Revived Olympics”:

At first sight we might think that sport and art are separated by a distinction as grave as that between mind and body, but while the ancient Greeks, at the head of what became the western tradition, did often fetishise that distinction, they also liked to collapse it.  At some level, they considered that orderly bodily motion in sport was linked to orderly song and dance, and that both were excellent ways of celebrating the human and thereby honouring the divine too. Both sports and arts could be part of festivals and celebrations, which were also religious events.  Poetry, or more precisely song, because most Greek poetry was initially delivered to a musical accompaniment, was connected to sport in other ways too; poetry rewarded athletic achievement, victorious athletes supported poetry, and both types of activity were subject to ferocious competition. 

Goff went on to reveal that the winners of the gold medal for literature was actually one person, that Hohrod and Eschbach were the names of villages near the birthplace of the wife of de Coubertin. In fact, it was de Coubertin himself who was the Olympic champion in literature. Goff was unable to learn whether the judges knew it was the founder of the Olympic Games who penned the poem, “Ode to Sport”.

Despite de Coubertin’s passion for making the Olympic Games a way to display all attributes of the so-called Chivalrous Athlete, the art competitions that started in 1912 would fade away in 1948. Goff again explains: “The artistic competitions at the revived Olympics never excited much real interest, and the International Olympic Committee dropped them after London 1948. Given that the arts competitions, unlike the sporting ones, were not very susceptible to cheating, drugs scandals, or, later on, television, they were never going to be as thrilling as the sports which did offer all these attractions. Instead, arts festivals started to accompany the Olympic Games, and by 1968 the cultural events were part of the Olympic Charter which Olympic host cities had to sign.”

For those who made it this far, here is a link to winners of the artistic Olympic competitions, as well as a link to the poem that won the only Olympic medal for literature – Ode to Sport.

1912 gold medal in painting
Carlo Pellegrini (ITA), Winter Sports, Gold Medal Winner in the “Painting” Category of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Art Competitions.