Friday, September 14, 2012

The New Yorker, The Olympics, and the Franco-Prussian War

In a very interesting piece about the Olympics published in The New Yorker (Aug 6, 2012), Louis Menand writes that Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in an effort to make the French "more manly, meaning more disciplined and self-reliant (he was reacting partly to the country's defeat, in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War), and he believed that introducing sports into education could be the basis for this transformation in the national character" (71).

This is one of the most repeated clichés about Coubertin and the Olympics. Unfortunately, it's wrong.

After the defeat to the Prussians in 1870 and well before Coubertin, the French put in place a system of gymnastic exercise in the schools in order to instill physical "discipline" in the male citizenry--all with an eye to retaking Alsace and Lorraine.

Coubertin, in fact, wanted to overturn this militarized form of exercise. Instead of discipline he hoped to instill a sense of creative joy through the implementation of British sports in the French system.

And Coubertin, a good aristocrat, was not interested in petty national interest or seeking revenge on the Prussians. He went so far as to write that, "This perpetual 'protest' directed toward the victor of 1870 exasperated me.... I cannot say how often during my adolescence I suffered from this attitude that a false and petty conception of nationalism imposed upon my generation" (Mémoires olympiques 17).

Coubertin was far more interested in establishing a pan-European event that would allow the elite to join together with an eye to rejuvenating the monarchy. It was less about national character and more about the European aristocracy; less about revenge for the French losing the Franco-Prussian War and more about monarchical restoration.

Vivent les jeux!

No comments: