Baron de Coubertin and the East End Olympics

A decade ago, when Greece hosted the Olympic Games, much was made of the fact that the competition was coming home. Cue images of Ancient Athenians spinning discuses and hurling javelins, before wrestling each other to the ground. This in an age when all was in the spirit of taking part rather than winning, and with no money changing hands.

When the Olympiad hits east London in two years time, things will have changed quite a bit. Many events from those early Games have dropped off the menu (anyone for the standing high jump, croquet or jeu de paume?). And the Games have become a huge industry – the earnest and bookish Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics might have been shocked that these days there is cash as well as kudos at stake.

The competitors will still be vying to be ‘higher, faster, stronger’ than the rest of course. But, contrary to myth, the Baron’s belief that ‘the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part’ was forged not in the sunshine of Greece but in the grey streets of 1880s’ Whitechapel. Coubertin found the Corinthian ideal alive and well during a series of visits to Toynbee Hall – from where he got his inspiration to launch the modern Olympics.

Pierre Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was born in Paris in 1863 and eschewed the leisured life of a French aristo, becoming an academic. Rather than letting them eat cake, the Baron believed that the ideal nourishment for the working man was learning and exercise. His twin studies of education and history led him back to the Ancient Greeks and the numerous games between the city states of Greece during the centuries before the birth of Christ. Not just Olympic games, there were the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games too. Coubertin saw education and exercise as going together. The ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ would keep young people focused, disciplined, away from moral temptation and perfectly prepared for life. He admired the soldier-athletes of Ancient Greece and saw the gymnasium as a perfect training ground for war.

There were recent historical reasons for his beliefs. Coubertin, like many Frenchmen, was still smarting from France’s humiliation at the hands of the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, and believed it was in part due to an officer class gone soft and a ruling class detached from the working people. He didn’t have to look far to find a country with a stiffer backbone. Just across the Channel that de Coubertin saw his model of sporting perfection.

During the 1880s, the young Pierre paid numerous visits to England, falling under the spell of English public schools, where every hour spent studying Latin and Greek seemed to be matched by another ploughing up and down a muddy field chasing a ball. This, he felt, was an example French schools could learn from.

Coubertin’s theories were perhaps grounded in romance as much as fact. Rugby School under Thomas Arnold was his ideal, though he viewed it through the fictionalised account of headmaster and school that appeared as ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ by Thomas Hughes. Still, his tour around the rowing clubs, fives courts and lacrosse fields of Eton, Harrow, Wellington, Winchester and the rest reinforced his view that here were ideas that could stiffen morals and minds as well as sinews. But there was something missing – the working man.

The Baron believed that a healthy society was one where rich mixed with poor, duke with dustman. There was no revolutionary zeal in this, he was a firm believer in the class system and its hierarchy. His ideal was a sporting event where all classes would don singlet and shorts and compete together on equal terms – before once more going their separate ways. At Toynbee Hall, in Commercial Street, the Baron spied his ideal.

Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884, the first university settlement in a movement that would spread first around the East End, then the world. The privileged students of Oxford University would come to the East End to do ‘missionary work’ – living with local people, running classes, organising sports events. To Coubertin, coming from a France where the classes seemed to inhabit discrete worlds, it was revolutionary. Toynbee Hall also seemed an extraordinary melting pot, with people of all creeds and colours passing through. Coubertin’s vision of an Olympic Games, bringing together all the nations and classes of the world on a level playing field, was starting to form. He continued his tour of Britain, but would return to give lectures on the stage at Toynbee Hall, praising the social experiment that was playing out there.

A decade later, the Baron’s dream would come to pass, with the first modern Olympiad, in Greece in 1896.

If Coubertin was lavish in his praise of the Ancient Greeks he was a little careless about giving credit to some of the other modern founders of the Olympics. There were any number of ‘Olympic’, ‘Athenian’ and ‘Corinthian’ games happening all over Europe from the 18th century onward. One of the biggest, and some would call it the first true modern Olympic games, was the Much Wenlock Olympics, organised in Shropshire in 1866 by Dr William Penny Brookes. Courbertin it was though, who had the vision and energy to take the Games forward.

So as the Olympic flame is lit in Stratford on 27 July 2012, just a mile or so from where Baron de Coubertin spoke on the stage at Toynbee Hall, reflect on the fact that (never mind football) the Olympics is finally coming home.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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