If the young Pierre de Coubertin were to stroll around the London Olympics site today he’d doubtless be amazed, and slightly baffled, as to how the seed of an idea had flowered. He would certainly be impressed at the competition between all classes of men and women taking place on and in the multifarious tracks, fields, courts, ranges and pools of east London. And he would probably be delighted that for the first time it was happening here.
For it was in the East End that his ideas for an Olympic Games first began to come together. In Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, itself a social experiment in bridging the gap between haves and have-nots, to the mutual benefit of both, the French de Coubertin began to embrace a very English idea. Healthy minds and healthy bodies would be cultivated together, to the greater good of society. The roots of Coubertin’s idea lay in a crisis of confidence for the French nation, and the young Baron’s mission was to find a means of rebuilding France’s morale.
In June 1886, Coubertin was on what we would today call a fact-finding tour. The aristocratic 23-year-old had turned his back on the expected military career to tackle social issues and fight for educational reform in France. His country had been humiliatingly trounced in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and Coubertin, along with many of his countrymen saw a lack of physical fitness, teamwork, leadership and moral courage as being at the root of the problem.
Coubertin’s first call had been to the English public schools. Eton, Harrow and Rugby were producing young men who spent almost as much time on football, rugby, tennis, fencing or fives as on Latin and Algebra:some people remarked scornfully that exercising the body seemed much more important than stretching the mind at times, with intellect being rather mistrusted. Nonetheless, these were the boys who would go on to form the officer class of the British Army, and Pierre was impressed.
But then, at Toynbee Hall, he found the young scions of the upper and the upper middle classes doing something rather unexpected. Rather than viewing the working classes as people to drive their carriages or till the fields of their estates, the young Oxbridge graduates were working with them: teaching them mathematics and English; running boxing, swimming and rowing clubs. The Toynbee ‘missionaries’ were practising that very Victorian brand of muscular Christianity, helping working class people to help themselves, and giving them skills which would lift them out of poverty.
Toynbee Hall had been founded by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in 1884, in memory of their friend Arnold Toynbee, a young Oxford historian who had devoted his time to working with the poor of Whitechapel until his untimely death at the age of 31. The idea of ‘two nations’ was a powerful strain in late Victorian thinking, and the Barnetts saw the only way to cure the stubborn poverty of the East End was to get rich and poor working together. The rich would bring their skills, helping to draw out the latent talents of the working classes. In the process, the Oxbridge men would learn valuable social lessons and a divided England would be brought together.
The idea quickly spread, with other ‘settlements’ spring up in London and around the globe. Many of the residents of Toynbee Hall would go on to become major 20th century figures in social reform – Clement Attlee and William Beveridge to name just two. Coubertin was enthralled by what he saw, saying: “Many links across the classes were developed and many friendships formed. Beliefs have joined these different men who fight for the same cause.”
Crucial to Coubertin’s nascent idea was a union of sport and culture – he expressed pleasant surprise at the high-brow books workers were borrowing from the library. And he believed in starting the job young, noting with approval the trips the graduates would lead into the countryside, with teams of children playing sports and learning about the flora and fauna they encountered.
Courbertin made other visits during his time in England, famously to the Much Wenlock Games in 1890. The Shropshire event was unusual in bringing a number of sports together, and had itself been modelled after the ancient Olympic Games. And there had been other ‘Olympics’, including Liverpool’s Grand Olympic Festival, held each year between 1862 and 1867. Pierre could even have looked to his own country: Revolutionary France held L’Olympiade de la Republique annually from 1796-8. By 1896, the Baron was ready to launch his own version, with the first modern Olympiad taking place in Greece.
A century later, the Olympics is a massive global phenomenon. De Coubertin’s social experiment unknowingly anticipated our modern thirst for sport as spectacle and event, and receptacle for ever greater quantities of cash. To the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ some sceptics might add ‘Ever more expensive’. And the Baron might have wondered how his dream of rich and poor working together sat with the spectacle of ‘Games Lanes’: IOC members speeding in their limousines past the hoi polloi stuck in traffic jams. The Barnetts, meanwhile, would be astonished where their proto-version of ‘we’re all in this together’ has led.
But Whitechapel, as much as Athens and Much Wenlock, takes its proud place in the history of the modern Games. Without Toynbee Hall and its muscular missionaries, there would be no London 2012.