2007 Inductee: Baron Pierre de Coubertin

(IRB.COM) Saturday 1 December 2007
2007 Inductee: Baron Pierre de Coubertin
Pierre de Coubertin signs a document during an Olympic Committee meeting in 1896

IRB Hall of Fame - Induction No 2 - Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) France

Personal details

•    Name: Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin
•    DoB: January 1, 1863
•    PoB: Paris  - 4th child of Charles Louis Fredy de Coubertin (artist painter) and Agathe Marie Marcelle Gigault de Crissenoy (musician)
•    Married to Marie Rothan, two children Jacques and Renee
•    Education: Vaugirard Colege, Paris, St Igantius School, Paris, read Philosophy, Law and History at University
•    Sport: boxing, fencing, rowing, horse riding, pistol shooting (seven times Champion of France), rugby
•    Journalist, author, historian and essayist
•    Major Influences: Father J.Carnot, H.Taine, J.Simon, Father H. Didon, Thomas Hughes, Dr. T Arnold
•    Founder of the modern Olympic Games
•    Founder of the Committee for the promotion of physical exercise in France
•    Founder of the Association for the reform of education in French schools
•    Founder of the governing body of French sport Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athletiques (USFSA)
•    Founder of the football commission of USFSA - the de facto governing body of rugby football in France

A painting of Pierre de Coubertin with friends and in the rugby-playing environment he loved

Rugby career

•    Learned rugby at Rugby School in 1880s.
•    One of the pioneers of the French game alongside Heywood, Barbin, Reichel, Mouchot, Wiet, Marcadet, Sienkievicz, Foucault, Pauly, de Candamo, Herbet and Faure-Djuarric, St. Clair, St. Chaffray etc, he played rugby in Bois de Boulogne throughout the late 1880s, though for unknown reasons his biographers have ignored his interest in the game.
•    The USFSA football commission chaired by de Coubertin led the campaign to have football-rugby accepted by schools, clubs and government   
•    Played a leading role in promoting rugby among school establishments by organising the first French schools championship in 1890
•    Instigated the expansion of rugby among leading schools in Paris (a championship involving 13 schools) in 1891
•    Refereed the first final of the French Championship between Stade Francaise and Racing Club de France in 1892
•    Involved in the organisation of the earliest French tours to England and Scotland and the first visit of an English side (Rosslyn Park) to Paris in 1893
•    Wrote significant articles about rugby and promoted the game vigorously
•    Made significant efforts to have rugby in the Olympic Games, and presided over the Rugby tournaments at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Olympics
•    Following his retirement from then Olympic Movement in 1925, rugby was dropped from the Olympic programme, despite strong interest from Dutch students and the Amsterdam Games organisers
•    The first writer to describe rugby as an “educational tool”

De Coubertin in his athletic days

Notes about foot-ball

De Coubertin was 20 when he visited Rugby School for the first time in 1883. By that time de Coubertin had already read Thomas Hughes’ novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and was familiar with the philosophy and practice of Dr Thomas Arnold, Rugby’s famous headmaster. Arnold's methods and the fortunes of young Tom Brown made a great impression on the young French aristocrat, in search of educational models for his country, traumatised by defeat in the French-Prussian war. He visited the Rugby School several times and became a fine purveyor of rugby football (he called the game football-rugby), as his various subsequent commentaries suggest.

His biographers mention boxing, fencing, rowing and horse-riding as his main sporting interests. They however failed to underline his interest in rugby, which he played, refereed and promoted. His essay about “Foot-ball Rugby” is edifying in this respect. In 1894 he formed the International Olympic Committee and in 1896 the first Olympic Games were held in Athens. A year later (1897), Pierre de Coubertin wrote ‘Notes about Foot-ball’, a clear testimony of his enduring passion for and profound understanding of Rugby Football.       

 “….despite its early problems, foot-ball has survived and flourished. Why should this be? It must be put down to the intrinsic value of the game itself and the emotions it generates amongst the participants. If the foot-ball rules are complex, we nevertheless can retain four or five, which are basic and simple. What is the player looking for? To gain the ball and carry it to the opposing try-line and touch the ball down behind the try-line as near as possible to the goal, which is made of two big posts linked together at half height by a transverse bar. If he manages to do that, he scores a try which means a certain number of points for his team; the ball is then placed on the ground on a perpendicular line to the try-line starting from the place where the try was scored. The ball is placed at any point on this line and a player tries to place the ball between the two posts and above the transversal bar with an accurate kick. The try is then converted in goal, which adds more points to the team score, and the total of all these points will decide the winner. If either team scores no points, it’s a draw.

“This is the basic framework to which are added some more sophisticated rules, which are the true genius of the game…..So many decisions require an agile mind and self control, not the least of which is being able to pass to a team mate who is better positioned than oneself. Discipline is the key to success. No team can see the whole battle…..What is admirable in football, is the perpetual mix of individualism and discipline, the necessity for each man to think, anticipate, take a decision and at the same time subordinate one’s reasoning, thoughts and decisions to those of the captain. And even the referee’s whistle stopping a player for a ‘fault’ one team mate has made and he hasn’t seen, tests his character and patience. For all that, foot-ball is truly the reflection of life, a lesson experimenting in the real world, a first-rate educational tool.”

“Baron Pierre de Coubertin – Notes about Foot-ball” (1897) edited highlights