Michel Breal (1832-1915)-The Man Behind the Idea of the Marathon

By Muller, Norbert | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Michel Breal (1832-1915)-The Man Behind the Idea of the Marathon


Muller, Norbert, Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


Born 175 years ago in Landau, Palatinate, Michel Breal is typically known among experts as an outstanding linguist--this is also indicated on the memorial plate at his place of birth. This contribution, however, shows another Breal: the man who provided the inspiration for the Olympic marathon in Athens 1896. Based on letters between Breal and Pierre de Coubertin, the article traces the steps from the conceptualisation of the marathon to the first race in Athens in 1896. The second part of the paper describes the relationship between Coubertin and the one generation older Breal. This analysis is based on 11 letters and cards from the IOC archive sent from Breal to Coubertin between 1894 and 1909. To conclude it is discussed in the paper whether Coubertin appreciated Breal as the man behind the idea of the marathon.

Breal at the Olympic Founding Congress in Paris in 1894

When the Founding Congress of the International Olympic Committee met on June 23rd, 1894 at the Sorbonne in Paris the participants decided to reinstate the Olympic Games in modern form. The adoption of this idea, across the world, came to a triumphant climax at this time and has lasted until the present day. Among the 78 participants from 37 sports organisations from nine countries there were 58 French, who represented 24 national organisations and sports clubs. (1)

In order to make a good impression of the Founding Congress on the public, the 31years-old Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who at this time was the General Secretary of the French Association of the School Sports Clubs (USFSA), had invited well-known native and foreign honorary members to head the programme. (2) He also managed to vigorously persuade important Frenchmen to take part. He wanted to arouse great public interest in French society in the Congress and his great idea for the modern Olympic Games. Therefore, the meeting place, actually the great hall and adjoining halls of the equally new officially opened main building of the Univerity of Paris--The Sorbonne--proved eminently suitable.

However, we look in vain at the list of honorary members for the famous classical philologist, Michel Breal, who, beginning in 1889, was Professor at the French Institute, the elite sports training centre for French intellectuals. Neither do we find him in the participant lists nor protocols of the separate congress committees. One was for the international organisation of amateur regulations, the other the advisory committee for Coubertin's idea of the revival of the Olympic Games, including different types of sport. Here there was no mention of the marathon as a possible Olympic discipline. Therefore, it is surprising that Coubertin wrote in 1909: "Michel Breal, who very carefully followed the work of the Congress, was very positive. "(3)

As a long serving General Inspector of the State Educational System in universities from 1879 till 1888 Breal was, without doubt, a close acquaintance of Jules Simon, who had played an important role in the Third Republic. Simon had, at the instigation of Coubertin, declared himself willing to take over the chairmanship for French School Sports Clubs (4) in 1888, and therefore became Coubertin's crucial supporter for the reform plans to increase physical education in schools. Through him Coubertin must have come in contact with Breal, even if the author does not possess any clear evidence.

It is all the more surprising that Breal was present at the closing banquet of the Congress. There is an exact description of the banquet and the seating plan. According to that plan Mr. Breal sat on Coubertin's right and on his left was the American biographer of Napoleon, Professor William Sloane, one of the founding members of the IOC. (5)

As you can read in the first bulletin of the newly founded International Committee for Olympic Games, Breal spoke directly after Coubertin and described in detail the achievements, especially the revival of the Olympic Games. …

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