Pierre De Coubertin's Olympic Exploration of Modernism, 1894-1914: Aesthetics, Ideology and the Spectacle

Article excerpt

The Olympic idea is in our view the conception of a strong physical culture based in part on the spirit of chivalry, which you so attractively call "fair play," and in part on an aesthetic idea, the cult of beauty and grace.(1)

Pierre de Coubertin, 1908.

The suggestion that the Olympic idea is partially aesthetic is familiar to most of us who study the principles and objectives of the modern Olympic Movement and the unique and eclectic interests of the movement's founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.(2) Traditionally, scholars have relegated Coubertin's aesthetic idea into the short, dull history of the Olympic Fine Arts Competitions. Ultimately, the aesthetic idea has been buried in the so-called "cultural component" of the modern Olympic Movement, and has been embraced without so much as a pause to contemplate its origin or significance.(3) As a consequence, an incredibly rich and complex cultural legacy of the modern Olympic Movement remains unexplored for fear of crossing the conventional disciplinary boundaries of academia.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the nature of Coubertin's aesthetic idea and the cultural manifestations that it inspired. My research focuses on original sources from the first 20 years of the modern Olympic Movement, 1894 to 1914. In one sense, this paper is an exploration of the history of ideas. In another sense, it is an exploration of the history of cultural production. This paper was motivated by a series of questions: Why were art, aesthetics, and beauty such important considerations in Coubertin's theories of modern Olympism? What is the connection between Coubertin's aesthetic idea and the symbols we associate with Olympism? How do we contextualize Coubertin's aesthetic idea within the broader aesthetic movement known as modernism? The scope of these questions is immense, and I do not expect to produce conclusive answers. For this reason, I have established a point of departure - some primary assumptions - that allows me to examine the concepts of culture, aesthetics, and modernism in the historical context of the modern Olympic Movement.

My exploration begins with the assumption that Pierre de Coubertin consciously used aesthetic theory to help him establish a cultural association between sport and the sociopolitical ideology, Olympism. In other words, Coubertin drew on normative ideas about beauty to develop symbols and texts that would illuminate the meaning of Olympism for a broad international audience. From a theoretical perspective, culture is defined as "those texts and practices whose principal function is to signify, to produce or to be the occasion for the production of meaning."(4) Culture is discursive (our ideas about what constitutes the production of meaning are defined by history and society).(5) At different moments in time cultural discourse produces dominant perspectives, normative viewpoints, and specific systems of encoding and decoding meaning into, and from, texts and practices. Sport, like art, theater, and literature, is an occasion for the production of meaning. Coubertin recognized sport as a cultural practice and used aesthetic theory to articulate the images and experiences produced by it with the social and political ideas that constituted the meaning of Olympism. Olympism is a type of universal humanism; that is, a social and political ideology with a central tenet that all humankind shares common values such as peace and respect.

Coubertin produced a body of work, a cultural oeuvre, that articulated in theory and practice his aesthetic idea with different discourses that shaped the political and social agenda of his ideology, Olympism. The years 1894 to 1914 were, perhaps, the most dynamic in the cultural history of the modern Olympic Movement. To delimit this paper further, I will focus on two complementary products of this cultural legacy: Coubertin's concept of eurythmie and one of his favorite genres of cultural performance, the fete sportif. …