Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Pierre De Coubertin's "Civilizing Mission"

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Pierre De Coubertin's "Civilizing Mission"

Article excerpt

The purpose of my paper is to analyze Pierre de Coubertin's concepts of "civilization" and "race," in order better to understand the anthropological foundations of his Olympism in general and to show that this Olympism has been a part of his "civilizing mission." A case in point is the following statement de Coubertin made in 1908 on the 1904 Games in Saint Louis:

   The St. Louis Games did feature some original approaches. The "star
   attraction," so to speak, was incontestably what the Americans
   called, in their picturesque language, the "anthropological day," a
   day that lasted forty-eight hours, in fact. In the course of these
   singular athletic meets, competitions were held in the Stadium
   pitting the Sioux against Patagonians, the Cocopas of Mexico and the
   Moro of the Philippines, the Ainu of Japan, the Pygmies of Africa,
   the Syrians, and the Turks--the latter [not] (1) flattered, no
   doubt, at being included in such company. All these men competed in
   the usual civilized contests, foot races, rope climbing, shot put
   and javelin throwing, jumping, and archery. Nowhere else but in
   America would anyone have dared to put such a thing in the program
   of an Olympiad. But for the Americans, all is permitted. Their
   youthful enthusiasm certainly enjoyed the indulgence of the shades
   of the great Greek ancestors, if, by chance, they happened to be
   wandering by at that moment among the amused throng. (2)

Five years later, in another article entitled "An Olympiad in the Far East," Coubertin gave a somewhat different perception of these Anthropological Days. As this article was concerned with Asia, he focused on the Asian participants of these Days and instead of the Turks and the Syrians he considered the Asians not to be flattered by the presence of the other "barbarian" participants:

   During the competitions of the Third Olympiad, held in St.
   Louis in 1904, one or more days were reserved for performances by
   Asians. The Americans clearly see themselves as athletic preceptors
   in the Far East. The day-long festivities in St. Louis were hardly
   flattering for the people in that part of the world. These
   descendants of such ancient and refined civilizations were called
   on to compare with representatives of peoples scarcely refined out
   of their original barbarianism. This was a mistake. (3)

Coubertin's commentaries can be interpreted and have been interpreted in different ways. (4) At a first glance, one could argue that Coubertin was offended by the fact that separate competitions were organized for "exotic people" during a festival which claimed to bring together athletes from all over the world. But if we take a closer look we see that he established a ranking of the different ethnical groups, and expressed his disapproval of the fact that people from "refined civilizations" were obliged to compete with people from almost barbarian origins, with the latter including Native Americans and pygmies from Africa. Coubertin clearly associates cultural difference with inferiority. Are these statements about the "Anthropological Days" not an expression of Coubertin's racist attitude? Does he not practise a "culture-coded form" of racism when ranking people according to their different cultural origins? (5)

In the following section, I will analyze Coubertin's concept of "race," in order to better understand the anthropological foundations of his Olympism. Coubertin considered himself a "rallie," somebody who joined the Republicans after having been a Monarchist. But, even within the Republicans, "racial thought" was common at the end of the 19th century in France. A "racial paradigm" construed by scientists, which was largely vulgarized in popular literature and accepted by a great majority of the society, characterized the French Republic from 1860 to 1930. (6) There were exceptions to the republican principle of equality: There were "brothers and subjects" who were equal but not exactly equal. …

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