Above: Baron Pierre de Coubertin, back row, 4th from the right.

It is one of the great ironies of modern sports history that the name of the founder of the modern Olympic Movement is so widely unknown. Billions of people all over the world tune into each edition of the Olympics—winter and summer—and yet they seldom hear the name of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French education reformer who gave our world its greatest recurring celebration of humanity.

He stood only 5’ 3”, but by many measures he was a giant of the 20th century. Born into an aristocratic family in Paris on January 1, 1863, Pierre embraced the values of the Third Republic as a young man—liberty, equality, fraternity—and began a quest to introduce sport to the French education system along the lines of the successful British model. As a way to popularize sport in his country, he began promoting competition between schools, clubs and even countries.

At the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, where the Eiffel Tower was unveiled, he saw the potential of international events as a platform for bringing the world together—and he also saw the possibilities of harnessing the quickly expanding peace movement of the time to strengthen sport. Five years later, in the Sorbonne in Paris, an audience of 2000 rose in acclamation of his proposal to resurrect the ancient Olympic Games in modern form—and launch a new movement designed to unite the world in friendship and peace through sport.

“Wars break out because nations misunderstand each other,” Coubertin said. “We shall not have peace until the prejudices that now separate the different races are outlived. To attain this end, what better means is there than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”

The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece in 1896, setting in motion an event that would become the pinnacle of international competition. Coubertin guided the Olympic Movement through its first 30 years, retiring after the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, which were celebrated at his request in the city of his birth.

Today, Coubertin’s legacy lives on 365-days a year through the work of more than 200 National Olympic Committees around the world. On the global scale, his philosophy of friendship and peace through sport can be seen playing out right now in the détente being established between North and South Korea as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games approach. Given the relevance of his work to our times, he should be a cultural icon known by all, instead he ranks as one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes.

— George Hirthler, Olympic Movement expert, author, and campaign strategist

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