Artists & Athletes: A Perspective on the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival

It is right and proper that cultural programs are a required part of the Olympic Games. To a certain extent, history has driven the integration of cultural programs into the Olympic Games. And, just as both Olympic and Paralympic winter games highlight the accomplishments of our athletes, it is noble and right to similarly celebrate, through Cultural Olympiads, the achievements of our artists.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of archeologists and anthropologists, we have come to appreciate the significance of the Ancient Games and their role in merging sport and culture. Surely this had influenced, in the late 19th century, Baron Pierre de Coubertin and his interest in the integration of art, principally through competitions, as an element in the re-establishment of the modern Olympic Games. Today, Conrado Durantez, president of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee, keeps interest in de Coubertin and his Olympic legacy thriving.

David Gilman Romano, Ph.D., the gifted classical archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, in an essay it was my privilege to commission, said “[C]ultural programs as required elements of the modern Olympic Games are totally in keeping with the origins and history of the ancient festival, where sculpture, poetry, music, and political idealism were bound together with athletic competition and religious celebration.” Romano reminds us that the Delphi festival originated as a musical tribute to Apollo Pythios. Contests in singing to the flute appeared in the sixth century BC, and it was only later that athletic contests were added. I find it both compelling and fitting that the very earliest text in the entire Greek world is scratched into the shoulder of a terra-cotta vase found buried in an Athenian grave. It is a hexameter poem that describes the winner of a dancing contest from about 740 BC. It reads, “[H]e who dances most nimbly of all, take this [the vase] as your prize.” For me, this suggests not only a substantive chronicling of the Olympics, but the influential role artists have played, over the centuries, in the Olympic Movement. The Olympic motto, Citius—Altius—Fortius, invites artists to excel.

In his work The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Richard Stanton explores the program of a conference in Paris in April 1906 called by de Coubertin, at which choreography, letters, music, painting, sculpture, and other disciplines were detailed and discussed. The inclusion of arts and letters in the modern Olympics was under way.

Today, the Olympic Charter binds organizing committees to “promote harmonious relations, mutual understanding and friendship among the participants and others attending the Olympic Games,” in part through the establishment of a cultural program. With proper latitude for local customs and traditions—combined with oversight from the International Olympic Committee’s Commission on Culture and Olympic Education—today’s organizing committees can, through a well-curated Olympic Arts Festival, impact the games and leave a cultural legacy for them.

These few examples of ancient and contemporary history have helped define the role of the 2002 Cultural Olympiad, or Olympic Arts Festival, surrounding the Olympic and Paralympic winter games of 2002. Essays on the Ancient Games, on the role of artists who live with disabilities, and on the connection of human rights within the context of Olympic ideals have all helped provide a perspective and point of view to my selection of programming for the XIX Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. So, too, has a commissioned work by the 39th poet laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, who in his poem calls upon the ancient Greek poet Pindar.

The ancient Olympic practice of chariot racing and the forgotten Olympic art competitions of the 20th century have suggested to me the legitimate placement of ice sculpting and the cultural experience of rodeo as a part of the 2002 festival, with accompanying cultural participation medals.

With all of this, however, the raison d’être of the 2002 Cultural Olympiad is the commissioning of new works by contemporary artists. This alone will define a cultural legacy for these Olympic Games. My programming includes a new modern dance work choreographed by Judith Jaimison for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the world cultural ambassador of black heritage. With music by America’s jazz great Wynton Marsalis, the inspiration behind this new work is the life of the gifted Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner. It seems to me a fine way to merge sport and art. Another example is the commissioned work of the Pilobolus dance company that will combine humor with athleticism.

In his work One Hundred Years of Olympic Congresses 1894–1994, Norbert Muller reports that the aforementioned 1906 Paris conference recommended (in point of fact demanded) that dance be returned to a “more athletic way of expression.” I suggest that the Ailey and Pilobolus works will fulfill the 1906 mandate.

The monumental glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly resist categorization, yet if sculpture were an Olympic sport today, Chihuly would be an Olympian. Similar examples in theater, poetry, music, and the visual arts abound in this 2002 Cultural Olympiad.

It is fitting as well that the Olympic Arts Festival was called upon to produce the opening ceremony of the 113th session of the International Olympic Committee. This program of protocol, pageantry, and culture will reflect the vision of the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival: to highlight the achievements of athletes alongside the accomplishments of artists. This is what we aspire to. To get there, the Olympic Arts Festival established a mission to highlight Americans’ contributions to the arts and humanities, to celebrate Utah and its heritage, and to embrace the West and its cultures.

Artists live and work in community and have the singular ability to find the uncommon in the commonplace. The 2002 Olympic Arts Festival is artist driven. For, like athletes, artists live on the verge of peril.

The indigenous peoples of North America (the American Indians) play a significant and contemporary role in the arts festival. All the tribes of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau will gather together to curate an exhibition whose message is durability. The monumental sculptures of Allan Houser, a descendent of Chiricahua Apache Indians and one of America’s most influential and respected artists, will be on view throughout these Olympic Games.

While athletes inspire the world through peaceful competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games, I have invited the 13th Reebok Human Rights Awards to the Olympic Arts Festival to recognize activists who have made significant contributions to human rights through nonviolent means. Norwegian photographer Karin Beate Nosterun will celebrate the work of Olympic Aid in an exhibition of vivid photographs documenting the organization’s efforts for refugee children in Africa.

In music, iconic American ensembles and soloists with international careers—such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Itzhak Perlman, Frederica von Stade, and many others—will be featured.

For perhaps the first time, we will celebrate as well the culinary arts. Following select cultural experiences, I’ve called upon the James Beard Foundation to arrange for celebrity chefs to complement the artistic offerings. Some 50 chefs will celebrate “the art of the table.”

In addition, historical subjects will be addressed, in the light of current research. The 1936 Berlin Games are explored in an exhibition curated by the National Holocaust Museum. Another exhibition, “Homeland in the West,” traces the history of Jews in Utah. Additionally, in “Athletes in Antiquity: Works from the J. Paul Getty Museum,” art and artifacts illustrating Greece’s cultural legacy are showcased.

In all, some 15 exhibitions, 60 signature performances and special events, and 15 community celebrations will welcome both world visitors and 3,500 athletes from 80 countries. These audiences are assured, in an important way, of a place in the Olympic Movement. Their participation in the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival will help define the atmosphere of the games. If history is any judge, it will be an atmosphere fondly remembered.

Author Note

Raymond T. Grant is artistic director of the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival.

Prior to joining the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, he headed the performing arts and film area of the Disney Institute, a division of the Walt Disney Company. He previously served as general manager of the American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in New York City.

He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and holds a master of arts degree in arts administration from New York University.

2017-08-07T15:10:44-05:00February 14th, 2008|Sports Facilities, Sports History|Comments Off on Artists & Athletes: A Perspective on the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival

Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”: Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?

“Olympia,” arguably one of the greatest sports films ever produced, may have also been an effective propaganda tool that promoted National Socialism as a model form of government. A sports documentary capturing the 1936 Summer Olympics “Olympia” was directed and produced by the renowned German motion picture producer Leni Riefenstahl.

On the surface, the film appears to be a very well made sports film, depicting outstanding athletic accomplishments by many individuals and teams from throughout the world. However, as Germany’s intentions became clearer in the period before World War II, critics became more and more suspicious that the actual motive for producing “Olympia” was political promotion: Nazi propaganda. Kracauer (1947) stated, “To be sure, all Nazi films were more or less propaganda films—even the mere entertainment pictures which seem to be remote from politics” (p. 275). To date, no one has been able to uncover substantive evidence proving that the sole intention of producing “Olympia” was to create propaganda. There are, however, many hints that at least part of the German government’s purpose in supporting “Olympia” was to promote the positive (as perceived by the Nazis) principles of National Socialism to the world.

There are two parts to the film. The first part begins with a history of the Olympic games, depicting the traditions of the ancient games in the city of Olympia and continuing with portrayal of many of the field events at the 1936 Berlin games. The second part features the track and field events of the Berlin Games. “Olympia” was considered a documentary, but in fact it incorporated two components generally unknown in documentaries typifying that time: editing and sound. Riefenstahl’s skillful editing allowed the most exciting moments to be featured and produced smooth transition between the sports events. In a most sophisticated manner, Riefenstahl also incorporated sound within the film, in the form of background music and narration. She worked tirelessly to synchronize music by distinguished film composer Herbert Windt with the moving images in the film (Riefenstahl, 1993). In those days, to attach any sort of sound to a moving picture was always difficult and often impossible, but Riefenstahl accomplished it with a flawless precision that impressed audiences and critics in Germany and abroad. All of this, in combination with innovative filming techniques, won for the film very high acclaim from some of the most respected persons in the industry (Berg-Pan, 1980; Graham, 1986; Infield, 1976; Salkeld, 1996). And even today, viewing “Olympia” creates the impression that one is a living part of the 1936 games; Riefenstahl’s work is a far cry from the boorish nature of pre-“Olympia” documentaries.

“Olympia” as Nazi Propaganda

As a result of the political climate developing before World War II, “Olympia” became increasingly scrutinized. Produced by the same Germany about to wreak frightful havoc on the world, “Olympia,” it seemed, could be assumed to contain some expression of support for National Socialism. Was Riefenstahl so absorbed in her documentary work that the surrounding Nazi politics escaped her? Or was she much more politically astute than she claimed to be?

Certain facts make it difficult to believe Riefenstahl could have been naive about the way of life around her: (a) her professional instincts and insights were extraordinary; (b) her political skills were such that she was able to arrange personal meetings with Hitler; and (c) in order to attain her film production goals, she carefully worked the political structures of the German film industry and the Nazi Party (Graham, 1986; Riefenstahl, 1993). From a commonsense perspective, it is difficult to be convinced that the same Riefenstahl possessed of these impressive skills could remain unaware of the larger motive manifested by Hitler and the National Socialist Party in making the film. Furthermore, Riefenstahl had various ties to international figures, meeting personally with Benito Mussolini on Hitler’s behalf (Riefenstahl, 1993) and being invited to Moscow by Joseph Stalin following the release of “Olympia” (Hinton, 1978).

Still, it would be presumptuous to accuse Riefenstahl of familiarity with the agenda and inner workings of the Nazis: No empirical evidence supports the accusation. There is much room for debate about whether Riefenstahl’s intelligence and savvy (and effective application of them in her many professional endeavors) preclude her misunderstanding the situation unfolding in Nazi Germany at the time. In the absence of any real proof that Riefenstahl was even aware, truly, of the planned evils of the Nazi Party, it is very difficult to prove she had a propagandistic intent in producing “Olympia.”

However, the question of whether the Nazis put the film to use as propaganda is quite different. The German government certainly would not have released “Olympia” if it had not portrayed Germany in the way the Nazi party wished to be portrayed. Nevertheless, the kind of propaganda the documentary most clearly provided is what Graham (1986) called “soft” or “sociological” propaganda (p. 251). As propaganda, “Olympia” is less interested in blatantly indoctrinating viewers in the principles of National Socialism than in promoting a positive, even kind, image of Germany. The audience took in an exhilarating sports documentary featuring the successes of many countries’ athletes. (In some cases, the film actually downplays victories of the German nation.) Viewers throughout the world were pleased to see favorite athletes featured in a positive light, and positive feeling about the film might extend by association to Germany and thus to the National Socialist Party.

While official documentation ascribes “Olympia” to a company named Leni Riefenstahl Productions, the film’s finances were in fact controlled by Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda (Berg-Pan, 1980). Furthermore, a frank assessment of Riefenstahl’s possible complicity must not ignore her work for the National Socialist Party (prior to “Olympia”) making a film titled “Triumph of the Will.” In “Triumph of the Will,” the power of the National Socialist Party is clearly exhibited, and everything the German government believed good about Nazism is on display.

“Olympia” as Documentary

One of the strongest arguments for the notion that “Olympia” was a propaganda piece (if only in terms of sociological propaganda) is also, strangely, one of the strongest arguments for the notion that it was not a propaganda film at all. That point is the film’s perceived objectivity, its seemingly unbiased representation of the athletes, the nations, and the Games in general. Experts on filmmaking at the time, as well as other critics contemporary with Riefenstahl, found great merit in “Olympia.” The documentary was actually voted the grand prize winner at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice, defeating Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (Hinton, 1991).

Riefenstahl would later visit Hollywood, during which trip Disney received her openly, congratulating her on what he believed to be a masterful production. By the time of her visit, anti-German sentiment in the United States had grown so large that “Olympia” was being boycotted, although many who were so vigorously denouncing the film had not viewed it. Disney witnessed the boycott and was aware of the popular dislike of Germany. If he had considered “Olympia” to in some way comprise political propaganda, it is highly unlikely he would have received Riefenstahl publicly and with genuine praise.

The objectivity of “Olympia” perceived by so many of Riefenstahl’s critics and audiences comes primarily from Riefenstahl’s refusal to compromise when it came to the film’s production. Her own standards trumped the wishes of others. She herself wielded control over all aspects of the film’s creation (Hinton, 1991), despite frequent pressure from Goebbels—during filming and editing and production generally—to make modifications aligning the content with Nazi ideals. When Goebbels demanded, for example, that she acknowledge Hitler’s resentment of the successful African-American athletes, Riefenstahl instead proceeded to feature gold medalists Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf prominently (Hinton, 1978; Infield, 1976). Her defiance lends credence to her later claim that she, at least, saw no propaganda purpose for her documentary. Riefenstahl’s uncompromising ways as a producer of “Olympia” furthermore led to Nazi officials’ criticism of the film as too artistic (Berg-Pan, 1980).


After the war had ended in Germany’s defeat, de-Nazification courts refused to label Riefenstahl a Nazi (Salkeld, 1996). That makes it more difficult to label her film Nazi propaganda. Some might argue that it simply is not fair to criticize Riefenstahl and Germany for succeeding at what our film companies today continue attempting: to produce a film that pleases the widest possible audience and wins high praise and supportive reviews from film industry professionals. Such a goal during such a time, however, is evidence leading the present authors to conclude that Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” did contribute to the Nazi movement, even if in the subtlest of ways. What’s more, the documentary’s effect may ultimately have been less subtle thanks to Riefenstahl’s brilliant cinematography.


  1. Berg-Pan, R., (1980) . Leni Riefenstahl. (W. French, Ed. ) . Boston: Twayne.
  2. Graham, C. G., (1986) . Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, NJ & London: 1986.
  3. Hinton, D. B., (1978) . The films of Leni Riefenstahl. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  4. Hinton, D. B., (1991) . The films of Leni Riefenstahl (2nd ed. ) . Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  5. Leni Riefenstahl: A memoir. (1993) . New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  6. Infield, G. B., (1976) . Leni Riefenstahl: The fallen film goddess. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
  7. Kracauer, S., (1947) . From Caligari to Hitler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Salkeld, A. (1996) . A portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Random House.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Robert C. Schneider
Physical Education and Sport Department
State University of New York at Brockport
350 New Campus Drive
Brockport, New York 14420-2914.
Phone inquiries may be made at (716) 395-2587 (work)
or at (716) 423-9603 (home).
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2013-11-26T21:47:01-06:00February 14th, 2008|Sports History, Sports Studies and Sports Psychology|Comments Off on Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”: Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?

Peace Through Sport and Religio Athletae: Antiquated Ideas or Viable Options?

Eight months ago, it seemed that the world rushed to embrace the “new millennium”, the dawn of a new era. This is understandable when viewed in the global context of the previous century. Two world wars, countless civil wars, the Cold War and attendant social and political unrest overshadowed many of the remarkable advances in science and technology. The Olympic movement was not immune from the political and social problems in the twentieth century and ultimately became a microcosm of global politics. As the dawn of the new millennium approached, many people reflected on past events and envisioned a new world, dare I say a New World Order, where peace, progress, character development and prosperity would become a reality and not simply a dream. This vision was not a new one. Early guardians of the modern Olympic Games such as Pierre de Coubertin, William Sloane, Jules Simon, and Fredrick Le Play must have shared this same optimism and hope for a renewal of moral character and a lasting peace as they rang in 1900. How could they have known that the twentieth century would be among the most tumultuous and deadly periods in the history of the human race? The turmoil of the early part of the last century had a profound impact on Coubertin. He became a tireless crusader for peace and social change. The question that begs asking is to what extent will the new leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continue Coubertin’s Crusade for peace and social change via sport?

The great philosopher George Santayana noted that “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness… Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Will the leadership of the Olympic Movement heed the eloquent words of Santayana relative to lessons lessons learned in the twentieth century or will the same mistakes be made again? A promising first step was taken in 2000 when the IOC and the Hellenic Olympic Committee established the International Olympic Truce Center in Athens.

The new millennium provides an opportunity for the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Movement to undergo a renaissance. A renaissance that once again reaffirms the belief in the utility of sport as a tool for peace and international understanding; not just in words but in deeds! In addition, the renaissance of sport can recapture the belief and practice when sport was a means of developing moral character instead of producing the “characters” that many contemporary athletes represent today.

World peace and prosperity for all is not a utopian dream but a moral obligation that we all must work to achieve. The Cold War approach to securing peace and harmony through military power by default engenders threats and conflict. We have no illusions about the necessity for strong national defense. There exist political and religious doctrines that reflect agendas that promote violence to achieve end results and we must defend ourselves and others against this threat. The horrific attacks of September are a somber reminder of this fact.

During Coubertin’s formative years, he supported a strong military to defend his beloved country. While this never changed, We believe he also envisioned an alternative to military might as a means to secure peace and social advancement. Could Olympism develop a credible doctrine that would serve to promote peace and international understanding? Could the splendor and worldwide appeal of the Olympic Games succeed in the diplomatic arena where others had failed relative to resolving conflicts? Could athletes deliver messages of peace and goodwill to competing nations more effectively than career politicians? Ever the romantic, Coubertin believed in “Peace Through Sport”. As a statesman, Coubertin sought to employ sport as an effective diplomatic tool that would bring people together and ultimately contribute to world peace.

Although Coubertin did not live to see his ideology succeed, perhaps the new millennium will provide the Olympic Movement with another opportunity to believe in the utility of “Peace Through Sport”. It is important to note that while Coubertin worked to bring about world peace he was not a pacifist. He, like the rest of France, wanted a powerful military in place to prevent another disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Germans or anybody else for that matter. However, Coubertin was well connected with individuals in the international peace movement during his time in Paris.

The Paris of the 1880’s was an international center for pacifists and the Peace Movement. Coubertin undoubtedly had contact with leading figures in this movement. Quanz believes, “pacifists provided an important impact on Coubertin’s plan to establish modern athletic contests within the milieu of major international exhibition.”(Quanz, 1993) In fact, Quanz notes, “Coubertin… consistently stressed the dual character of the Games, setting his philosophical tone in place when he dedicated the 1896 Games to both patriotism and world peace.”(p. 2) He maintains that pacifist philosophy was an important element in Coubertin’s plan to establish the modern Olympic Games, citing the list of individuals invited to the Congress at the Sorbonne and saying “there is little doubt that a definite contemporary ‘peace patronage’ was present at the Sorbonne proceedings.”(p. 4) But Quanz refrains “from boldly pronouncing a “pacifistic derivation theory” for Coubertin’s Olympic project, largely because there appears in the Baron’s scheme an independent interpretation of modern sport, namely, its reformation in the context of educational potential.”(p. 3)

While Coubertin had many friends within the peace movement and manipulated these relationships to his advantage in promoting the Games, his ideas concerning Olympic sport and internationalism should not be viewed as an attempt at pacifism. MacAloon notes, “Coubertin was not so much against war as for peace, and…he wanted a strong army worthy of domestic and foreign respect and capable of ensuring against another 1870.”(McAloon, 1981) To suggest that the International Committee for the Olympic Games was an extension of the International Peace Bureau would be a mistake. It seems Coubertin’s “internationalism” was multifaceted and incorporated notions of peace, patriotism, international cooperation, and serious athletic competition. Coubertin was a patriot who believed in the necessity of a strong national defense. He also believed and worked to achieve “Peace Through Sport”. Who says you can’t have it both ways?

The creation of the Olympic Truce Center is a positive step. We must not simply hope that the efforts of the Truce Center are successful, we must all work to insure its success. As Santayana notes, those who forget history are bound to repeat it. In the last century, the effort to maintain a lasting peace was a failure. The Olympic Games were cancelled because of World War I and World War II. The impact of the Cold War immersed the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games in nasty politics that nearly extinguished the Olympic flame. The Olympic Movement has much to gain, as we all do, in maximizing efforts to achieve peace. History has demonstrated that the Olympic Games, and all of us, have much to lose without a lasting peace.

The development of moral character and attendant decorum was a critical component of Coubertin’s Olympism. This concept is embodied, to a degree, in his idea of Religio Athletae. Coubertin’s idea was in part, an attempt to recapture what he believed to be the noble and virtuous qualities of sport that were present in Ancient Greece. These were timeless ideas and practices that would help him establish a stronger foundation for sport to cultivate proper moral character. As we shall see, although his concept of Religio Athletae suggests theological implications, it does not meet the criteria for this.

In his Olympic Memoirs, Coubertin (1931) states that sports were “a religion with its church, dogmas, service…but above all a religious feeling.” Two years before his death, in a 1935 radio address, Coubertin (1935) acknowledged:

The first essential characteristic of ancient and of modern OLYMPISM alike is that of being a religion…I therefore think I was right to recreate from the outset, around the renewed OLYMPISM, a religious sentiment transformed and widened by the Internationalism and Democracy which distinguish the present age, but still the same as that which led the young Greeks, ambitious for the triumph of their muscles, to the foot of the altars of ZEUS. The ideal of a religion of sport, the religio athletae, was very slow to penetrate the minds of competitors, and many of them still practice it only in an unconscious way. But they will come round to it little by little.

Coubertin’s first use of the term religio athletae came in a short article (1928). In it he outlines the best means for protecting his modern Games from the “excess that corrupted and ruined ancient athletics.”(p.6) Coubertin’s ideal for sport involved a world where “each young man possesses sufficient taste for athletic exercises to make him practice them regularly…seeking in wholesome sports an admirable means to perfect his health and increase his strength.”(p. 5) He admitted this was unrealistic and that a “system of organized competition” would need to take its place. But this sort of competition would inevitably lead to corruption. Therefore a “regulator,” such as the Greeks found in Olympia, would need to be incorporated into the modern Games. Coubertin alluded to the Ancient Olympics and the “spirit of almost religious reverence” with which the young men approached them. For Coubertin, this reverence was derived not from “sacrificing solemnly before the altar of ZEUS,” but from “taking an oath of honor and disinterest, and above all in striving to keep it.”(Coubertin, reprinted in 1967, p. 6). Thus, Coubertin sought to protect the sanctity of his modern Olympics by incorporating a similar oath into their opening ceremonies. It was precisely this religious ritual of athletic competition that the Baron was seeking to promote in his Olympism.

There remains then the deeper question of what Coubertin meant by labeling Olympism as a religion. Did he in fact suggest that this Olympic philosophy could assume the role of a religion? Or might this be another example of the Baron’s idealism, an attempt at promoting Olympism by invoking the Greek’s conception of the religious nature of sport as honoring the gods? Nissiotis (1986) provides insightful criticism concerning these questions. He takes Coubertin’s understanding of the relationship between Greek sport and religion to task:

He [Coubertin] committed an error, if I may use that expression, by confusing the sacred-the sacredness of the human act when it transcends itself, reaching for the infinite and absolutely transcendental divine-and the sacredness which the Greeks understood by “ieros”, that is the separate, that which confronts us, outside ourselves…For the ancient Greeks, there was an enormous difference between sport which honoured the gods, and sport seen as a god, sport as a “religion.” (p. 168)

Coubertin may not have anticipated the ramifications of this overzealous mistake, but they can be seen in the words of some of his successors, including former president of the IOC Avery Brundage (1964), when he proclaims, “It is a 20th Century religion which Coubertin founded in the Olympic Movement, a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion, attractive to Youth, and we of the International Olympic Committee are its disciples.”(p. 2) Would Coubertin have endorsed this pronouncement of OLYMPISM as a “20th Century religion?” If not, what would cause Coubertin to risk labeling sport as a religion?

Nissiotis (1986) suggests that Coubertin was motivated by:

An unbound enthusiasm in a secularised era, characterised by the absence of the gods…he wanted, through sport, to keep young people looking towards the infinite, that which is dazzling and gives to life its supreme spiritual meaning. He wanted modern youth, thus armed, to be able to go beyond the mechanics and sciences of the modern era, re-establishing religion in a realistic dimension.(pp. 168-169)

The Europe of Coubertin’s era was undergoing a rapid transformation in philosophical and religious thought. Secularism and a kind of scientific positivism were rapidly replacing the Christian God of traditional European culture. Coubertin sensed this spiritual vacuum left by the removal of the divine. Thus to the youth of the world he offered:

Olympism as religion, a serious appeal to take with complete devotion its humanist principles impregnated with Greek philosophy and Christian faith, above all kinds of dogmatic absolutism against other social beliefs and conditions. OLYMPISM in the service of peace, democracy and internationalism, and of the moral transformation of man, giving him a dignified character, regenerating him by the achievement of equilibrium between body and mind, through athleticism in its Olympic sense.(Nissiotis, 1996, pp. 76-77).

Also critical to Coubertin’s religious approach to Olympism was the idea of “mutual respect.” By respecting differences between various creeds, young people might “re-establish religion in a realistic dimension,” the dimension of competitive athletics on an international level. Both Nissiotis (1973) and Professor Liselott Diem emphasize this attempt of Coubertin at transcending religious dogmatism: In order to respect one another, we should know one another. The ignorance of the Catholic for the Protestant can only be compared to the ignorance of the latter for the orthodox. No one tries to know what a Baptist thinks, or a Methodist, a learned Moslem or an open-minded Buddhist. The Mentality of Israelis, Hindous [sic], Shintoists are not studied. It is much more important to know these things than to know the age of the pithecanthropus or the carcass of the diplodocus. Because this is life itself, today’s life, the deep life of man.(Coubertin, 1908)

It is especially in the religious examination of Olympism  that Coubertin’s lifelong idealism and his ever-present concern for educating youth emerge.

The exact relationship between Olympism and religion remains problematic. It is tempting to presume Coubertin sought to establish a new world-religion in Olympism. His writings fail to explain precisely what he meant by sport in the religious sense. The terminology used by the Baron has lead to confusion within the Olympic community as well as suspicion from outside religious organizations. However, it seems most likely that, in his idealism, Coubertin sought not to establish Olympism as a religion in the traditional sense, but to infuse it with religious meaning and demand a religious commitment to this philosophy of moral education, international peace, artistic beauty and physical effort. In this philosophy we see an appeal to the transcendent, religious nature of sport joined with the concept of mutual respect among peoples in an effort to educate youth and promote peace on an international level.

Was Coubertin’s belief in “Peace Through Sport” a utopian dream or a viable diplomatic option that, until now, has been largely ignored? Have the qualities and characteristics that reflect Coubertin’s Religio Athletae become antiquated and outdated or do might they still have a place in the new millennium? Will there be a renaissance of sport in the new millennium where the development of moral character will become important or will this concept, sport as a means of character development, be assigned to the dust bin of history? Only time will tell.


Brundage, Avery (June, 1964). “Baron Pierre de Coubertin,” from Text for the Plaquette Lexueuse Celebration 70th Anniversary of Revival of Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Sorbonne, J, p. 2.

Coubertin, Pierre de.(1931) Olympic Memoirs. Text originally published by the Bureau international de pedagogie sportive in 1931, then reprinted by the International Olympic Committee in 1976, 1979, and 1989, Lausanne, 115.

Coubertin, Pierre de. (1935) The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism, Reprinted in The Olympic Idea. Hofmann, 1967, p. 133

Coubertin, Pierre de (1928)  du Bureau International de Pedagogi Sportive 1, 1928, pp. 5-6.Pierre de. “Religio Athletae,” Bulletin

MacAloon, John J. (1981) This Great Symbol. Pierre de Coubertin and The Origins of The Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nissiotis, Nikolaos (March, 1986). Pierre de Coubertin’s Relevance from the Philosophical Point of View and the problem of the “religio athletae, abstract from: “L’ACTUALITE DE PIERRE COUBERTIN DU POINT DE VUE PHILOSOPHIQUE et le probleme de la “religio athletae”, presented at the Symposium: The Relevance of Coubertin Today,” Lausanne, 18-20 March, 1986, pp. 125-178.

Quanz, Dietrich R (1993). “Civic Pacifism and Sports-Based Internationalism: Framework for the Founding of the International Olympic Committee.” Olympika, Vol. 2, 1-23.


2013-11-26T21:50:46-06:00February 14th, 2008|Sports History|Comments Off on Peace Through Sport and Religio Athletae: Antiquated Ideas or Viable Options?

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism

goal of Olympism is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world
by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any
kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with
a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Olympic Charter,
Fundamental Principles

2015-11-08T07:40:40-06:00February 14th, 2008|Sports History|Comments Off on The Fundamental Principles of Olympism

Editorial Comment – Reach out for “Olympism”

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”
Baron Pierre de Coubertin – founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Olympism is a word foreign to most of us but familiar in its concept. You do not have to be an Olympic athlete to have Olympism. Olympism is about the pride in yourself gained through the glory of participation and the quest for achievement. The five ideals that should guide your life are embodied in the concept of Olympism: Vision, Focus, Commitment, Persistence and Discipline. Olympism is being the best you can be and gaining life’s tools to build self-confidence, self-esteem, personal effectiveness and the spirit of adventure.

We should reach out for Olympism. Embrace those ideals that Olympism represents. These ideals have lapsed from our consciousness and need revival. After over a century of the modern Olympic Games and the associated competition and sportsmanship the United States Olympic Academy is seeking to inspire all of us to accept these ideals.

Life can be difficult and the lessons of Olympism — Vision, Focus, Commitment, Persistence and Discipline — can help us overcome its obstacles. Sport can be a vehicle that instills the timeless values learned from participating and striving for a goal. Today’s youth needs strong values because the obstacles seem to be harder than in earlier times. The choices along the path of life today are many. Olympism can provide guidance and insight to young people to make the right choices with confidence. Olympism is the choice to participate and to make the best effort with the knowledge that you have given everything. We should encourage our young people to participate in life using the ideals learned through Olympism as a model. Whether in sports, music, academics we should instill the lesson that if you participate you win.

2015-11-08T07:39:22-06:00February 14th, 2008|Sports History, Sports Studies and Sports Psychology|Comments Off on Editorial Comment – Reach out for “Olympism”