Coubertin’s Influence on Education, Sports, and Physical Education

Authors: Edward Burgo

Corresponding Author: Edward Burgo

Edward C. Burgo, Jr.
1900 Seacrest Drive
Gautier, MS 39553
(228) 324-0439

In the final year of his doctoral coursework at the United States Sports Academy (USSA), Edward currently works as a counselor at Pascagoula High School in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Having run and coached the Nicholls State University cross country team, he has enjoyed working with adolescents in athletics and academics for the past 42 years. In sports, amateurism has always interested Edward; so the connection to Olympism turned into an obvious course of study making his choice to attend USSA a great decision. Son to Edward Senior and Janice Burgo, Edward was the oldest of five children and contributes his drive and passion to his parents, and gives great credit to them for encouragement to continue on the path of education. Special thanks given to Edward Douglas White Catholic High School for the education that has led to Edward’s success.

Coubertin’s Influence on Education, Sports, and Physical Education

Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, traveled to England and the United States with the hope of changing the educational system in France. His first-hand observance of the effect that sport had on education helped to create his educational philosophy. In his efforts to create an environment of learning for students that would bring a moral and healthy life to the classroom, he changed the world. With Coubertin’s vision and drive, he was able to create an event that incorporated education, art, and a moral character in the design. The growth of the Olympic Games has touched many nations leaving a legacy in host cities that will remind people for generations of the peaceful message the event brings.

Key Terms: Balance, Combat, Harmony, Morals, Overwork, Recreation, Skills, Strength, Values

The influence that Pierre de Coubertin had on the development and change on education, sports and physical education can be seen around the world since his introduction of Olympism. His philosophy of the Olympic movement has been embraced by many implementing social change. Building character in people with the goal to make the community stronger should be the desire of the educational system. Coubertin recognized the importance of building character. Developing the spirit of fair play and justice is a battle in every society; however, Olympism can be used as a guide that changes the attitude of the people and builds harmony (2).

Coubertin’s exposure to sport as a child contributed to the balance he experienced in education. Even though he felt pressured through family obligation to study law, he enjoyed the area of political science where social values were taught. In his studies, Coubertin embraced the works of Hippolyte Taine. Included in Taine’s writings were educational concerns that closely aligned with Coubertin’s developing beliefs. Armed with Taine’s descriptions of the English students’ education, Coubertin was encouraged to visit England to research and compare educational systems. He felt that the French system overworked students feeding them knowledge with the goal of receiving a diploma; however, students were left with a void of moral values that could contribute to a better society and happier life (2).

Coubertin’s Travel to England and the U.S.
In 1883, Coubertin traveled to England where he verified many of his beliefs. Sport was woven into the education system. Competition within the sport created an opportunity for students to develop personal style in the growth and learning process. Coubertin was able to see first-hand the impact that sports and physical education have on a society. During his visits to English Schools, Coubertin gathered the knowledge he needed from public schools, private schools and universities. One of the biggest problems facing Coubertin was convincing the French people to use lessons learned from the English education system. Coubertin believed that the situation was greater than overwork causing physical weakness, intellectual dullness and moral collapse. In building an educational system that included sport, one of the problems faced was the lack of space, student knowledge and interest. Addressing the problem of space and interest, a committee was formed with the goal to develop parks and make sports popular. Inducements, competitions and prizes were established to overcome the resistance given by the students. Coubertin had three expectations as a result of educational reform. First, sport would create a balance between body and mind establishing a complete body of work to include good health and youthfulness. Second, sport would eliminate temptations while building good moral character. Third, sport would create active and determined citizens who love God, country, and freedom (2).

Disappointing Educational Systems in Universities
In 1889, Coubertin was sent to the United States and Canada to examine the educational systems. He visited Universities with high hopes; however, he found disorganization at times and felt that secondary schools worked to prepare students for the college entrance exam. Coubertin found some new schools that were developing their system based on Arnold’s teachings that stressed sport and physical education. In the south, he found discriminatory laws that he found disturbing and felt that culture should have brought men closer together not divided them. In the northeast, Coubertin found that educational leaders adopted many ideas from England and Germany; however, the influence of Arnold was strong. The observations Coubertin made ranged from sport in the university to student government and the background of the students in attendance. In Coubertin’s opinion, a scientific and authoritarian character developed in American physical education that the French should avoid. He contributed this problem with the influence of the German education model, which he considered temporary, because new schools were adopting the philosophy of Thomas Arnold. Coubertin admired Arnold’s work and philosophy of physical education in the English schools and felt the model was stronger, producing better citizens. The development of athletic associations with a wide variety of sports both indoor and out left an impression on Coubertin; however, he felt that goal would not be obtainable for the French due to climate. Coubertin noticed that athletes had facilities to shower after working out and noted that this process would be beneficial for the French in addressing hygiene. In concluding his research in the United States and Canada, Coubertin urged the French government to move forward with educational reform and ignore the inaccurate claims of high expense and weak system as an excuse to stop change (2).

Psychology of Sport
Karnspan (5) discussed the influence that Pierre de Coubertin had on sport psychology. Essays published in 1913 had a major effect in the development of the subject matter. In addition, Coubertin influenced the organization of the International Congress of Psychology and Physiology of Sports held in 1913 (5). While traveling in the United States, Coubertin had the honor of attending the National Physical Education conference of 1889 accompanied by leading physical educators in the United States where he was allowed to lecture about the English system of sport (5).

Impressed by his research, the French government urged Coubertin to take an active role in the creation of an international sport association. In 1894, Coubertin organized an athletic congress with worldwide attendance. During the athletics congress, Coubertin proposed the modern Olympic Games with a positive outcome of support (5). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed in 1896 with Coubertin as President. Within his many publications, Coubertin addressed the psychology of sport. Coubertin’s article “La psychologie du sport” points out that children are motivated to play sports by external influences of competition and crowd recognition; however, adults participate for more recreational incentives. Two types of sport are addressed in the article, balance and combat. Balance is described as the satisfaction of participation in a sport such as rowing. Other sports have a more combative nature requiring self-control because the nervous energy needed (5). Will power and fatigue are internal factors that affect the goals of the athlete in reaching the highest levels. Coubertin points out that improvement of performance in sport is affected by various elements. Strength, balance and skill are three physical elements that can be improved; however, mental properties are extremely important and can be developed as well (5).

In developing the International Olympic Committee, Coubertin believed that the Olympics and the committee should have an educational purpose while governing the sport; therefore, the principle and scholastic aspects of sport were studied. Olympic Congresses were formed to study topics of cleanliness, indoctrination, physical education, literature, art, morphology and psychology (5). The congresses held in 1897 and 1913 concentrated on the psychology of sport emphasizing mental and philosophical aspects of Olympism. A main topic of debate was youth sports and the moral effect of exercise. An additional topic discussed was the development of character due to the effort applied in exercise. In a study of schools that implemented an Olympic Education, Sukys and Majauskiene (6) discovered that students scored high on human and social values with a strong pursuit of excellence and prosocial behavior.

The psychological aspects of sport were very important to Coubertin because he felt that the medical profession did not place a significant amount of time and effort on the subject. With a psychological focus, Coubertin developed the new field of sports psychology at the Lausanne Congress (5). In preparation for the event, Coubertin wrote several essays addressing the subject matter. His contribution to the origin and development of sports psychology started with the organization of the 1913 Lausanne Congress. The issues presented opened the door to further studies and research in that field of study. After World War I, the Association International Medico-Sportive (AIMS) and the International Bureau of Sport Pedagogy were formed to focus on the influence of sport on the mind and emotions. (5).

Ethics and Fair Play, IFPC
Due to the external pressures of the world on sport in 1963, the International Fair play Committee (IFPC) was formed. One of the awards created by their organization was named after Pierre de Coubertin. The award goes to the athlete that impedes their performance to aid another athlete in the name of good sportsmanship. The values of the committee are in line with Coubertin’s values and beliefs to establish a sporting spirit producing good moral values while competing fairly. Coubertin had predicted that sport would face external forces and pressure. Indeed, Coubertin’s prediction came true. Disloyalty and violence in the world brought in political and commercial exploitation of the games. The increasing pressure to win at all costs uncovered the need for an additional organization to promote the values that Coubertin intended when Olympism began. Initially, the IOC refused to take part in the promotion of the organization because they viewed the IFPC as a competitor. The display demonstrates the corruption in sports at the time. The IFPC had an affiliation with UNESCO who was a competing organization with ties to the United Nations. Many topics that UNESCO favored worked parallel to the values of the IOC addressing amateurism, nationalism, performance enhancing drug use and international aid. The IOC was determined to maintain complete control of world sport and sued the IFPC to remove Coubertin’s name from their trophy. Geopolitical issues in sport continued to pressure the IOC with power struggles from within at the National Olympic Committee (NOC) level. In 1972, there was a change in leadership of the IOC and relations between UNESCO and the IOC became normalized. Once the politics were removed from the situation, the three organizations were able to push forward on the vision of Coubertin. As the IOC wanted to reach out to more countries throughout the world, IFPC became a great partner encouraging NOCs to create local IFPCs (3). Bringing the IFPC into the fold allowed the IOC to use fair play as an Olympic goal. This movement allowed the IOC to move forward to the first Youth Olympic Games in Singapore 2010 promoting Olympic Education and sports ethics.

Spreading to China
A great victory for the IOC came when they took a chance to award China an opportunity to host the Olympic Games. Coubertin’s vision expanding into a communist country brought China onto the world stage. This move was risky because China loved the opportunity to promote their brand of communism to the world. The IOC was able to negotiate a commitment by China to implement an Olympic education program required by the Olympic charter. Implementation of the program by China turned out to be the largest ever seen. The Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) implemented policies approved by the high-level officials and still adhered to the Olympic values set forth by Coubertin.

The agreement clearly stated that sports were to be handled separately from politics; however, the IOC did not put a tremendous amount of pressure on China to keep political content out of the educational material. China seemed to make a valiant effort to meet the criteria; however, some of the values that the Suzki education supported did not match up with the Olympic education. The moral stance was very similar; however there were two key differences. First was the difference between individualism and collectivism. Secondly, there was a difference between heroes and political system as a hero. The main accomplishment was achieved by taking the politics out of the games with a country that had some major political issues at the time (1).

The Olympics
Politics has found a way to use the Olympic Games on several occasions; however, the IOC was able to take advantage of awarding certain cities the opportunity to host the games (4). In 1936, Coubertin looked at the 1936 Olympic Games as a huge success and confirmation of the Olympic values keeping politics out of the games. On the other hand, the NAZIs were able to manipulate the IOC into awarding them the games by using agents within the IOC to sway the decision. Similar situations were in place when the 1968 games were awarded to Mexico with a questionable government in place. In 2008, a massive antigovernment protest took place with the Mexican government killing 300 protestors. The Moscow games in 1980 were awarded because the Soviet Union threatened to leave the games in 1974. The 1988 Olympics were awarded to Seoul even after the government crushed a citizen uprising (4).

On one hand, the countries benefited from the IOC awarding the games giving the impression of condoning the actions that countries have used. On the other hand, the IOC and Olympic values have the opportunity to spread throughout an oppressed country. The later seems to carry a significant amount of weight. The difficulty in facing the fact that human rights have been violated and policing the country in violation becomes a daunting task.
Countries have used the Olympics to make political statements as in the 1972 Munich games, the 1980 Moscow boycott, and the 1984 Los Angeles boycott. The leverage that the IOC has is minimal; and with the huge amount of money at stake for hosting the games, advertisers cannot be disappointed. There were complaints about the corruption in the IOC. Bribery accusations with bid rigging have led to investigations.

In conclusion, Pierre de Coubertin had a great effect on the development of education, sports and physical education. His research to create change in France and ultimately the world was a feat that many men would have failed to accomplish. There are still hurdles that must be overcome in an ever-changing world that seems to face corruption at every turn. As people embrace and implement the theory of Olympism, battles can be won on the way to unifying a divided society.

1. Brownell, S. (2009). Beijing’s Olympic education programme: Re-thinking suzhi education, re-imagining an international china. The China Quarterly, 197, 44-63. doi:
2. de Coubertin, P (1863-1937) 2000 Olympism Selected Writings Lausanne The Olympic Committee
3. Grosset, Y., & Attali, M. (2011). The international institutionalization of sport ethics. Society, 48(6), 517-525. doi: 9488-6
4. Hoberman, J. (2008). THE OLYMPICS. Foreign Policy, (167), 22-24,26,28. Retrieved from
5. Kornspan, A. S. (2007). The early years of sport psychology: The work and influence of Pierre de Coubertin. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30(1), 77- 93. Retrieved from
6. Sukys, S., & Majauskiene, D. (2014). Effects of an Integrated Olympic Education Program on Adolescent Athletes’ Values and Sport Behavior. Social Behavior and Personality, 42(5), 811-821. Retrieved from

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