Sport in Turkey in the Pre-Islamic Period

This paper is a descriptive historical analysis of sport in Turkey from the earliest available records to the present. The development of sport in Turkey may be thought of as occurring in three periods: the pre-Islamic, the Islamic, and post-Islamic Republican periods. Evidence from the pre-Islamic period suggests that Turkey’s athletic culture was immensely rich, with games and related physical activities having an essential role and in many respects providing a way of life. In an environment in which the strongest and fittest were likeliest to survive, martial forms of games and physical activities were widely practiced by men and women, for instance archery, horsemanship, wrestling, and cirit (a javelin chase also known as jerid or jereed). In the relatively relaxed social climate of the pre-Islamic period, Turkish people were free to pursue these activities and express themselves through athletic culture.

Sport in Turkey in the Pre-Islamic Period

Athletic culture in Turkey during the pre-Islamic period involved at least three main outlets for physical competition: archery, cirit, and wrestling. Ample evidence exists that archery was among the most common sports in the pre-Islamic Turkish culture, practiced and performed by rich and poor alike. Survival, after all, depended heavily on skilled marksmanship. Marksmanship also made for ready entertainment, and the best archers were honored and rewarded. According to Celebi (1987), Turks were like other Central Asian peoples in their use of  short bows rather than the Western Europeans’ favored longbow. Lewis (1971) attributes the difference to the fact that, while Europe’s medieval archers traveled on foot, the Turks formed light cavalries, which, being on horseback, would have found the longbow unwieldy (p. 203). Turks’ bows and arrows were made of metal, bone, or wood; the material reflected the archer’s status in society (Celebi, 1987). Technical perfection was expected in making both arrow and bow, and the weapons were subjected to thorough testing before use (Celebi, 1987). Arrows were invested with certain symbolic powers in addition to their use as weapons. For example, a young Turkish man about to marry would shoot up an arrow to learn where his marriage tent should be placed (i.e., at the point where the arrow returned to earth) (Lewis, 1978).

Women in pre-Islamic Turkish culture enjoyed extensive freedoms; they did not “sit quietly in their tents all the time” (Adivar, 1930). Shoulder to shoulder with men, they hunted and fought. And they competed with men in archery contests. The pre-Islamic Turkish epic Book of Dede Korkut (translated by Geoffrey Lewis) recounts how Lady Burla, a Khakan’s wife, helped rescue her son from an enemy by using arrow and sword herself to dispatch the threat (Lewis, 1978). The pages of the Dede Korkut also make clear the popularity of wrestling among pre-Islamic Turks. Athletes and others approached the sport with respect; it was honored by heroes and heroines and it figured in many aspects of life (see the offset quotation from Dede Korkut, below, describing the prenuptial wrestling match between Prince Beyrek and his intended’s housekeeper). Finally, the sport of cirit (or jerid or jereed), a horseback javelin chase, was very popular among the nomadic Turks. Their diet consisting largely of game, they were dependent on hunting. The cirit javelin, made of wood or metal, was designed to kill large animals; during war it could also be used for close fighting. To use the javelin well required a strong arm and a practiced skill (Celebi, 1987). Using it in a game was very dangerous, involving speeding horses and attempts both to hit an opponent with the javelin and catch thrown javelins. Cirit was one of the culture’s most dangerous pursuits, and it was not uncommon for players to die on the field.

Turkish sport during the Islamic period was influenced significantly by the cultural habits and moral codes of Islam practiced in the Middle East (Arabia and Persia). These allowed only men to pursue certain athletic leisure activities, and in general in this period, athletic pursuits–sports–became a privilege of the rich and politically powerful. Again, archery, riding, wrestling, and cirit were the most popular events. It is during this period that athletics began to be institutionalized; a few primitive sports clubs became established. In the 19th century, European diplomats were largely responsible for introducing modern competitive sports to Turkey. The progress of sport in Turkey in the modern era has been problematic, influenced by national political, economic, and social challenges. This is, however, typical of developing countries. There has been very little scholarly research aimed at identifying problems in the development of sports in Turkey. Minimal data about lifelong physical fitness for the masses (i.e., “sport for all” programs) has been established. This article will focus on understanding whether Middle Eastern culture has worked to impede the development of Turkish sports culture by, for example, preventing Turkish women from participating in the activities of athletics and sports.

For thousands of years, games and various types of athletic activities have been significant in the lives of the Turkish people (a people originating in Central Asia). In ancient times Turkish boys were not granted their public names until they had distinguished themselves in athletics. Indeed, during the pre-Islamic era, certain athletic activities were considered expressions of the Turkish religion, art, or love. In the oldest inscriptions on Turkish monuments in Outer Mongolia and Siberia (dating to roughly the eighth century B.C.), athletic skills are described as “first-rate” (Lewis, 1978); the gender of the athlete matters not. Exemplifying Turkey’s continuous tradition of sports, the annual Kirkpinar wrestling tournament in Edirne is 650 years old, predating tennis at Wimbledon by approximately 500 years. Turkish wrestlers’ many successes in the modern Olympic Games (until the 1968 Mexico City Games) were no coincidence, but were instead the extension of Turkey’s history and culture. Another example of centuries-old Turkish sporting tradition are the cirit festivals in Erzurum.

A number of literary works suggest the rich heritage of sports in Turkey. The Book of Dede Korkut, for instance, tells a story giving insight into the role of athletics in Turkish cultural background. The story concerns a Turkish girl who is a housekeeper for a popular Turkish princess, Chichek. A prince attracted to the princess must contend with the princess’s housekeeper to win an opportunity to meet the princess. The housekeeper presents him a challenge, as Lewis (1987) translates it:

Where are you from, young man? From the inner Oghuz, said Beyrek (the prince) . . . . I am he they call Bamsi Beyrek, son of Prince Bay Bure. And what is your business here? I am told, replied Beyrek, that Prince Bay Bican has a daughter, and I have come to see her. The lady Chichek is not the sort of person to show herself to you, said she, but I am her serving-woman. Come let us ride out together. We shall shoot our bows and race our horses and wrestle. If you beat me in these three, you will beat her, too. To horse! They both mounted and rode out. They spurred their horses and Beyrek’s horse passed the girl’s. They shot their bows and Beyrek’s arrow split the girl’s arrow. She said, well, young man, nobody has ever passed my horse or split my arrow. Come now, let us wrestle. At once they dismounted and grappled; they stood as wrestlers do and grasped each other. Beyrek picked the girl up and tried to throw her, and then she picked him up and tried to throw him. Beyrek was astonished and said, If I am beaten, I will be humiliated . . . . He made a supreme effort, grappled with the girl and seized her breast  . . . and threw her on her back.

The story illustrates how much a part of the lives of Turkish people athletics have been. And yet, despite centuries of pursuit of a range of games and athletic pastimes, the sporting legacy of this society has remained basically unwritten. Kurthan Fisek attempted to make up the omission in his 1962 book in Turkish, Devlet Politikas Ve Toplumsal Yapyla IIiskileri Acsndan Spor Yonetimi: Dunyada-Turkiye’de [The Administration of Sport in Turkey and in the World]. Fisek’s work provides an overview and historical analysis of the development and institutionalization of sports organizations and their management, both in Turkey and worldwide. It is the first and only academic book on Turkish sporting culture. While much is written about sports in Turkey, aside from Fisek’s canonical text, most of it emanates from sports journalism, and most of that is essentially pabulum, consisting of scores and attributions by athletes and coaches relating to individual or team achievements and quests for championships. Fisek’s book emphasizes mainly the emergence of sport and its transition from an individual level to the organized, institutional level.

When reading outside of Fisek, readers on sports tend to be fed a diet of traditional slogans, clichés, and ritualized trivia. Most texts on Turkish sports do not acquaint readers with, or encourage awareness of, larger social issues or the consequences of modern and indigenous sport forms: the ideological underpinnings, power relations, and social, economic, and cultural costs they entail. Many pertinent aspects remain ill-defined, if they are mentioned at all. An unsophisticated, escapist attitude tends to control sports; substantive studies in sport have been very much neglected in Turkey, only recently attracting the interest of a few researchers. It is a neglect that diminishes the traditionally rich sport culture of Turkish society. Study of the culturally significant roles the Turkish people ascribe to athletic activities helps document the nation’s values, spirit, and mentalities, in addition to its times, just as do studies of other cultural enterprises. Turkish academics have yet to adequately examine the significance of various cultural constructs regarding the body as a functioning organism and its influence on personality or character. Too little scrutiny has been focused on the human body’s capacity to serve as an icon communicating present and past social customs and social roles.

On the other hand, too much attention is paid to journalistic evaluations of medal counts in competitive sports, notably the Olympics and world championships. Until recently, journalists have generally reported only the failures and weaknesses of Turkish sports. Turkish wrestling, which led the world until the 1968 Olympic Games, and Turkish soccer, which has rarely been competitive with Europe, are especially criticized. The outcomes of competitions may be newsworthy, but basic inquiry into why these particular outcomes is rarely made. Hence, the traditionally important indigenous games and athletic activities (cirit, archery, wrestling) and their role in the historical development of Turkey have rarely been investigated.

As in nearly all the other developing countries, sports in Turkey in its institutionalized form is not maintaining itself competitively. Despite having a strong sport background, Turkey is ineffective, compared to advanced, primarily Western countries, in international competition, especially in the Olympic Games and world championships. In these arenas, advanced technology and science play a crucial role. As a distance runner for the Turkish national team, I have personally experienced the reality of Turkey’s technological handicap. In major international races I competed in between 1975 and 1982, my Western opponents wore technologically superior running shoes, while I ran in flat-soled shoes. I could afford neither the shoes nor the spikes that were attached to them.

Several factors are negative influences on the advancement of sports in developing nations like Turkey. A number of authors (William Baker, John Andrews, Donald Calhoun, Don Anthony) have linked the problems of third world sports directly to poverty. In order to understand the system of sports within a given society, it is essential to examine predisposing elements and how they interact with the development of sports. Whatever pattern of development exists in a nation, it is important to point out that the system of sports is a product of the society. However, it is highly conceivable that certain factors within a given country might have more influence on the system of sports than others at any given time. For instance, although Turkey has never been colonized, its problems can resemble those of formerly colonized developing countries.

Finally, on a global scale, problems in sports grow from various historical, cultural, religious, political, socioeconomic, and ecological issues that cannot be considered mutually exclusive but must be evaluated as they relate to one another. Sports discussed in Turkey today are those in which Turkish athletes compete internationally and those that are played professionally, such as soccer and basketball. Traditionally important indigenous activities like cirit, archery, wrestling, and polo have rarely been researched or included in journalists’ reports. It is the purpose of this article, therefore, to articulate sports’ development in Turkish society and to identify problems in sports affecting its development over time. It is also the purpose of this study to elaborate on what sports means in Turkey, identifying some of the structures formed by the society for the carrying out of competitive sports and athletic culture. Finally, some of contemporary Turkey’s major problems in the realm of sports will be examined.

Games and other forms of athletic culture have been pastimes of Turks for thousands of years. From a handful of written materials we have learned that the early Turks celebrated success–whether of the hunt, the fight, or pertaining to religion–by dancing and convening games and other physical contests. Ancient inscriptions in Outer Mongolia and Siberia allude to the Turks’ pre-Islamic-era organized religious festivals involving dancing, games, and tests and demonstrations of strength and skill. Religious and civic commemorations and celebrations involving people of every class employed games and athletic activities. For example, weddings, khanship inaugurations, and military victories in the pre-Islamic era were the primary entertainments and were celebrated through sports and athletics (Lewis, 1971). Athletic activity, sports and sportsmanship, were thus related to spiritual beliefs, and they were also part of daily work and customs including the expression of art and love.

Athletic activities are also portrayed in ancient Turkish epics as well as in folk songs and Turkish miniature paintings. The Book of Dede Korkut, for example, with its origins in the period AD 1000-1300, is a famed Turkish epic much given to descriptions of certain games and athletic activities. To the men and women of Turkey this epic ascribes “first-rate” athletic skills, especially in horsemanship, archery, wrestling, polo, and cirit or javelin. These are today considered Turkey’s national sports.

The nomadic Turks of the pre-Islamic period were “patriotic,” brave, practical, and physically active. From the beginning of their history they lived in a world in which wars were virtually constant. This social environment, along with a harsh natural environment, meant that the weak and the old were left to die. As a result, Turks developed athletic skills to help them survive. As in most other ancient societies, athletic activities had military and political dimensions. Several historians have indicated that pre-Islamic Turks were “fit, intrepid hunters, expert horsemen and brave warriors” (Lewis, 1974). Every Turkish man was considered a soldier for life, and a significant amount of attention was paid to military skills. History shows that these characteristics made the Turks far superior, militarily,  to their settled, relatively sedentary neighbors. Quite naturally, then, in the pre-Islamic period martial sports and activities like archery, horsemanship, wrestling, and cirit were more important than other sports. A primary reason for advocating discipline and promoting strength and martial skill was the Khakans’ belief that, for boys, challenging sports and games enhanced not just physical but moral, ethical, and patriotic well-being, as is suggested in the Book of Dede Korkut. Khakans believed that sports instilled courage and loyalty to a boy’s community and to the leader of his nation. As Lewis (1978), explained,

[B]oys were routinely taken for rigorous physical and military training. . . . In about one year in training camps the boys were expert warriors in running, slinging, shooting the bow and throwing [the] javelins . . . and riding . . . After gaining some skill in these activities, the boys were allowed to participate in the hunt, enduring the extremes of heat and cold, to make forced marches day after day, to cross streams without wetting their weapons, to eat very little food, perhaps one meal in two days, to support themselves by foraging, and to stalk and kill the wild animals, such as the lion, the leopard, the wild boar, and the antelope. . . . When not on the hunt the boys continued the regular training in archery, riding, and athletic sports. (pp. 156)

The heroic code ordained that “the boys were not granted their public names until they accomplished something heroically (including athletics)” (Lewis, 1978, p. 156).

Like other nomadic societies (e.g., Tartars, Kazaks, Mongols, Kirghizes), the Turks were “devoted to the cult of horse and were born horsemen” (Celebi, 1987). Gurun (1981) went so far as to credit the Turks with the domestication of the horse. Turkish men indeed could not imagine life without their horses. As the legendary phrase has it, a Turk is born in a hut and dies on horseback on the prairie.  One Turkish soldier left the following message in a cave: “I will die /  If my horse dies / I will survive / If my horse survives” (Celebi,1987).

Turks of the pre-Islamic period saw leisure as an invaluable gift from God to their people. Turks’ fondness for athletic activities and games shaped their culture and made these an important feature of daily life. The ancient Turks of Central Asia recognized play as a primary impulse in both human beings and Tengeri, their sky god. According to their belief, the kainat (universe) was the “play arena of divinity . . . Mother Earth [w]as the play yard of human beings” (And, 1987). Religious forms of dance had an especially revered role in this context. A small, 15th-century Turkish manuscript describes the relationship between the shaman and dance, which involves symbolic explanation of the origins of music and dance. The anonymous author writes that it was during the creation of the world that dance had its spiritual birth, explaining that, “When God created the Universe, divine energy resounded and from that sound arose the tonalities of music, and this gave birth to several forms of dance” (And, 1987). Dance, of course, was accompanied by music, including song. The manuscript’s author goes on to link the movement of the physical body in dance to the spiritual experience of the dance, in such a way that, according to And, “the whole cosmos is a dancing mystery.” A thousand years later, scholars began examining apparent affinities between the shamanistic philosophy reflected in the ancient manuscript and later Islamic mysticism, especially the Sufi dancing recognized as symbolizing the cosmos (And, 1987).

Turkish folk tradition links dancing and lore, and this had an influential role in the development of Turkish athletic culture. To this day, Turkish people entertain and enlighten themselves and others with dances dramatizing their folktales and folk songs. In ancient Turkey, dance was among the most common entertainments, and the men and women who danced were highly skilled performers. Dances performed differed to a degree from region to region. The most popular dances were those that had been influenced by military life. Lewis (1971) calls these dances “mimed battles of fierce exploits, always intense and energetic, with or without weapons, increasing in speed and excitement and often ending with a leap over the flames.” Dancers’ movements might also mimic animal behavior or other natural phenomena. Lewis (1971) observed the following :

The courtship of cranes, birds sacred to the ancient Turks; an eagle approaching its prey; an encounter between a dignified lion and a ferocious hyena; a clownish camel, danced by two men in the animal’s skin. Some of the dances were mimics or imitations of natural features, like flowing water or swaying poplar trees; others mimed daily acts of home and village life, like bread making, weaving or hair washing; these were interspersed with a promenading dance among the audience and always ended with a lively dance of thanksgiving.


Adivar, H. E. (1930). Turkey faces west: A Turkish view of recent changes and their origin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

And, M. (1987). Culture, performance and communication in Turkey. Performance in Culture, 4. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.

Andrews, J. C. (1982). Problems of physical education in the third world. FIEP Bulletin, 52(1), p. 7.

Andrews, J. C. (1985). Physical education, sport and recreation in developing countries. FIEP Bulletin, 55(1), pp. 5-15.

Baker, B. G. (1913). The Passing of the Turkish Empire in Europe. London: Seeley, Service.

Baker, J. (1877). Turkey. New York: Holt.

Calhoun, D. B. (1986). Sport culture and personality (pp. 157-161). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Celebi, Evliya. (1987). Evliya Celebi Seyahatnamesi. Ankara: Ucdal Nesriyat.

Fisek, K. (1963). Devlet politikasi ve toplumsal yapiyla iliskileri acisindan; Spor yonetimi-dunyada ve Turkiyede. Andara, Turkey: ‘Siyasal Bilgiler Facultesi.

Gurun, K. (1981). Turkler ve Turk devletleri. Birinci Cilt.: I, II, III. Istanbul: Karacan Yayinlari.

Lewis, G. (1974). Modern Turkey. New York: Praeger.

Lewis, G. L. (1978). The Book of Dede Korkut. New York: Praeger.

Lewis, R. (1971). Everyday life in Ottoman Turkey. London: Batsford.

Author Note

Ergun Yurdadon,Department of Recreation Management, United States Sports Academy.

2013-11-26T20:50:26-06:00February 22nd, 2008|Sports History|Comments Off on Sport in Turkey in the Pre-Islamic Period

Special Edition: Refuting IOC’s Plan to End Modern Pentathlon Competition

The recent decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to drop the modern pentathlon from the Olympic Games has prompted Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, president of the United States Sports Academy, and the editors of The Sport Journal to publish a special edition bringing attention to this grave matter. We join the call that has gone out from various quarters to retain the modern pentathlon. It is a vital component of the Olympic Games and an important historic tradition. The special edition features the opinions of several IOC members, reproduced from four sources.

The first source is an abridged version of a letter from Klaus Schormann, president of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), to IOC President Jacques Rogge:

Monaco, 5 November 2002

According to our discussion during our last meeting in Lausanne [Switzerland], the UIPM is sending a summary of its arguments and response to the Program Commission report which it feels appropriate to be considered for the sport of modern pentathlon to remain in the Olympic program. These arguments, which cover a larger spectrum than those developed by the Program Commission, should be given to the IOC executive board prior to their last meeting in November, and to the IOC members in case the matter would be voted during the session in Mexico.

I. Answer to the arguments of the Program Commission

Lack of global participation by nations and individual athletes
Ninety-four nations from five continents are now affiliated with the UIPM (more are coming, as they are in establishment procedure), while the Olympic Charter requires 75 nations in four continents. The sport meets the criteria of the Olympic Charter. We want to remind that Pierre de Coubertin founded the sport in 1912 from scratch, on the model of the ancient pentathlon, the symbolic and complete sport of the Ancient Games, which means that this sport has never stopped growing since its creation.

—Significant expense of practicing the sport, with resulting difficulties in major development
Modern pentathlon is not more significantly expensive than most of the other Olympic sports or than those willing to enter the Olympic program. The change of its format to the one-day in 1992 and the new shooting system (air pistols instead of guns) have reduced the costs for organizing and training. Facilities already used by other sports are also for modern pentathlon, inside and outside of Olympic Games, for competing, training, and studying. The new compactness of venues in many cities gives new possibilities for modern pentathlon. The reduction of the costs for sport equipment (including horse riding) brings new possibilities. It is to be noted that pentathletes do not need to have a horse of their own, are not charged for that in competitions, and that the use of local horses does not require any guarantee.

—High operational complexity
Experience with organization of UIPM events on all continents and in the previous Olympic Games shows that all organizers were able easily to offer facilities for the five disciplines of modern pentathlon (shooting, fencing, swimming, riding, running) within walking distance. It is to be noted that no specific venue is required for the modern pentathlon, and that UIPM has developed a policy of polyvalent international technical officials. Modern pentathlon helps to a more efficient use of venues used at Games time. The official report of the XXVII Olympiad made by SOCOG makes a clear statement on this.

Relatively low broadcast and press coverage
The relatively low broadcast stated by the Program Commission does not fit the statistics established by the UIPM, which can easily be checked. . . . All major UIPM events on all five continents were covered by international TV during the last seven years. Due to its TV coverage, the UIPM has developed a successful marketing program . . . which is in very good standing in comparison with other Olympic sports.

II. Arguments which should be taken into consideration by the IOC to keep modern pentathlon in the Olympic program

Modern pentathlon is the only sport that has ever been created in its entirety by Pierre de Coubertin and the IOC, as the Ancient sports were created by the Ancient Greeks, and therefore [has] a symbolic value within the Olympic Games.
It was especially designed on the model of the ancient pentathlon in order to show all possible skills developed, through five sport events, in one single athlete, and not for a massive number of participants. It is important for the sake of the Olympic tradition.

—Modern pentathlon, from the skills it develops, has an educational value.
[It is] a complete sport: On the physical side, swimming, running are the basic disciplines; on the mental side, shooting requires stress control and a precise technique; on the intellectual side, fencing requires adaptability and intelligence; riding an unknown horse requires a mix of adaptability, self-control, and courage.

—Modern pentathlon has an entertainment function at the Olympic Games.
Since the Atlanta Olympic Games and the introduction of the one-day format, the interest of spectators at Games time has grown dramatically, which can be easily shown by statistics on the number of spectators at the Sydney Games (full venue and 15,000 spectators per session) and by an independent survey published in the Olympic Review.

An Olympic sport with reasonable number of athletes and with a high representation of NOCs.
Only 32 women and 32 men, a total of 64 athletes (in fact around 0.5% of the total athletes number), competing for only two days (six medals), which means that modern pentathlon, as one of the 28 sports of the Olympic program, has a very limited impact on the overall number of athletes in the Games. Remarks: The average number of athletes for the other sports is (10500 – 64) /27 = 386/ At the same time, modern pentathlon gives to many NOCs the possibility to take part in the Olympic Games. In Sydney 48 pentathletes competed while 24 NOCs were represented. This means 50% of the quota was dedicated to NOCs’ representation, which is the highest value of all Olympic sports.

A drug-free sport.
Since the one-day format has been created and due to the permanent efforts of the UIPM, modern pentathlon has become a drug-free sport. The one-day format has discouraged prohibited behaviors, as there is no interest in using drugs for shooting when fencing comes right after it. Anabolic substances are not useful in a sport that does not place the success of the winner only on his physical skills, but in his overall physical and intellectual harmony.

—UIPM, a flexible organization.
In addition to the changes in the modern pentathlon’s format, the UIPM has created an ad hoc commission looking at the optimal evolution of the sport for the future. The purpose is to keep to symbolic construction of modern pentathlon in placing its complete skills first, but looking, at the same time, at its events in order to fit with the evolution of sport practice in general. This commission already collaborates with the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee and intends to do the same with the other international federations and the IOC.

—Modern pentathlon is a symbolic sport for the Olympic Movement.
Modern pentathlon is a true representation of the Olympic Movement. The five Olympic rings are reflected in modern pentathlon’s five events and participation from all five continents. It is a true sport of the Olympic Games, created by the founder of the Modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, and reflecting the ideals embodied by the Olympic Movement. It has to remain an indefatigable part of it.

The concept and the philosophy of the pentathlon are 2,710 years old, as described by Aristotle: “The most perfect sportsmen are the pentathletes, because in their bodies strength and speed are combined in beautiful harmony.” Created by the Greeks and renovated by the founder of the [Modern] Games, it shows the symbolic complete athlete in his body, will, and mind as stated and described in Fundamental Principle 2 of the Olympic Charter. Let’s keep this part of the soul of the Olympics, let’s keep it on the field of play, let’s see it on the stadium, and not only in the Olympic Museum in the future!

Table 1

The 28 Sports of the Olympic Program, Participating NOCs, and Disqualification Quotas

  Total Participating NOCs Total Disqualification Quotas Percentage
AcquaticsDiving 42 158 27%
AcquaticsSwimming 150 983 15%
AcquaticsSynchro Swim 24 104 23%
AcquaticsWater Polo 13 234   6%
Archery 46 128 36%
Athletics 194 2468 8%
Badminton 28 172 16%
Baseball 8 192 4%
Basketball 18 288 6%
Boxing 75 312 24%
CanoeSlalom 21 83 25%
CanoeSprint 43 265 16%
CyclingMountain Bike 33 80 41%
CyclingRoad 44 216 20%
CyclingTrack 38 190 20%
Equestrian 37 204 18%
Fencing 40 200 20%
Football 20 432 5%
GymnasticsArtistic 43 195 22%
GymnasticsRythmic 20 84 24%
Handball 19 329 6%
Hockey 15 352 4%
Judo 90 400 23%
Modern Pentathlon 24 48 50%
Rowing 51 549 9%
Sailing 69 404 17%
Shooting 103 411 25%
Softball 8 120 7%
Taekwondo 51 103 50%
Table Tennis 48 172 28%
Tennis 52 192 27%
Triathlon 34 100 34%
VolleyballBeach 23 96 24%
Volleyball 17 288 6%
Weightlifting 76 264 29%
Wrestling 55 319 17%

The second source reproduced in this special edition is HSH Prince Albert Monaco’s address to the IOC in Switzerland on behalf of the cause of the modern pentathlon:

HSH Prince Albert reaffirms Modern Pentathlon as soul of Olympic Movement, to be maintained for the sake of olympic tradition & values

I’m here not only because I am the honorary president of the UIPM, nor because Monaco is host to the headquarters of the UIPM. I’m here above all as an IOC member who is fearful that some very important part of the values and the philosophy of the Olympic Movement handed down to us by Baron Pierre de Coubertin might be lost forever if modem pentathlon should disappear from the program. The cultural dimension of this sport, its ancient roots and the educational value of its different components, are an important legacy for the IOC, for the Olympic Movement. This dimension is more important than the sport itself; the consequences of its demise larger than any one of us in this room.

Some people will argue that tradition and values are not the only elements that should guide us. If you look around you, watch TV, or read a newspaper article, you will find quite a few people saying the opposite: that a society has lost points of reference, that values have diminished. Why not continue to provide our youth with the kind of values and symbol that this sport possesses, and that they obviously are looking for? Why challenge a sport that celebrates and showcases the versatile, complete athlete? According to the latest figures from the Sydney Olympic Games, more people than ever seem interested in watching athletes test their abilities in combined events.

Is it right to deny the development of a sport that is growing in popularity and has sustained youth programs? There is a quotation from a young Cuban athlete in your brochure, “I want to compete in modem pentathlon at the Beijing Olympic Games.” Is it right to deny Jose Fernandez and his friends the opportunity to realize his dreams in an existing Olympic sport?

Having said all this, we are not stifled in tradition, we are not dinosaurs, we are willing to be open to change, if it is for the better.

The American philosopher and author Tom Wolfe once wrote, in his book The Search for Excellence,  “We must learn to accept change, as much as we hated to in the past.” I’m sure he meant changes in our society, changes in behavior, changes in economics, etc., not changes in our values.

The values of education and culture, and understanding through sport, are everlasting and something we in the Olympic Movement should hold sacred.

The third source reproduced in the special edition is a further communication written by Klaus Schormann, UIPM president:

I am just back in my home after a lot of traveling. . . . In Busan during the Asian Games (modern pentathlon was included, with the whole competition-program: individual women/men and relay women/men and team-medal. I could speak with a lot of IOC members, NOC presidents, and media people. As you can see [Table 2], my schedule for the next weeks is very busy; therefore, I think we should meet in Colorado Springs at the GAISF meeting (20 to 24.11.2002). I send you some documents about the “IOC Program Commission” and our actions now, for your information. UIPM needs from all institutions of international-sport-scene support: Public statements . . . for modern pentathlon are needed.

Table 2

UIPM President Klaus Schormann’s Schedule, September to December 2002

06. 08.09.2002 Biathle World Championships Cagliari ITA
09. 10.09. Executive Board UIPM Cagliari ITA
11.09. working-meeting NOC-Germany
– only Presidents –
Frankfurt/M GER
12.09. meeting DOG-Darmstadt Darmstadt GER
13.09. Freiburger Kreis SEMINAR
– Clubs / Federations –
statement DSB President M.v. RichtMofen
Darmstadt GER
14.09. meeting with business-people Stuttgart GER
18. 21.09. meetings in Beijing-BOCOG
– Olympic Games 2008
meetings with IOC Members
Beijing CHN
23. 30.09. Junior World Championships
and meetings with IOC Members
Sydney AUS
04.10. meeting with IOC President Rogge Lausanne SUI
08. 15.10. Asian Games in Busan
and meetings with IOC Members
Busan KOR
17.10. Council LSB Hessen
– Federations
Frankfurt/M GER
18. 20.10. 40th anniversary MP Bavaria
– Gala and competition –
Munich GER
24. 27.10. Pan American Championships
– Qualification Pan American Games 2003 –
Rio de Janeiro BRA
31.10. meeting in Rome WCH-2003-Pesaro Rome ITA
02. 03.11. General Assembly NOC Germany NUrnberg GER
08. 09.11. General Assembly MP-Germany/DVMF Darmstadt GER
15.11. 100th anniversary German Tennis Fedr Berlin Berlin GER
21. 24.11. GAISF General Assembly
ASOIF Extraordinary GS go 11 USA
Colorado Springs USA
26. 29.11. IOC-EB and Extraordinary Session Mexico-City MEX
04. 07.12. DSB-Congress and General Assembly Bonn GER
07. 15.12. EB-UIPM and General Assembly UIPM Cairo EGY

The fourth source reproduced in the special edition is an abridged version of a UIPM press release dated 8 October 2002:

UIPM Delegation Visits IOC Regarding the Olympic Program; HSH Prince Albert Reaffirms Modern Pentathlon as the Soul of the Olympic Movement, to be Maintained for the Sake of Olympic Tradition and Values; International Pierre De Coubertin Committee and DeCoubertin’s Family Call for Pentathlon’s Respect and Promotion

On 4 October, a UIPM delegation composed of President Klaus Schormann, Honorary President HSH Prince Albert of Monaco, First Vice President Juan Antonio Samaranch, and Secretary General Joel Bouzou was welcomed at the IOC headquarters by IOC President Jacques Rogge, accompanied by Sport Director Gilbert Felli and his new assistant, Olivier Lenglet.

The purpose of the meeting was to answer to the Program Commission’s recommendation to the IOC executive board and to present additional arguments to be considered by the IOC executive board before their final decision during their meeting in Mexico City, 26 and 27 November.

After the opening by IOC President Rogge, UIPM President Klaus Schormann referred to the letter sent to the IOC that answered the points raised by the technical report of the Program Commission. [As Schormann noted,] “We now have more than 95 countries in the five continents. . . . De Coubertin started the sport from scratch in 1912, and the media coverage of our events has dramatically increased since the adoption of the one-day format. Our sport is only using existing venues during the Games and therefore is not expensive, as stated in the report. Equally, compact venues in modern cities allow more and more pentathletes to practice the sport and combine it with studies.

President Schormann also mentioned the surveys made during the last Olympic Games by an independent observer, Prof. Dr. Mfiller from the research group of the Gutenberg University in Mainz, and by SOCOG, which both support the UIPM counter-arguments. Dr Rogge confirmed that he took into account the point made by President Schormann concerning the flexibility of UIPM in terms of the sports evolution.

UIPM Secretary General Bouzou recalled that modem pentathlon does not need any specific venue for the Games; that most modem cities have multisport complexes adapted to the organization of modem pentathlon; that nine modem pentathlon major competitions are seen on international TV in the five continents; that, as stated by SOCOG (in a post-Games report), “[T]he quality of competition and sports presentation, combined with the most comprehensive television coverage ever of modem pentathlon in Olympic Games history, ensured first-class viewing for live spectators and global television audiences.” He also acknowledged the fact that modem pentathlon is not, and will never be, practiced by millions of athletes throughout the world. However, it was never designed for this by the founder of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, but to be used as a living symbol of all values within a single sport. This was the reason why exceptional personalities like General Patton or Chevalier Raoul Mollet chose this sport in their respective athletic times.

UIPM Vice President Samaranch reminded that 15,000 spectators attended each of the two days of modem pentathlon at the Sydney Olympic Games, in sold-out venues, and that there are only 64 athletes competing in modem pentathlon, which represents only 0.5% of the overall number, and, therefore, that taking the sport out of the program would not affect the reality in terms of cost.

IOC President Rogge, following the presentation of all the arguments, informed the UIPM delegation that he would ensure they would all be duly reported on to the IOC executive board.

Professor Dr. Norbert Muller, president of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee, wrote a letter to the IOC president saying that he had been “informed with great regrets about the proposal of the program commission,” adding that, “this sport represents the real legacy of Pierre de Coubertin, which he elaborated personally when he wanted to showcase the Perfect Olympic Man or Woman.” [Muller] transmitted an appeal from the committee, saying, “[T]he personal legacy of Pierre de Coubertin should be respected and modem pentathlon permanently included.”

Mr. Geoffroy de Navacelle de Coubertin, the great-nephew of Pierre de Coubertin, also wrote to the IOC president, saying, “Let me tell you my astonishment and my emotion. I have always decided not to interfere with the IOC business. I am simply concerned in making sure that the achievements and the philosophy of Pierre de Coubertin will be respected. This sport is the most symbolic one in showing the perfect athlete. Should you not promote and support it in order to make it grow, instead of only promoting ‘specialists’ which media like so much?” De Coubertin had contacted Schormann . . . in order to create a permanent Pierre de Coubertin Commission within UIPM, that he would lead, the role of which will be to promote the philosophy of the founder “on the ground,” particularly through modem pentathlon events, in close cooperation with the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee, throughout the entire world. The Pierre de Coubertin Commission was established 1 October 2002, comprising the following members: de Coubertin, Schormann, Muller, Bouzou, and modern pentathlon Olympic champions Dr. Stephanie Cook [of Great Britain] and Janus Peciak [of Poland].

Author’s Note:

Correspondence regarding this articLEwhould go to:

Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM)
Tel. +377,9777 8555 Fax.+377 9777 8550
For more on Pentathlon, visit the website:
08.10.2002/ JB



2016-10-12T11:49:38-05:00February 15th, 2008|Contemporary Sports Issues, Sports History, Sports Management|Comments Off on Special Edition: Refuting IOC’s Plan to End Modern Pentathlon Competition

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).
Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to:


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?
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