As many people know, Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Games. Although his life’s work is globally known and recognised, the man himself is less so. Throughout his life, Pierre de Coubertin had an impact on the lives of those close to him. He would have been 144 years old today. Let’s look back at his life as a child, husband and father.
From child to young man
Charles Pierre Frédy was born on 1 January 1863 at 20, rue Oudinot, Paris. He was the fourth child of the musician Agathe Gigault and religious artist Charles Frédy. Coming from a noble, comfortable family with Italian roots, his childhood was split between the Mirville estate in Normandy and the big house in the rue Oudinot. As a child, his favourite playmate was his older sister, Marie de Coubertin. It was at this time that he discovered sport, which became an everlasting passion for him.
From 1875 to 1881, he attended the Sainte Ignace Jesuit private school, where he was taught history by Father Caron, inciting in him a passion for Antiquity and, in particular, the Olympic Games. Six years later, he earned Baccalauréats in the Arts and in Science. His parents wanted to enrol him in the prestigious St Cyr military academy, but he refused, preferring to take a university course in law and political science. In the 1880s, he developed a passion for travel, and made several trips around England, Ireland and the USA. During these trips, he discovered other education systems, which he studied in detail, working on what would eventually become the Olympic ideal. Pierre de Coubertin travelled the world throughout his life, both for research and for pleasure.
From husband to father
On 12 March 1895, he married Marie Rothan, the daughter of a rich family from Alsace. He found in her a companion with a strong character who was cultured and very affectionate. She supported him throughout his life’s work. Together they had two children: Jacques, born in 1896, and Renée, born in 1902. Pierre de Coubertin was very close to his children, and placed a lot of importance on their education, both intellectual and physical. Although Jacques and Renée had many health problems, which caused their parents a great deal of concern, they inherited their father’s passion for sport. Renée, in particular, spent whole days skiing in the Alps.
Pierre de Coubertin never let his work detract from his family life, with plenty of family outings and gatherings. He enjoyed picnics and walks with his wife and family in the summer. The Coubertins also stayed at the Rothans’ property in Lutterbach, where Pierre would spend hours on end talking to his mother-in-law, a cultured lady with whom he shared his findings and opinions. He also regularly saw his sister Marie and they maintained their strong sibling ties. His relationships with the women in his circle were very important to him.
In 1922, the Coubertins settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, which had been the IOC headquarters since 1915. After living several years in hotels, they moved in 1929 to a third- floor apartment in the Villa Mon-Repos, which the Lausanne authorities made available to them. In 1935, they moved to Geneva.
From old man to posterity
On 2 September 1937, in the Parc de la Grange in Geneva, while taking a “think-walk”, Pierre de Coubertin died from a heart attack. Two months previously, the city of Lausanne had made him a “citizen of honour”, as a tribute to his life’s work. Respecting his last wishes, his heart was embalmed and preserved in a stele in Olympia, in front of what is today the International Olympic University. His body is buried in Lausanne, the city which gave him hospitality, asylum and recognition.
“Life is simple because the fight is simple. The good fighter retreats, but never runs away; he gives ground, but never gives up […] Life requires solidarity, because struggle requires solidarity […] Life is beautiful because the struggle is beautiful […] The struggle of souls pursuing truth, light and justice.” (from Le roman d’un rallie, by Pierre de Coubertin, 1902).
* from Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Humanist, by Conrado Durántez Corral, 1994.