The best way of paying tribute to an illustrious past is obviously learning from its teachings in order to prepare for the future.Pierre de Coubertin
Those words were spoken by Pierre de Coubertin, the young French educator who 125 years ago founded the modern Olympic Games and created the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Coubertin could hardly have known at the time that the Olympic Games and IOC would still be going strong a century-and-a-quarter later. His vision of bringing the world together in peaceful sporting competition has stood the test of time and remains as relevant today as ever before.
As the IOC prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary on 23 June, including the inauguration of its new headquarters in Lausanne, Coubertin might be surprised at how the IOC and the Games look today. But he surely would be proud of how the institution has endured and continues to thrive.
Few world bodies or NGOs have lasted so long, and few could have survived two world wars, crippling boycotts, near bankruptcy, terrorism, and doping and ethical scandals. Yet the IOC and the Games have managed to overcome the threats and evolve through turbulent times to achieve their current success and stability.
What’s the secret of the IOC’s longevity?
“There are two reasons,” says President Bach. “The first is that the values established by Pierre de Coubertin are still important, and are even more important in times of political and financial crisis. We saw how the values led to the revival of the Games after World War I and World War II.
“The second is that the IOC, in the most determining moments, always adapted to modern times and did not rely on tradition. That means keeping the values and holding the values high up, but adapting how to promote the values, how to interpret them, to a given time.”
“The IOC has been able not only to survive but also to flourish based on very simple things,” says the three-time Belgian Olympian in sailing. “It’s the desire of the athletes to compete with others. Athletes want to meet together in the Olympic Village and compete with the best of them. That is the basis of everything – the pursuit of excellence and the basic universal values.”
Those basic values weren’t enough to convince sceptics when Coubertin appealed in 1892 for a revival of the Olympic Games – begun by the Greeks in 776 B.C. and discontinued in 393 A.D. Critics called the idea absurd.
“Some people became indignant and damned me to hell, accusing me of blasphemy and desecration,” Coubertin later recalled.
The Congress convened in the grand amphitheatre of the Sorbonne on 16 June 1894. Seven days later, on 23 June, in the final session of the meeting, 79 delegates from 11 countries unanimously approved the revival of the Games.
Coubertin hailed “the restoration of a 2,000-year-old idea which today, as in the past, still quickens the hearts of men, for it satisfies one of its most vital and – regardless of what may have been said on the subject – one of its most noble instincts”.
The Congress also established the International Committee for the Olympic Games, starting with 12 members, increasing to 14 by the end of 1894 and 16 in 1895. The current name of the organisation, International Olympic Committee, did not become official until 1901.
Demetrius Vikelas of Greece was named the committee’s first president, a post he held for two years until Coubertin took over in 1896 and served until 1925. From 1894 until now, the IOC has had nine presidents and a total of 570 members, including a current membership of 95*.
“When Pierre de Coubertin founded the IOC, his vision and values at the time went against nationalism, against aggressivity among nations,’’ he says. “It was about friendship and understanding. It was about bringing people together. It was about making the world less fragile.”
More than a century later, those same ideals are more pertinent than ever.
“This is somehow a position we are in at this moment with regard to the Games,” says President Bach. “We see this zeitgeist of rising nationalism. We see this zeitgeist of aggression. It is a great opportunity because we can demonstrate how relevant, how important our values are. We have to fight even more for understanding, for dialogue and respect.”
President Bach cites the IOC’s role in negotiations that led to athletes from North and South Korea marching together in the Opening Ceremony under one flag and fielding a unified women’s hockey team at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Talks are continuing on the possibility of the two Koreas fielding joint teams
at Tokyo 2020. Throughout its history, the IOC has managed to navigate world crises as well as crises close to home.
While the Olympic Games were cancelled during the two World Wars, they were resumed after each of the conflicts, underlining the Games’ enduring and powerful message of peace and international goodwill.
By the early 1980s, the IOC was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The situation was so grim that Los Angeles was the only candidate to host the 1984 Olympic Games. But LA 1984 proved to be a turning point, as the highly successful privately-financed Games produced a profit of USD $223 million and became a model for future Games. Cities began to clamour to host the Games again.
The IOC President at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, played a pivotal role during his 21-year term in strengthening the Olympic Games and restoring the IOC to firm financial footing.
The IOC also negotiated highly lucrative television rights deals with world broadcasters. As a result, the IOC’s coffers grew and financial stability was secured for the Olympic Movement (the IOC achieved revenues of USD $5.7 billion for the 2013-2106 period, mainly through broadcast and sponsorship rights, 90 per cent of which is redistributed to the wider sporting movement).
Olympic Solidarity was created more than 50 years ago to provide assistance to National Olympic Committees, particularly those with the greatest financial needs. For 2017-2020, the programme will provide more than half a billion dollars towards athlete development and coaches’ education.
But the boom times were jolted in the late 1990s by the bidding scandal involving the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002. Facing intense international criticism and scrutiny, Samaranch and the IOC used the crisis as a catalyst to clean up the organisation and enact a set of wide-ranging reforms. These included establishment of an Ethics Commission and election of athlete members to the IOC and IOC Executive Board.
“The Salt Lake City crisis was really a pivotal turning point,” says Rogge, who sat on the Inquiry Commission and went on to serve as IOC President from 2001 to 2013. “It changed the IOC for the good.”
The IOC also set up the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 1984 to adjudicate doping and other sporting disputes. Since Rio 2016, the IOC has delegated sanctioning of Olympic doping cases to CAS and its anti-doping division to ensure the independence of the process.
“You have to be conscious of the fact that doping, like theft, like tax evasion, like fraud, cannot be eradicated 100 per cent,” says President Bach. “This should not discourage you. It should encourage you to do better every day.”
In 1993, the current Olympic Museum was opened in Lausanne, fulfilling Coubertin’s dream of having a repository for the history of the Olympic Games and IOC. Linked to the Museum is the IOC Olympic Studies Centre, offering a trove of material for researchers, students and scholars.
The IOC was granted Permanent Observer Status by the UN General Assembly in 2009. In 2014, the UN formally recognised the autonomy of the IOC and sport. The former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, was elected as IOC Ethics Commission chair in 2017.
Recent decades have also seen changes to the Olympic sports programme, including the addition of taekwondo, beach volleyball, triathlon, golf and rugby sevens. Surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing, karate and baseball/softball have been included for Tokyo 2020. Break dancing (or “breaking”) has been proposed for Paris 2024. For the Olympic Winter Games, snowboarding was introduced at Nagano 1998.
The new sports tie in with the IOC push to make the Games more relevant for young people, most notably through the creation in 2007 of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG), a project spearheaded by Rogge. Three summer and two winter editions of the YOG have been held to date. In an historic decision, the IOC voted in October 2018 to award the YOG 2022 to Dakar, Senegal, marking the first time an Olympic competition will be held on the African continent.
The IOC has also been at the forefront of promoting gender equality, adding new events for women and bringing the ratio of male to female athletes at the Games to nearly 50-50. For Tokyo 2020, female participation will rise to a projected 48.8 per cent, while Beijing 2022 is expected to reach a Winter Games record of 45.44 per cent female representation.
Since his election in 2013, President Bach has been busy seeing through the reforms of his Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC’s strategic roadmap for the future of the Games. It’s part of the drive to stay relevant and adapt Coubertin’s vision to the trends of today’s society.
What would Coubertin, who died in 1937, make of the Games and the IOC today? Would he be satisfied or horrified? A little of both, says President Bach.
“On one hand, he would be very happy to see the Games being so relevant and the Games being adapted to modern times,’’ he says. “On the other hand, when we are discussing our sports reform programme for Tokyo, I sometimes wonder if he would be turning over in his grave.
“But overall,” the IOC President adds, “I think he would be pretty pleased.”