Sport as a Human Right

The genesis of Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s idea that sport was a basic right that every human being should enjoy was more than likely first planted by Jules Simon, the former French Prime Minister, in a speech to the annual assembly of the Le Play Unions for Social Peace in Paris in 1887. 

The young Baron had already travelled to England several times to study the educational model of their colleges and universities and had begun to formulate his proposals for integrating sport and games into French education. But when he heard Simon articulate the idea that sport could be a human right, his ideas crystallised. “The right which I demand for our children,” Simon said, “is the right to play.” In Simon’s eloquent recognition of the physical educational needs of French children, Coubertin heard his own emergent ideas expressed with clarity and conviction. 

That conviction—that sport belonged to all and should be played by all—grew stronger as Coubertin’s evolving ethos of athletics shaped his vision for the revival of the modern Olympic Games, but not everyone agreed with his liberal concept. In fact, many considered sport the province of the wealthy. As he launched the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century, Coubertin had to battle against that prevailing idea. As he wrote later in his memoirs: “Sport is not a luxury pastime, an activity for the leisured few, nor merely a form of muscular compensation for brain work.” The struggle persisted across his career in the ever-changing definitions of amateurism, which were meant as code to exclude various groups from competition.

More than 40 years after he first heard Simon articulate the idea, the Baron closed his Olympic Memoir with an eloquent argument of his own, putting a stamp on his uncompromising position that sport belonged to everyone: "For every man, woman and child, sport offers an opportunity for self-improvement quite independent of profession or position in life. It [sport] is the birthright of all, equally and to the same degree, and nothing can replace it…"

At the end of World War I, the Baron made sure his colleagues understood his convictions—that the right to sport needed to be extended to all people. “We are all aware of the increasing excellence of the first five Olympiads of the modern era,” he wrote in a circular letter to his IOC colleagues. “Our attention must be focused on the future.” For the Baron, that meant pushing sport towards all those who had not yet enjoyed its benefits, particularly the children of the working class and the poor. He argued that the Olympic Movement’s mission had to be extended now, in the aftermath of war, to all members of society. “Our Committee has fought more than anyone to make it [sport] a habitual pleasure of the youth of the lower middle class. Now it must be made fully accessible to proletarian adolescents. All sports for all people, that is the new goal to which we must devote our energies, a goal that is not in the least impracticable.”

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