“We are merely the trustees of the Olympic idea.”
As he contemplated and planned for the launch of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin knew that as soon as he established its foothold on the international sports scene, the independence and autonomy of the Olympic Movement would be threatened by ambitious sports administrators, politicians hungry for international recognition, and a public sector that would demand accountability. As he looked for a model that would give his nascent International Olympic Committee the ability to sustain its independence and withstand all the storms ahead—and they would prove to be many—the Baron turned to England’s sports community.
Having promoted rowing races between French and English teams years before, Coubertin had become familiar with the “Stewards of the Royal Henley Regatta”, the British committee that governed the world’s most famous rowing competition. He greatly admired their independence, studied their modus operandi, and ultimately borrowed their principles of self-recruitment to ensure the enduring free agency of the members of the International Olympic Committee, who are selected to this day by the IOC and appointed as representatives “in” their countries, not “from” their countries.
A decade and a half later, at the London Olympic Games in 1908, that principle was tested when the Hungarian government sent a new IOC member to replace the retiring Ferenc Kemény—one of Coubertin’s earliest Olympic allies. As the Baron wrote in his Olympic Memoir, “It was impossible for us to accept this. The day the IOC ceased to be a ‘self-recruiting body,’ it would lose its main strength: total independence. All my colleagues were now convinced of this and considered this privilege of free election the cornerstone of our constitution.”
In a speech to his British hosts at the end of the 1908 Games, Coubertin returned to the theme, describing how the IOC had survived “anonymous attacks… improbable cabals and fanatical jealousies… thrown in its path,” the Baron said: “I once learned a great many things in this country. Among them was that the best way to preserve freedom and to serve democracy is… to maintain islands… [of] independence and stability. These, gentlemen, are what has made it possible for [the IOC] to accomplish great things….” With classic understatement, the Baron concluded: “We do not tread on the privileges of the associations. We are not a technical police board. We are merely trustees of the Olympic idea.”
While the IOC has modernised since the Baron founded it—imposing term and age limits on its membership—it is clear that the principles Coubertin put in place at the founding have empowered the IOC to maintain its autonomy and independence for the last 125 years.