Olympic “Holy Trinity”


Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine relies on three pillars which acquire the role of the Christian “holy trinity” and embody the indisputability and eternity of the established order becoming the bearers of positive (Olympic) transcendence. These are the laws of evolution (“progress”), which correspond to God as a fateful power; the “immortal spirit of antiquity”, which acquires the role of the Christian “holy spirit” (belligerent spirit); and the Olympic “humanism” (the cult of the existing world), which in the Olympic doctrine has the role that Christ has in Christianity. By way of the “immortal spirit of antiquity”, embodied in the “renovated” Olympic Games, the existing world is mystically inseminated with the laws of evolution, which reached their highest form in ancient Greece and gave birth to Olympic humanism.

Just as for Christianity God is an indisputable power that determines man’s destiny, so for Coubertin “progress” is an indisputable superhuman power which controls human life and determines “future”. Ultimately, both God and “progress” offer man a possibility of “eternal life”. What distinguishes them is that in Christianity man acquires the possibility of “eternal life” as an individual in “other world”, while in Coubertin mankind obtains this possibility as an abstract collectivity in the eternal this worldly life which is reduced to quantitative shifts without any qualitative changes. While the life of a Christian is reduced to atoning for his “sins” and a preparation for “doomsday”, the life of Coubertin’s positive man, released from sin and responsibility, is reduced to a constant struggle for increasing his wealth and preserving the established order.

The creation of the world by God is the basis of Christian mystery. In Coubertin, the process of creation is not a purposeful and willful act; it is a mindless and spontaneous activism that follows the logic of evolution which appears in the form of “progress”. Coubertin abolishes the creation of man on the part of the absolute (as well as the creation of the world on the part of man) and affirms the “development of mankind” reduced to a sequence of the laws of evolution, independent of human will, which is manifested in the struggle between races for survival. Modern Olympic mystery should enable the invisible omnipresent power of capitalism, deriving from certain social processes and relations, to become incorporated into man’s being and arouse religious enthusiasm. Coubertin also does not make any difference between the faithful and the fanatics. In his Olympic philosophy there is no place for doubt, questioning, confrontation, for a search for purpose and answers… Coubertin attaches primary importance to the psychological aspect and in that context to a spectacular performance which involves man in the Olympic mystery. The Olympic ceremony is a mechanism intended to eliminate reason, open the road to the subconscious and reach “man’s innermost part”. Olympism, like Christianity, insists on the cult acts, a peculiar Olympic liturgy, which is by its nature analogous to a hypnotically séance that eliminates reason and achieves a complete integration of man into the existing world. The strictly observed form of the ceremony has a ritual character and creates a peculiar illusion: a ritual repetition creates the impression that the ceremony is not carried out according to people’s will, but that they are merely the executors acting on the will of an invisible power that holds everything in its hands. In that context appears the “sacred” four-year rhythm of the Games, which must not be interrupted and which becomes a form of expressing the eternal domination of the fateful power over man (Olympie éternelle!). The point is to constantly renew, by way of the Olympic Games, the faith in the original principles of the present world. Modern Olympic mystery has nothing to do with God and natural forces, but is connected with the dominant spirit of capitalism which, through the Olympic spectacle, should be shown in a mystic light. In that context, in the creation of the Olympic ceremony Coubertin is not guided by the Christian liturgy, but seeks to create a performance which gives a mythological and cult dimension to the this worldly dominant power, similarly to monarchist pomp’s, military parades and great world exhibitions – in which he found a model for the spectacularization of the Games. Hence grandiosity, monumentality, a military spirit and showy decorations become the most important segments of the Olympic (decorative) aesthetics.

What should give a special dimension to the Olympic cult ceremony is that it evokes the “immortal spirit of antiquity”, which means that the Olympic Games are designed as a peculiar spiritual séance. According to Coubertin, sport is not a product of the Modern Age, it is the form of resurrection of the spirit of antiquity, which becomes an inexhaustible source of light and warmth, and that means of life. In his “Ode to Sport” Coubertin “sings” with admiration: “O Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of life! In the grey dingle of modern existence, restless with barren toil, you suddenly appeared like the shining messenger of vanished ages, those ages when humanity could smile. And to the mountain tops came dawn’s first glimmer, and sunbeams dappled the frost’s gloomy floor.”(15) That modern Olympic Games are designed to be a peculiar spiritual séance is clearly seen from the official “Olympic Hymn”: “Immortal spirit of antiquity, / Father of the true, beautiful and good, / Descend, appear, shed over us the light / Upon this ground and under this sky / Which has fits witnessed by imperishable fame. / Give life and animation to those noble games! / Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors / In the race and in the strife! / Create in our breasts, hearts of steel! / In thy light, plains, mountains and seas / Shine in a roseate hue and form a vast temple / To which all nations throng to adore thee, / Oh immortal spirit of antiquity.”(16) The Olympic Games become the ceremony of a mystical union between the “immortal spirit of antiquity” and the Modern Age and are thus the insemination of man with the spirit of antiquity – from which positive man is to be born. It is an authoritarian (tyrannical) spirit analogous to the Olympic gods as the immortal oligarchy which symbolizes the indisputable power of the tribal aristocracy over the slaves. In the Modern Age this power descends again from Olympus onto the earth, only to appear in the form of the bourgeois who becomes the capitalist surrogate of the ancient “hero”. Coubertin abolishes the ability of capitalism to breed in its “bosom” (Marx) the ideas that open the possibility of overcoming the present world and thus deprives it of historical fruitfulness, and uses the “immortal spirit of antiquity” to “inspire new life” into capitalism. The “immortal spirit of antiquity” becomes a symbolic expression of the time in which the evolution of the living world reached its highest level of development, a peculiar “Holy Grail” which will provide eternal youth to the present world: the Olympic Games serve to draw the elixir of life of ancient Hellas in the modern world. Hence such importance of the “sacred rhythm” of the Games: as a “festivity of youth” (Coubertin), they are a regular rejuvenation of capitalism and are thus a symbolic end of history. Unlike antiquity and Christianity, which link immortality to the Heavens, Coubertin descends immortality down to the earth. “The immortal spirit of antiquity” is not the incarnation of the unearthly power of the Olympic gods, but is a mythical form of the capitalist spirit and a way of giving it a “cultural” and “divine” legitimacy. That is why Coubertin does not mind the “fact” that the Hellenic world declined. The spirit of capitalism raises the ancient spirit from the ashes inspiring it with a new life and insuring its eternity.

As the ideology of positive progress Olympism abolishes transcendency and affirms immanence as the basic principle of development of the world. There is nothing that transcends the present world or that appears as the end according to which the direction to which civilization is moving can be determined. In modern Olympism the purpose of life is not determined by God, but everything proceeds according to the purpose given by a natural course of events (by the laws of evolution) and the progressistic spirit deriving from it, which has a quantitative and totalitarian character and for which the “future” is open. “The divine right”, to which Coubertin refers from time to time, has neither an a priori nor a supernatural character and it serves to create the impression that the world cannot be changed. There is an identity between the ideal and the present worlds: Olympism becomes a positive ontology in which the essence is reduced to existence. The contrast between the false and the true, the phenomenological and the essential is “abolished” in the world of the factual. Since Coubertin discarded the normative sphere, there is no possibility of confronting the established progress with the idea of true progress. Coubertin deprived of meaning every evaluative judgment of progress, while the knowledge of the world has merely a utilitarian and empirical character. The only possible question is the one concerning the measure of progress, which is expressed in a quantitative accumulation of material wealth by the ruling “elite” and in increasing the efficiency in the combat with the libertarian working movement and the emancipatory heritage of mankind. The former is expressed in the Olympic maxim citius, altius, fortius, and the latter in the principle “might is right”: all that has been created must become the means in the hands of the ruling class for preserving the ruling order. Similarly to his treatment of democratic institutions, Coubertin here tries to eliminate the emancipatory possibilities of man’s power to do more, to go further, and to act more strongly… All more developed productivistic powers of man become the source of the oppressive power of the ruling class: an increase in progress is followed by a decrease in freedom.

Coubertin’s humanité is the third part of the Olympic “holy trinity“. Just as humanism of the Modern Age appeared as the reaction of the awakened man to the long-lasting strivings of the Church to reduce him to the slave of “God’s will”, so Coubertin’s humanité appeared as the reaction of the imperialist bourgeoisie to the guiding principles of the French Revolution and the emancipatory heritage of civil society – and in that context to the emancipatory ideas of Christianity. Instead of being the “God’s slave”, man becomes the slave of “natural laws” that are the incarnation of the ruling relations: Olympism “overcomes” Christianity by way of Social Darwinism. Coubertin does not try to discover “the divine in man”, but to inspire him with the spirit of the established world: man being only the means for achieving the strategic ends of capitalism – in the guise of “progress”. The creation of the character and conscious of positive man and his instrumentalization for the achievement of inhuman ends – that is the basis of Coubertin’s humanism.

Christianity is critical of the present world which is only a temporary human abode: the “true” and “eternal life” begins in Heavens. For Coubertin, the present world is man’s only possible and eternal abode, and not a station on his way to Heaven. Instead of looking up to God, there is in Coubertin a euphoric immersion in everyday life through a mindless physical activism. In spite of an idealized antiquity, the presence is what radiates in all directions since in it the unity of humanistic ideals and life has been realized: the existing world is a realized humanism. Coubertin’s humanism is based on the myth of ancient society which serves to build the cult of the present world. For him, the ideal of positive society was already realized in ancient Greece, during its “Middle Ages” in which a complete domination of the tribal aristocracy over demos was established. The basic purpose of the ancient myth is not to give guidelines to human action, since ancient society is an unrealizable ideal, but to prove that the ideal of humanity was already realized in the past and that therefore it is useless to look to the future. Concluding that “Hellenism is above all the cult of humanity in its present life and its state of balance”, Coubertin opposes religions that promise man happiness after death. In old Greece, according to him, “it is the present existence which is happiness.”(17) Instead of striving to another (“higher”) world, an endless glorification of the existing world becomes the highest challenge for man. Coubertin’s dealing with the Christian illusory world (in which there are no “rich” and “poor” people, or “higher” and “lower” races) is actually a combat with the very idea of a better world, as well as with man’s strivings to a just world. The purpose of Coubertin’s idealization of antiquity is to prompt man to crave for a world in which, in an idealized form, appear the ruling principles of the existing world of injustice which has no alternative and which is eternal. These are the “facts” that by way of the Olympic doctrine acquire the character of absolute truth. The only thing left to man is to “reconcile” him to the existing state of affairs. Coubertin offers to the oppressed a “sports republic” as a compensation for their obedient suffering of injustice, but it is not a world parallel to the existing world, as was the case with Christian paradise; it is a space where the dominant spirit of the existing world appears in a pure form, it is a peculiar capitalist Olympic Heavens, and thus a training camp where (through a physical and mental drill) man’s qualities that should enable his complete integration into the present world are being developed. Christianity moves man to “another world”, sport pins him down to the present world.

The Olympic Games are a ritual deification of the basic existential principles of the present world that are embodied in sport: modern Olympism is the cult of capitalism. Hence such importance attached to the physical appearance and behavior of sportsmen, to their “moral pureness”, as well as to religio athletae which should correspond to the religious enthusiasm (awe) with which the athlete of antiquity approached the Olympic altar to bow to Zeus. The ancient condition of participation at the Games – that the athlete had not offended the gods – becomes in modern Olympism a demand for the athlete not to violate the principles of amateurism, which means to be guided in his fight with others by a fanatical faith in the correctness and indisputability of the ruling principles of the world, and not by lucrative interests. Hence Coubertin insists on the “Olympic oath” (serment olimpique) as the highest religious act, with the participants “swearing” to fight fairly. Boulongne says on that: “Since each religion involves the knowledge of dogmas and deepening of a mystique, Coubertin bases on the pedagogy of Olympism the initiation into the Olympic philosophy and practice: the oath that the participants take represent in this case one of the rituals connected to that which is sacred.” (18) Their oath is not addressed to God (supernatural power) or people, but to the invisible and dominant spirit of capitalism. The Olympic Games serve to show the “pureness” of that spirit and its indestructible power, while the sportsmen are its incarnation and thus peculiar “idols” of capitalism. Everything they do acquires a symbolic character, similarly to the behavior of soldiers in a parade, who are a personification of the ruling order. To break the strict pattern of behavior means to jeopardize the indisputable authority of the ruling power.

Coubertin’s humanism does not have a foothold only in Hellenic culture, but also in Jesuitism. Karl Kautsky’s analyses of the relation between Jesuitism and humanism offers a possibility of understanding the nature of Coubertin’s humanité: “Jesuitism is humanism that is somewhat intellectually lower, deprived of independent ideas, rigidly organized, humanism compelled to serve to the Church. The difference between Jesuitism and humanism corresponds to the difference between Christianity in the time of the Empire and Neo-Platonism. Jesuitism is the form in which the Catholic Church adopted humanism, in which it was modernized and placed, as opposed to its previous feudal basis, on the foundations that ruled society from the 16th up to the 18th century. Jesuitism became the most brutal force of a reformed Catholic Church because it suited most too new economic and political circumstances. Jesuitism used the same weapons as had already been used by humanism: superiority of classical education, influence on rulers, consideration of monetary powers. Just like humanists, Jesuits assisted absolute power, but only the ruler who worked for them. Just like humanists, they did not think that it contradicted their monarchist affiliation if they had to remove the ruler who did not suit them. However, as far as money is concerned, Jesuits went further then humanists. They advocated not only the interests of a new way of production, but put it in their service. Jesuits became the biggest European trading company which had its offices in all parts of the world. They were the first to realize that a missionary could be used just as well as a trading agent; they were the first to organize capitalist industrial enterprises in overseas countries, for example, sugar factories.” (19) In Coubertin, also, the dominant fanaticism is not religious but lucrative and pragmatic. One of the most important principles of his original Olympic idea is as follows: “It is no longer Minerva, the Goddess of peace and wisdom that rules the world, but Mercury, the God of enterprise, movement and trading.”(20)

In spite of insisting on a blind respect for the “factual”, Coubertin tries to give through “humanism” the evaluative legitimacy to Olympism. In that way Coubertin opens the possibility of distinguishing between “true” and “false” Olympism. In spite of reducing Olympism to the “cult of the present world”, during his Olympic career Coubertin was forced to face the reality of the Olympic Games, which only follow the fate of capitalist society, from the point of view of an evaluative model of the Olympic Games which sprang from a certain (positivist) philosophical concept and the strivings to its realization (positive society). A vision of a desired world and in that context an evaluative apriorism are the tacit starting point of Coubertin’s Olympism. In addition, Coubertin’s humanism has the same role given to the Olympic “pacifism”: to cover in a propagandist way the field of fight for a true humanism and to show itself as an incarnation of genuine humanist aspirations of mankind. The terms such as “peace”, “international cooperation” and the like, used to conceal the true nature of Olympic barbarism and to win the favor of people, tell us that Coubertin was aware of people’s real aspirations – and they became a negative starting point of his Olympic doctrine. That is why a combat with the guiding principles of the French Revolution is one of the main objectives of Coubertin’s political practice: without freedom, equality and brotherhood there is no true humanism. Instead of “humanism as a political ideal” (Mihailo Đurić), Coubertin offers “new” barbarism, disguised in humanist phrases, as the highest political ideal. An unrestrained tyranny of the bourgeois “elite” over the “working masses”, “lower races” and the woman is the foundation of Coubertin’s (positive) humanism.

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