Olympism  and  Pacifism


The myth of a “pacifistic character of Olympism” is a widely accepted starting point in presenting Coubertin’s doctrine. Coubertin is repeatedly credited with the “peacemaking” maxim that “it is important to take part”, while the fact that he soared towards the Olympic heights with colonial  slogans: “Rebronzer la France!” and “Enrichissez vous!” is never mentioned. It is understandable with regard to the fact that from the Sorbonne speaking floor Coubertin actually called upon the French bourgeoisie to set out on slaughtering and looting the African and Asian peoples. An international competition on the sports field, in the guise of a “revival of the ancient Olympic Games”, was supposed to set into motion a wave of nationalism which would make changes in the French education system and develop in the French youth a desire to conquer and repress. Originally, the modern Olympism appears as an integrative spiritual power of the bourgeois class which should enable its militarization and urge it to embark on new colonial exploits: “waging a war” is a privilege of the ruling “elite”. Not only does Coubertin want a strong army, but he strives to militarize the whole bourgeois class (similarly to the aristocracy from the Homeric period), that is to say, to develop in the bourgeoisie a belligerent spirit, which is manifested in their decisive and uncompromising fight against the proletariat and colonized peoples. That is why Coubertin wants to organize the Olympic Games in the form of a peculiar knight tournament, and thus institutionalize war between “civilized nations” on the sports field. The modern Olympic Games were meant to spiritually unite the European colonial metropoles in their colonial campaign, the aim of which was to submit the “lower races” and globalize capitalism. Coubertin had as a model the Hellenic world divided into town-states, which fought for domination among themselves, but also fought against the “barbarians”, which was the basic way of providing the labour force of slaves on which the ancient civilization relied. Like Aristotle, Coubertin sees in (colonial) war a “natural skill of acquiring”, but, unlike Aristotle, who attaches primary importance to hunting the “barbarians”, (61) Coubertin attaches primary importance to conquering new territories and globalizing European capitalism. Urlike Prokop rightly notes the following: “Therefore, the effects that Coubertin expected from sport, which is based on rivalry, have nothing to do  – as it is constantly claimed today – with international peace. ‘The ideal of equality’ includes no more than a formal equality of chances. Coubertin was not more of a pacifist than the Greek ruling class, which founded the Olympic Games and for which acquiring power through sport was the condition of surviving in their fight with neighbouring peoples, as well as (the condition) of securing the submission of numerous slaves.” (62)

The following words of the Nazi ideologue Ernst Krieck fully express Coubertin’s view, as well as the dominant view of the European imperialist circles: “We live no longer in the age of education, culture, humanity, and pure spirit, but in the necessity for struggle, for political visions of reality, for soldiery, national discipline, for the national honor and future. It is, therefore, not the idealist but the heroic attitude which is demanded of men as the task and need of life in this epoch”. (63) Even in the beginning of his Olympic path (1894) Coubertin’s guiding principle was the “fact” that in the present world the “domination of spirit has not been established”. (64) Ten years later Coubertin pointed out that “fighting for life” is not only characteristic of today’s world, and that ”it will surely be dominant in tomorrow’s world as well in spite of all the nice projects for social organization and collectivistic harmony”. (65) His advocation of the principle of “natural selection” and his cynical mocking of the pacifistic ideas of socialists, lead to the conclusion that, for Coubertin, war is not only an inevitable, but a welcome destiny of mankind. A striking similarity between Coubertin’s and Nazi doctrines can be found in Hitler’s programmatic text written in August of 1927, in which he propounds the fundamental principles of Nazi philosophy: “The survival and future of the people on earth lie: 1. In their own racial value; 2. In the significance they attach to personality; 3. In the knowledge that the entire life in this universe is a struggle. The downfall of today’s epoch I see precisely in the denial of these three laws, and not in minor unsuccessful actions of our present political leadership. Instead of national and racial values, millions of members of our nation bow today to the idea of internationalism. Starting from the stupid democracy, instead of strength and geniality a majority of number is imposed resulting in weakness and stupidity. And instead of realizing and accepting the necessity of struggle, a theory of pacifism is being preached, of friendship between peoples and of eternal peace in the world.” (66) It is interesting that Hitler proclaims pacifism, friendship between peoples and eternal peace the “crimes” of marxism, a “spiritual plague” that “pervaded almost the whole of our (German) people”. (67) Coubertin calls Hitler “one of the greatest constructors of Modern Age”, (68) and regards him as the symbol of a totalitarian power of the “master race”, which, governed by the principle “might is right”, managed to “efficiently” deal with the democratic institutions and the libertarian working movement; which is capable of initiating a “new beginning” in the development of civilization that will enable the realisation of the idea of a positive society; and which will conquer the world. The basic aims of fascism: “to organize monopolistic production”, “to destroy the socialist opposition” and “to resume imperialist expansionism” (69) are the corner stones of the modern Olympic doctrine.

     It is obvious that the maxim si vis pacem para bellum, which in Coubertin appears under the slogan of the “armed peace” (la paix armée), totally contradicts the Social Darwinist doctrine his Olympic doctrine is based on. Colonial aspirations and the struggle between the most powerful countries over the share of the colonial loot indicate the inevitability of wars and a need for developing a combatant and militaristic spirit in the (bourgeois) youth, which represents the most important concrete spring of the Social Darwinist doctrine and militarism. Coubertin’s “anthropological argument” supports this view: “If we tried to make the young people grow affection for peace, we would experience a serious pedagogical disappointment. (…) International peace is the offspring of self-restraint and tolerance, and these virtues are strange to normal youth. The young are eager to fight, and that they must be.” (70) Coubertin regards war as the highest test of a “man’s maturity” and the purest form in which “natural selection” (“the weak are eliminated”) – on which the “perfectioning” of mankind is based – is realised. Fighting for freedom is an obstacle to “evolution” and “progress” and thus the worst of crimes. All this makes Coubertin’s endeavour to differentiate between “belligerent” and “combatant” youth meaningless. (71) A pacifistic education of the bourgeois youth is excluded from Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”.

The furthest the modern Olympic “pacifism” reaches is its endeavour to make the modern Olympic Games, similarly to the ancient Games, “the sacred truce” during which the weapons will be laid down so that the warring sides – that is to say the representatives of “civilized nations” who fight over the share of the colonial loot – could bow to the highest divinities of today’s world. Coubertin: “In regular, to that purpose exactly determened, intervals the quarells and fights would be stopped, and differences forgotten. People are not angels and I do not think that mankind would gain something if most of them were. But a really strong individual is the man whose will is so strong that he can make himself and his community completely forget for a while their interests or their passionate desire to dominate or possess, no matter how justified they otherwise may be. As for myself, I would not mind seeng how in the middle of a war the conflicting armies cease their war operations showing respect for the sports games organized during a truce which would be inspired by an honest and chivalrous spirit.” (72) However, we have seen that Coubertin’s Olympism, like the Nazi one, opens the possibility of establishing “eternal peace” only after the entire colonization of the world by the European colonial metropoles and the sharing of colonies have been completed. In such conditions the Olympic Games should serve the same purpose as the original ancient Olympic Games and the Middle Ages tournaments: they should be the means of increasing the alertness of the ruling (“master”) class.

According to Coubertin, man’s commitment to struggle and war (particularly colonization) is the most valuable human quality and he speaks of it with the highest aesthetic exaltation. For him, boxing is a “fine manly sport”, (73) and contact with arms, on which a child’s education is based, represents a “wonderful tradition”. (74) Coubertin is particularly inspired by France’s colonial invasions. He describes them in the following terms: “magnificant feat”, “brilliant expedition”, “the most wonderful of all colonial epics”… (75) Coubertin is fascinated by the Nazi Olympic Games: they had a “tremendous success” and “wonderfully served the Olympic idea”. He sees in them the symbol of “beauty”, “courage”, “hope” and above all the “advancing work of construction”. (76) Most importantly, they were “illuminated by Hitlerian strength and discipline” and because they were so “fortunately organized” they should serve as a model for future Olympic Games. (77)

In the speech made in June of 1914 at the Sorbonne in the presence of the French President Raymond Poincaré (entitled “Sport and Modern Society”), which marked the 20th anniversary of the modern Olympic Games, Coubertin repeated the thesis which represents one of the foundations of his “pacifistic” Olympic doctrine and sports pedagogy: “Sport is an important factor in the colonial expansion because colonization without good sports preparations represents dangerous unmindfulness. Many historical failures and many successes can be explained by the fact that such a preparation existed in one case, and was missing in others.” (78) In February of 1918, in the last year of the First World War, in which millions of people had been killed and crippled, Coubertin made a speech in Lausanne, in which, among other things, he said that in the previous forty years history had enabled France to record “the most wonderful of colonial epics” and ” to lead the young people away from the danger of some kind of pacifism and extreme liberty”, and that the mobilisation in August of 1914 “will remain one of the most fascinating spectacles democracy has given to the world”. (79) Bearing in mind that, for Coubertin, the view that the “battle at Waterloo was won on the sports fields of Eton (College)”, ascribed to Wellington, was one of the most important starting points for the formation of his Olympic philosophy, we are clearly not dealing with an anachronism. Speaking of Coubertin, his spiritus rector and close friend Carl Diem, one of the leading ideologues of the Nazi Olympism and an indisputable authority in the dominant pedagogical thought of contemporary Germany, says: “In the Modern Age this militaristic spirit of the Games has been revived. Coubertin, their restorer, had military blood in his veins. He abhored pacifism and all those nebulous utopias on peace. His pedagogical, historical and political works suggest a fearless character, the one of a true warrior”.(80)

Trying to present Coubertin in a pacifistic light, certain ideologues of Olympism (like MacAloon and Boulongne) claim that Coubertin rejected violence as a legitimate means of social changes, but do not mention that Coubertin considered violence a legal and legitimate means of the bourgeousie for preventing the democratic social changes and preserving the established order. Throughout his ”Olympic life” Coubertin advocated domination of the rich “elite” over the working “masses”, the end that allowed and justified all the means to protect the existing order. Boulongne’s view that Coubertin was against violence because “violence generates violence” – which is supposed to justify his attitude to the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution – is completely opposed to Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine based on Social Darwinism: natural selection based on the principle “might is right” is the indisputable foundation of social order. A limitless economic, military, political, spiritual and sexual violence of the bourgeoisie over the working “masses”, colonized peoples and women is the basis of Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine. Coubertin speaks enthusiastically about Thiers’s massacre of the Parisian proletariat after the fall of the Commune; (82) he praises the “magnificent achievements” of the colonial phalanxes which by fire and sword conquered a new “life space” to the European capital; he mercilessly attacks both the Russian revolutionaries, who were trying to save the country from the butchery of the First World War created by the capitalist monopolies, in which millions of Russian workers and peasents were killed, and the antifascists, who called on the boycot of the Nazi Olympics and condemned the Nazi barbarism. (83) If there is something that Coubertin was consistently in favour of, it is violence as a legitimate means of the bourgeosie for achieving their interests and denying the oppressed any right to oppose tyranny. About this issue Marx wrote: “Today’s bourgeois considers himself the legitimate heir of the former feudal lord, who justified any weapon in his hand pointed at the plebian, while any weapon in the hands of the plebian immediately meant crime”. (84) It should be noted that Coubertin was not only against the armed resistence of the oppressed, but also against any kind of political struggle of workers, “lower races” and women for achieving their human, civil, national and workers rights.

The fact that Coubertin wasn’t against violence does not mean that he, like Nietzsche, advocated sheer force as the exclusive means for holding the working “masses” in submission. Instead of opting for domination carried out with the sword, Coubertin, as a “good Catholic”, opts for a spiritual submission of the oppressed – as the chief socio-prophylactic measure for their exploitation. As a political realist, Coubertin recognizes that making the oppressed “voluntarily” accept the existing order is far more profitable for the ruling “elite” that insisting on a constant repression, which leads to their resistence and forces them to organise and fight against tyranny. Therefore, he proclaims the principle of “control in heads” of the oppressed the highest principle of his “utilitarian pedagogy”. Unlike the leading bourgeoise ideology, Coubertin departs from the “fact” that capitalism is an irreparably unjust order and calls on the people deprived of their rights to reconcile to the “inevitable” injustice and give up hope of creating a better world. According to Coubertin, “to teach the workers to respect the order ruled by the strong” – that is the main reason for the ruling “elite” to “allow” the workers to engage in sport. Sport become the most important political instrument for destroying resistance to injustice and for “reconciling” the oppressed to the existing order, and that is the most important condition of establishing the positive society. Coubertin is fascinated by the “Nazi Olympism” because, before and during the Berlin Olympics, the Nazis managed to “win over” almost the entire German population and integrate them spiritually into the established order. For Coubertin, “Hitlerian strength and discipline” symbolize what a “handful of good people” can do by means of sport and Olympism in developing a militant nationalism and racism, which means in destroying the libertarian (class) consciousness of the oppressed and turning them into the instrument for achieving the interests of the ruling “elite”.

A defensive war and an anticolonial struggle are excluded from Coubertin’s theory of war. Coubertin refers to ancient Greece but “overlooks” the fact that in ancient Greece the distinction between war of conquest and defending (libertarian) war was clearly drawn. Analysing Homer’s attitude to war, Miloš Đurić says: “The repulsion that the poet feels to war is also seen in his creating in Hector the character of a combatant with a high moral dignity and humanism. Hector’s principal moral value illustrated by the fact that, unlike his opponents, he does not fight from revenge, from lust to plunge, from belligerence and spirit of adventure, but to defend his homeland and family.” (85) Athens got primacy and, more importantly, was respected in the Hellenic world as the standard-bearer of the fight against the Persian invaders. Pericles’ real importance lies in his becoming the symbol of the Hellenic struggle for freedom, unlike Alcibiades, who became the symbol of greediness and decline of imperialist Athens. It is no accident that this was the period when Greece spiritually reached the highest level: the struggle for freedom awakened the most creative powers in the Greek people.

Coubertin’s agon has an antilibertarian character. It is reduced to a struggle between peoples, races and nations, to conquests, knight fights, duels, to the oppression by the strong – excluding the struggle of the oppressed for freedom. Coubertin is aware of the “fact” that the historical struggle between the rich “elite” and the working “masses” has entered its final stage and that the workers are capable not only of throwing the bourgeoisie from power, but also of abolishing the class order. To that truly new historical beginning Coubertin opposes his “new beginning”, which comes down to the destruction of the emancipatory heritage of civil society, and to the establishment of the same social relations that existed in ancient Greece during the absolutistic rule of the tribal aristocracy. This is what conditions the militant character of Coubertin’s conception and gives a dramatic character to his Olympic doctrine and practice. Confronted with an ever deeper crisis of capitalism and its institutions, Coubertin sees in sport the fateful force that can save capitalism from disaster by destroying the libertarian dignity of the people deprived of their rights.

Consistently trying to deal with civil society and the citizen as a constitutive part of society, Coubertin rejects Olympism as a competition between people as emancipated citizens and reduces it to the struggle between nations (races) for domination, the sportsmen being the representatives of their nations and thus a symbolic embodiment of the dominant spirit, which through the Olympic ceremony acquires a divine aureole. Man is subjected, on irrational grounds, to a pseudo-collectivity in which his individuality is lost. In that sense, Coubertin rejects the idea of personal achievement, which is one of the greatest contributions of modern society to man’s emancipation. International sport serves to stir a war psychosis in “times of peace”, to create the feeling of “national danger” and provoke nationalistic hysteria in order to conceal class antagonism and direct the dissatisfaction of the working ”masses” against other nations. By formally joining the Olympic movement, a country declares that it is at war with other countries. With every nation, reduced to the “rival”, a special war account is open, while “settling the accounts” and stirring the spirit of revenge becomes one of the main tasks of national teams.

As for the relation between modern and ancient Olympic Games, the ancient Games were originally “the sacred truce” (ekheheiria) and as such a temporary cessation of the armed fight so that the participants, as representatives of a polis, could bow to Zeus, the supreme deity of the ancient Greeks and the god of war, and thus express their racial affiliation, superiority and coherence and win the favour of gods in the struggle for domination between the states. Similarly to the ancient Games, the modern Olympic Games are not a cessesion of hostilities between nations (races) and the establishment of peace; they are a peculiar tournament in which nations (races) fight not with their weapons (which are only temporarily put away), but with the bodies of sportsmen and are thus a ritual expressing submission to the belligerent spirit that governs the world. (86) The fact that arms are not used does not exclude the right to inflict bodily injuries, nor does it exclude a life-and-death fight – which was also characteristic of the ancient Olympic Games. Hence the importance of symbolism attached to muscularity: instead of arms, the “national (combatant) strength” appears in the form of the muscular bodies of sportsmen and in their combatant character expressed in the “strength” of their posture, disciplined behaviour, “determined” look in the eyes and a readiness to give their lives for “national interests”. The Olympic ceremony clearly suggests war between nations. The parade of the participants, flags, uniforms, marching, salutation, the army orchestra – all these things acquire a symbolic character within a militaristic Olympic ceremony the purpose of which is to deal with the pacifistic mind. The taking of the “Olympic oath” (serment olimpique) is a typical militaristic ritual: sportsmen swear to fight with honour for the glory of their country/team – which means that they will obey the fixed rules which are the condition of survival of an order based on the principle “might is right” and on “natural selection”. The very preparation for the Games, which lasts for several years and to which Coubertin attaches special importance, becomes a preparation for war not only of sportsmen, but of the whole nation. The public is systematically fanaticized, and nationalistic hysteria reaches its climax during the Games. The aim of the modern Olympic Games is not to incite armed conflicts, but to create a war psychosis which is meant to incessantly provoke war in people’s heads and destroy the pacifistic mind.

The modern Olympism contains an ambiguity, being at the same time a form of militarisation of the bourgeoisie and a form of pacification of the oppressed, but not as a phenomenon sui generis. In both cases it is an exclusive political instrument of the bourgeoisie for preserving the established order. The ambiguity in Coubertin’s conception is the source of constant disputes. Coubertin’s advocates repeat his “peacemaking” phrases “forgetting” that he, like the Nazis, addresses them to the “young of all the world” while at the same time supports the use of sport as the most important means of developing a combatant character in the ruling “elite”. For Coubertin, international sport, in its original sense, is a war for domination between “civilized” nations and a way of their spiritual integration to colonize the world. In that context, the Olympic Games are “the sacred truce” which should give the oppossing sides an opportunity to bow to the gods that rule the world in an attempt to win their favour. Departing from the British colonial experience, Coubertin gives to sport the character of a universal and global political tool for pacifying (depolitising) the colonized peoples. Coubertin’s “Ode to Sport” is a typical example of this “pacifiying” character of Olympism. Coubertin writes: “Oh Sport, you are Peace! You forge happy bonds between the peoples by drawing them together in reverence for strength which is controlled, organized and self-disciplined. Through you the young of the entire world learn to respect one another, and thus the diversity of national traits becomes a source of generous and peaceful emulation.” (87) Analysing the effects of the popularisation of sport among the “natives”, Coubertin comes to the conclusion that sport can play an “intelligent and efficient role in colonization”, since it drives the “natives” away from their fight for freedom and teaches them to respect the social order ruled by the strong. (88) Guided by that logic, particularly in the turbulent Europe after the First World War, Coubertin is in favour of introducing sport (as well as physical exercises) among the workers so as to drive them away from the political (class) battlefield to the field of sports competitions and thus establish “social peace”. (89) Sport, as a symbol of an order based on the rule of the strong, becomes a mechanism by which the “hatred that the poor have for the rich” (Coubertin) turns into respect for the ruling class on the part of the oppressed – who thus lose their class distinction. “That is the price we have to pay”, says Coubertin, who is aware that sport as war opens the possibilities for the poor to develop a sense of group affiliation, group strength, combatant (victorious) will, which means to use sport as an institution for a class organization and class struggle against the bourgeoisie. The Olympic Games, as a sports competition in which the members of colonized peoples and the “lower social classes” can participate, are the result of the balance of power between the ruling “elite” and the oppressed and is thus a forced move with a purely political, and not a humanistic or cosmopolitan dimension. (90) If Coubertin finds something strange, it is the order in which the established rules equally apply to everybody. The “sports republic” makes sense for Coubertin only if the ruling class can use it to submit the working “masses”.

The acceptance of international sport as the main form of “joining the international community” includes the acceptance of an order of relations and values which in sport obtain their “pure” form: the so called ”fair-play” is not founded on a respect of man, but on a respect of the ruling order. It involves the “right” to inflict serious bodily injuries and kill; institutionalised degradation of women to “second rate” beings; unscrupulous rivalry between children and the destruction of the feeling of solidarity; the destruction of man’s erotic being and a dehumanized and denaturalized physical drill as the basis of “physical culture”; ultimately, it involves an indisputable acceptance of a life which corresponds to a Social Darwinist and progressistic world order. Hence the risk of death becomes a constituent part of a “sports competition”, while the right to kill becomes a legal and legitimate constituent of a “sports play”: man’s right to life is subjected to the right of capitalism to survival. That is why Coubertin insists on “chivalrous traditions”: the life and death duel is a ritual form of offering sacrifice to the ruling power and a way of expressing total submission to the order. For Coubertin, similarly to Plato and Huizinga, man is only a “Gods’ toy” and as such an extended hand of an order which through a duel (war) affirms its right to decide upon life and death of its subjects. The aristocratic ambition and craving for power, which should confirm that they belong to the ruling “elite” and express indisputable loyalty to the established order, becomes a way of dealing with humanism and love of freedom. Coubertin despises man’s love for other men (“brotherhood is not for man but for angels”), and glorifies man’s love of arms which symbolizes the ruling (murderous) power and man’s unconditional submission to that power. What is the cross for a Christian, for Coubertin is the sword. That it is not an exaggeration can be seen from Coubertin’s “pacifistic” view published in the official “Revue olympique” in 1913: “Contact with arms turns a young man into an adult. The wonderful tradition introduced by the Germans, out of which all chivalry springs”. (91) The ability and readiness to kill a man – that is the highest human virtue! This expresses the essence of Coubertin’s “pacifistic” pedagogy and Olympic “humanism”.

Coubertin is also congenial to Heraclitus’ thesis that “war is the father of all” (polemos pater panton estin) and that “it has revealed some to be Gods, some human; it has made some slaves and some free”. (92) However, Heraclitus’ thesis that “war is a common thing”, and that “everything is born from fight and necessity”, (93) together with his panta rei which is founded on the dialectic of nature, questions the “eternal peace”, for which Coubertin argues and which symbolizes the positive civilisation in which a complete and definite domination of the bourgeoisie over the working “masses”, women and “lower races” is established. For Coubertin, war is not a universal and eternal principle of life to which man is hopelessly subjected, but a tool of the strong for pursuing their strategic interests. Coubertin does not depart from the ancient or Christian, but from the capitalistic universe and he does not hesitate to see in the natural forces and the divine power the means for achieving the political and economic goals of the ruling “elite”. The tyrannical might of the bourgeoisie, based on the development of science and technique, which are alienated from man and which are the instruments for his submission, becomes a totalizing power turning the real and imaginary forces into the levers of “progress”.

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