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Pierre de Coubertin

Baron Pierre de Coubertin envisioned using the athletic format of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece to unite the world in a celebration of sport and solidarity. He also had an affinity for the San Francisco Bay Area.

This article, written by Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California associate professor Deane Lamont, tells the story of de Coubertin's 1893 visit:

Under Californian Skies: Pierre de Coubertin’s Visit to the San Francisco Bay Area, 1893

On Tuesday, October 17, 1893 a San Francisco newspaper, The Morning Call, reported that the previous day had seen the arrival of 31 guests at the Palace Hotel. Some of the visitors had traveled from distant places like Glasgow or Germany, others had come from the nearby towns and cities of San Jose, Salinas, and Santa Rosa.

Among those who registered at the luxurious Market Street hotel was a young man, not yet 30 years of age, whose home was recorded as Paris. This was the Frenchman’s second trip to the United States, but his first to the Pacific Coast. While his arrival in San Francisco was quiet and his visit hardly acknowledged by those of the time (and is little known even today), it was important because San Francisco, its environs, and two nearby universities made a lasting impression on the idealistic young man. While he was almost anonymous then, today he is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of sport. The French visitor’s name was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man who will be forever known as the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Coubertin arrived in San Francisco after a long railroad journey. His fall 1893 train travels had taken him from New York City to Chicago, Denver, "through Mormon country" and finally by mid-October, California. His peregrinations occupied four months of his time.

Why did the young French nobleman visit California? Was he simply a young man with money indulging himself? Or was there more to the time he spent in California than that? A part of the answer to this question can be found in a report that appeared in another San Francisco newspaper of the time, the San Francisco Examiner. On the day after Coubertin arrived, tucked away on page nine, a one paragraph story noted that he was “Here to Study and Encourage Manly Exercises.”

Though the first modern Olympic Games festival was still some years from being a reality when Coubertin made his visit to the Golden State, throughout his 1893 stay in the U.S. he was promoting what John MacAloon, in This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games, called the “Olympic Idea.”

Since the mid-1880s, Coubertin had been engaged in a personal mission aimed at constructing a grand and correct kind of new Olympic festival.

The genesis of his dream can be found, in part, in his knowledge of ancient Greek culture and athletics and in numerous trips to England, where he became enamoured of the social and moral usefulness of that country’s long-established school, university, and amateur sport.

In 1889, an opportunity presented itself that would help round out Coubertin’s experiences of sport. In that year, he accepted the French government’s invitation to visit and report on the organization of the schools and universities of the United States and Canada. On the trip he spent a significant amount of his time in the northeast of the U.S.; he also traveled to Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, New Orleans, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

Coubertin certainly discharged his official responsibility, but his main interest was his hosts’ “sports and physical education.” He experienced many facets of America’s physical culture, including the spectacle of a college football game in New York City. Coubertin came away impressed by North America’s amateur athletic clubs and college athletics.

During his 1889 visit Coubertin had carefully observed America’s version of modern sport and become aware of the mass following that it could engender. Though still a keen observer during his return in 1893, he expended most of his considerable energy on drumming up support for his Olympic dream.

His arrival date in San Francisco during the fall of 1893 was almost certainly not a random one. During the evening of October 17 (the day after he arrived) the Pacific Association of the Amateur Athletic Union met in the parlors of San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Coubertin was probably present. In his own record of the West Coast trip he recalled that he “visited the Olympic Club in San Francisco, with its prophetic name.”

In the section “On the California Coast” of his work "Souvenirs D’Amerique et de Grece", he described the Olympic Club’s members engaged in gymnastics and exercising in a “vast pool sparkling from electric light.” On that October evening the Amateur Athletic Association’s members met to hear a report, perhaps from Coubertin, on the proposed “International Congress of Amateur Athletic Sports scheduled to be held in Paris in June, 1894.” (The Paris meeting, held at the Sorbonne, resulted in the decision to hold the inaugural modern games in Athens in 1896 and to form the International Olympic Committee.)

Many of the Bay Area’s athletic clubs were represented at the Olympic Club meeting as were the University of California, Stanford University, and St. Mary’s College. At the meeting, the group was notified that the United States would be represented at the Paris Congress by Coubertin’s friend and supporter, Professor W.M. Sloane of “Princeton College.”

What did the young Frenchman make of San Francisco? While in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Examiner announced that he would “visit our universities” and “pay special attention to the football athletes.” (Whether he attended a football game while on the Pacific Coast is unknown; however, he could have observed a contest given that both Stanford and the University of California played during the autumn of 1893.)

Coubertin seems to have visited both the University of California, situated, as he wrote, “near Oakland, on the sides of a hill”, and the relatively newly established (1891) Stanford University, located between “San Francisco and Monterey” in then rural Palo Alto. His visit to Berkeley was almost certainly unofficial, in that there is no record of any contact between Coubertin and the University’s president, Martin Kellogg, nor the institution’s regents. Neither is there mention of a visit in the University’s newspaper of the time, The Berkelyan.

Without doubt his visits to the two campuses made a positive impression on the Frenchman. The University of California’s campus was set, according to Coubertin, amid Greek-like hills, and Stanford’s mission style architecture, tropical plants, and art collection also impressed him. He did not forget the two schools. The following year in Paris, Coubertin penned a letter to the French Consulate in San Francisco. In the letter, dated August 5, 1894, he writes, “I have a wonderful memory of my visits to Berkeley and Palo Alto, and wish to repeat these visits once again;” he went on to predict that “these two institutions will have a profound effect on the literary and scientific future of the United States.”

Though he did not stay in and around San Francisco or the two universities for an extended period of time, he was clearly impressed and left a legacy to the two colleges. In the 1894 letter to the French Consulate, the Baron offered a medal to be awarded annually to the best individual debater in a contest between the students of the University of California and Stanford University. Coubertin instructed that the prize, the Carnot Medal (named for the assasinated French president), be awarded yearly following a debate on contemporary French politics.

The first medal was awarded in 1895 to “Mr. Sandwick of Stanford.” While one might expect Coubertin to have offered a prize for sporting prowess, it is quite fitting that the man credited with reinventing the quadrennial games gave a prize that encouraged a different but still agonistic competition between the two universities. Coubertin knew oratory was prized and competitive in ancient Greece, that Olympic victors were celebrated by the great poets Pindar and Euripedes. He was probably also aware that at some of the ancient Greek sport festivals poets competed in front of the assembled crowds.

His sponsorship of this kind of contest was also a good fit for the time and place, in that in the United States, before football became the dominant vehicle for college men to test their mettle one against another, debate had a significant role in satisfying the male competitive urge. Today, probably without knowing it, the undergraduates of Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley help keep Coubertin’s legacy alive in the form of their annual debate competition. Though the Carnot Medal is no longer awarded, the topics are not restricted to French politics, and the debate involves teams rather than individuals, the students still strive for excellence in oratory.

Coubertin seems to have been equally, perhaps more, taken by the San Francisco Bay Area’s geography, climate, and bountiful natural resources. In his 181 page travelogue "Souvenirs D’Amerique et de Grece", he wrote of California that “…the very abundance of this land gives rise to a sense of unreality.” Coubertin especially enjoyed cosmopolitan San Francisco: Chinatown, the bustling hotels, theaters, the homes of millionaires, and the presence of his own countrymen and women in the city all made for an exciting metropolis.

His fond memories of the Pacific Coast did not quickly fade. In his writings he recalled San Francisco’s naturally beautiful setting and noted that it reminded him of Greece -- the place where the ancient games had blossomed and where, in Coubertin’s mind, the great sporting festival should make its reappearance. Greece’s special history and aesthetics made it the obvious choice for the first and later modern Olympics, and the Renovateur wrote that the beauty of the birthplace of the games made him think of two other celebrated cities that he knew well: “One finds,” he noted, “something similar in Paris, and in San Francisco, under those Californian skies which reminds one of the skies of Greece, at the foot of those mountains that have the pure outlines and the iridescent reflections of Hymettus.”

Though Coubertin only visited the Pacific Coast’s metropolis once, in subsequent years he seems to have thought of the place from time to time and, as is now clear, committed some of his recollections to paper. We can assume that periodically his memory of California would have been jogged by new events in his life. Indeed, he probably recalled his West Coast trip while observing the first modern games in Athens in 1896. At the inaugural festival, Coubertin took special notice of the enthusiasm of the Americans sailors in attendance, who whenever they saw the Stars and Stripes unfolded in the stadium began swinging their caps and “uttering load hurrahs.” Their cheers probably allowed the still quite young Frenchman’s mind to slip back several years and recall his visit to the vibrant Pacific Coast, for those American sailors who cheered so lustily had made their way ashore from the U.S. Navy's cruiser “San Francisco” that sat at anchor in nearby Piraeus harbor.