Pierre de CoubertinFor most of the 18th and 19th centuries, France was the most powerful nation in Europe. However, it lost practically every military engagement. Even in wars with England, a formidable naval power but with a small army, the English armies usually won.
Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, noticed that French military leaders argued among themselves more than they did in preparing for battle. France was not preparing its leaders for leadership. To find out why, he studied various national characteristics, concentrating on the educational system.
De Coubertin noticed that sports played a different role in English education than they did in France. In France, individuals and teams played "games," but this was considered a lower-class activity and was looked down upon by the aristocracy. Athletic activities of the aristocracy were highly individualized, such as fencing, and sports were not part of their formal education. While in the British aristocracy, sports, both individual and team, were an integral part of their education.
British leaders could be just as quarrelsome as their French counterparts could, but generally, they seemed to get along with each other, especially in times of crisis. De Coubertin noticed that the British had a fundamental sense of fairness, whether dealing with each other or with other nations. He noted the use of sporting terms in British conversation, such as a certain behavior not being "cricket." When a sport was played "by the rules," it was easy for the losers to offer congratulations to the winners, and the winners took the losers to the local pub.
From his observations, de Coubertin developed the theory that sports could be an important educational tool for developing certain types of behavior. Noticing that sports were a form of controlled violence, he conjectured that sports played on an international level could replace political and military rivalries, and that, like the British, the participants could remain friends off the playing fields. At that time, about the only way people met each other internationally was during a war. De Coubertin saw sports as a way for people from different nations to get to know each other in the context of the friendly rivalry of sport competition.
Searching for a way to promote this concept, he looked to a revival of the ancient Olympic Games as a highly visible historic event that could promote cooperation between nations. After convincing enough national leaders to support the idea, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896; it was a great success.