A 14-page manuscript has cost one anonymous buyer the gold—or rather, $8.8 million, a record-breaking price realized at a Sotheby’s auction last month. The text, an annotated, handwritten draft of Pierre de Coubertin’s 1892 proposal to revive the Olympic Games, is now the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever sold.
De Coubertin’s draft beat the previous record holder—a Babe Ruth Yankees jersey—by more than $3 million. Per Sotheby’s Halina Loft, the December 18 auction marked the first time the original manuscript was exhibited publicly; during the 2009 Olympic Congress a decade prior, a high-quality copy was displayed at Copenhagen City Hall.
As the start of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo approaches, anthropologist and historian John MacAloon’s 1981 observation is worth revisiting: “No modern institution so important as the Olympics owes its existence so fully to the actions of a single person. ... For all the vast changes that have accrued to the Games since their first celebration in 1896, they still bear indelibly—from their flag to their official ideology—the stamp of Pierre de Coubertin.”
According to his official Olympic biography, de Coubertin, born to an aristocratic French family in 1863, was first inspired to revive the long-gone Olympic Games by the 1874 excavation of the ancient Greek city of Olympia. After his childhood was rocked by the Franco-Prussian War—Prussian soldiers filled his croquet box with explosives and detonated it on a nearby railroad—the young de Coubertin saw the potential of an international sports competition to foster peace.
Rather than pursuing a career in law or the church as his family expected, de Coubertin made education reform his mission. Specifically, he wanted to incorporate physical education into French schools, a practice already implemented in Great Britain.
De Coubertin “was a product of his time,” sports historian Randy Roberts tells Atlas Obscura’s Isaac Schultz. “The worst thing for him was the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. He felt sports were a way to revive French masculinity.”
The educator carried the idea with him for decades, mentioning it to a few colleagues in the 1880s and early 1890s. While giving the keynote speech at the fifth anniversary of the Union of French Sports Societies on November 25, 1892, he presented his idea publicly for the first time. For most members of the audience, the suggestion to revive the Olympic Games—which hadn’t convened for more than 1,500 years—came as a surprise.
In his closing statement, de Coubertin presented the Olympics as a way to ensure peace.
“Let us export rowers, runners and fencers,” he said. “This is the free trade of the future, and the day that it is introduced into the everyday existence of old Europe, the cause of peace will receive new and powerful support.”
Listeners’ reaction was lukewarm. Some even laughed. But de Coubertin persevered, and as secretary general of the Union of French Sports Societies, he soon assembled a winning team. Delegations from international sports groups, as well as honorary members who included six future Nobel Peace Prize winners, met for the first Olympic Congress on June 16, 1894. A week later, they voted unanimously to revive the Olympic Games and form the International Olympic Committee.
The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. The second, hosted in Paris, followed four years later.
De Coubertin insisted early on that the Olympics be both international and inclusive. When he retired as president of the IOC in 1925, he reminded his colleagues, “Is there any need to recall that the games are not the property of any country or of any particular race, and that they cannot be monopolized by any group whatsoever? They are global. All people must be allowed in, without debate.”
Still, despite his talk of inclusion, de Coubertin openly opposed allowing women in elite track and field events.
Times have changed since the early Olympics. De Coubertin didn’t expect today’s displays of national pride, says Roberts to Atlas Obscura. Instead, he hoped for international unity. And last September, Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix beat Usain Bolt’s world record for the number of gold medals at the track and field World Championships. She now holds 13 titles, in addition to nine Olympic medals, six of which are gold.