Though he turned 133 on New Year's Day, Baron Pierre de
Coubertin exudes all the physical and intellectual vigor of a
man 20 years his junior. We know this because the father of the
modern Olympic Games recently sat down with SI to give his first
interview in 59 years. Sat may not be the best word. The French
aristocrat was 5'3" in his prime, and age has reduced him to a
tiny action figure of his former self. Better to say that for
the interview he perched atop several copies of his
just-published autobiography in a chair in the elegant lobby of
the Pierre hotel in New York City, where he had come to promote
his sensational memoirs, entitled Baronaked!
SI: The papers said you died of a heart attack while walking in
Geneva on Sept. 2, 1937. Whatever gave them that idea?
PDC [shrugs]: Je ne sais quoi. But to this day there is a grave
bearing my name in Lausanne. It's the damnedest thing. I always
tell people, "I'm not dead, I'm living in Switzerland!" Granted,
it's a subtle distinction.
SI: Your book is called Baronaked! and in fact athletes at the
ancient Olympic Games did compete unclothed, a tradition you
chose not to honor in creating the modern Games. Why not?
PDC: Two words: pommel horse. If you catch my drift.
SI: Touche. Then again, the 1896 Olympics were, in many ways,
closer to the ancient Greek games than to the Olympics of today.
PDC: D'accord, because there was no TV in 1896, a concept we
called the Zip-o-Cast. But it wasn't only TV. For instance, no
women competed, which really diminished the spectacle of
synchronized swimming. And just 13 nations participated, not
tout le monde like today. There were no triplecasts and Dream
Teams, no Cobis and Izzys, no pinheads and Gilloolys--which are
the same thing, no?
SI: When you graduated from the Sorbonne--at the top of your
class, no less--you resolved to do something big with your life.
Did you know then what that would be?
PDC: Like many students I traveled abroad after graduation. At
that time I became impressed by the physical education in
England. At the Sorbonne I had studied the ancient Greeks and
Romans. In 1892 I returned to the Sorbonne and told a gathering
there, "It is time that our modern civilization bring back the
ancient Olympic Games....The world needs a new version of this
marvelous Olympic festival." I can tell you, ballroom dancing is
not what I had in mind.
SI: What are your favorite sports?
PDC: As you know, I was an amateur fencer, boxer and rower, what
you might call a health nut. [He fingers a massive cigar.] I
only started smoking these when I turned 130. Why not? I mean,
what the H-E-double-pole-vaults can it hurt? [Strikes a match to
the cigar.] By the way, I call this "lighting the Olympic torch."
SI: When the real torch is lit for the centennial Games, the
flame will burn in Atlanta. What do you know about the city?
PDC: Ah, Atlanta! I call it Hotlanta. Much as the ancient Greeks
spoke of the lost city of "Hotlantis!" Incidentally, I hear
there's a Hard Rock Cafe there now.
SI: In Atlanta?
PDC: There too.
SI: You say you spent your personal fortune to promote the
Games. It's a pity you didn't have corporate sponsors then.
PDC: Au contraire, mon frere. We had sponsors in 1896. Giorgios
Averoff, for instance. He was a Greek architect who donated a
million drachmas to renovate the Athens stadium and add
trackside marble thrones for the king and queen. [Fidgets.]
Speaking of which, I have to visit the marble throne myself, if
you would excuse me.
SI: Please, sir, just a few moments. And might I add, you look
like a million drachmas. Is it something in the water?
PDC: My wife, Marie, lived to be 101. So perhaps there is
something in the Evian. But I think it has more to do with the
fact that I lead a full life. I love to play Beethoven on the
piano. You know, it was my original intent to award prizes for
the arts as well as for sports at the Olympics. I hoped to
inspire another Monet, a Cezanne, a Renoir! How could I know
we'd get LeRoy Neiman instead?
SI: You mention Monet, Cezanne and Renoir. It's been written
that you so love your native land, you tried to enlist in the
French army in 1914, when you were 51. True?
PDC: I wanted to go to the front lines, but they made me an
interpreter. Go figure. Actually, I have always been apolitical
and peace-loving. It is why I settled in Switzerland. It is why
I revived the Olympics. Life's too short to hate. Even when
SI: You've written hundreds of books. But it's a paragraph in
Roan d'un Railie that crystallizes your philosophy. You wrote,
"Life is fine because struggle is fine: not the bloody struggle,
fruit of tyranny and of blood passions, that which maintains
ignorance and routine--but the holy struggle of souls seeking
truth, light and justice." Monsieur de Coubertin, have you found
truth, light and justice?
PDC: Let us say I have found truth and justice. [Produces a
cigar from his pocket humidor.] Frankly, I could use a light.
B/W PHOTO: LAGET [Pierre de Coubertin riding motorized tricycle]