University French-Olympic Connection
David Bauman, Holly Janicki, Chelsea Manchester, Guest Writers
April 20, 2012
Filed under News
No doubt, many members of the University community are planning to support their favorite athletes as they compete for the gold, silver, and bronze medals this summer, but probably few are aware of the profound connection between the founder of the modern Olympic movement and the first rector of the Catholic University.
The French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, is considered one of the most influential people in shaping society’s view of sports and education.
While on a self-funded research expedition to Germany and Switzerland, Dr. Leszek Sibilski, an adjunct professor of Sociology at the University and expert on the Sociology of Sport and Olympic values and ideals, discovered a profound historical and personal connection between Coubertin and Archbishop John J. Keane, the first President of the Catholic University.
Sibilski has always been intrigued by Coubertin’s ideals and integrity. When he learned of Coubertin’s visits to the United States, he began to investigate the baron’s engagement with different universities and learned that the University acted as a source of great inspiration for Coubertin.
“Suddenly something, which I thought impossible, came to realization,” he said. “That someone who created the modern Olympics was so closely associated with this University.”
As a bonus of Sibilski’s research persistence, he was able to find a Polish connection. On behalf of Pope Leo XIII, the Polish Cardinal Miecislaus Ledochowski (who also hailed from Sibilski’s own home town, Poznan) signed the letter of appointment for Bishop Keane to become the first rector of the University.
Through this connection, the University community can trace its own legacy back to Coubertin and the history of the conceptualization and formation of the modern Olympic Games.
Coubertin came to the U.S. to see first-hand the convergence of a sound mind and a healthy body as he toured some of its world-renowned universities where students had the unique ability to excel scholastically as well as athletically.
Coubertin was not only an avid promoter of sports values, but also a devout French Catholic, who was recognized by United States President Grover Cleveland at the university’s groundbreaking ceremonies. Coubertin wrote a report expressing his fascination with CUA in La Reforma Sociale and visited Archbishop Keane several times.
In 1912, Coubertin won the gold medal for literature at the Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm for his poem “Ode to Sport”. Keane and Coubertin shared many of the same values in regards to faith and reason as Keane was something of a mentor to the 27 year-old French Baron.
Norbert Miller, President of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland and expert on the modern Olympic movement, was interviewed via telephone in reference to the connection between Coubertin and Keane.
According to Miller, “Coubertin visited the seven most prestigious universities on the East Coast, and concluded that Cornell University and the Catholic University of America were the most impressive, as they had the most impressive combination of sports and academics.”
When Coubertin visited the campus, he spent time with CUA President Archbishop Keane as well as with the distinguished Cardinal James Gibbons, first Chancellor of the University who was his guide during his visits to Washington, D.C. Both Coubertin and Keane had much in common, including a great interest in democracy and rhetoric.
These two individuals were considered very liberal by their time and were viewed as excellent educators in their respective countries. Both demonstrated forward thinking and were able to communicate their ideas in each other’s native languages.
Coubertin and Keane were known for being independent travelers among their contemporaries and were very open to embracing and experiencing new cultures. According to Sibilski, the two men had “extraordinary minds and free spirits.”
After Coubertin returned to France, he stayed in touch with Archbishop Keane and used him as a resource as he established the foundation of sports and academics in the French system of higher education.
Senior Erin Flynn, a current student of Sibilski, said “I learned from Sibilski that sport is not only about the medals and the glory, but also about the values of respect and solidarity. It has helped me see the relationship between sports and my faith.”
“Every serious institution is looking for all kinds of connections,” Sibilski said. “But that one was extremely close and at a very high level of intellectual collaboration between Bishop Keane and Pierre de Coubertin. We all have to go back and revisit the values and ideals which were introduced by Coubertin. This is a Catholic University; physical education in sport is part of Catholic character formation.”
This summer, as members of the University community join with the world community to watch the games, they can do so with a sense of pride in their own Olympic Connection.