Today, we wheeze our way to Beijing. The University of Houston's Honors College
presents this program about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Media coverage of the Beijing Olympics seems more
about athletes -- not records -- that will fall. Cars, construction and
coal-burning factories cast a permanent and leaden shroud over this city
of twelve million. Particulate matter, not athletic matters, is on everyone's
mind because it will be in everyone's lungs. The American trainer has told
his athletes to wear masks from the airport to the starting line.
This is a funny business: you see, the modern Olympics were meant to cure the
ills that overwhelm Beijing. This, at least, was the hope of the Olympics
founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin was the child of an aristocratic
Parisian family. In the wake of France's many revolutions Coubertin's noble
family became as irrelevant as, well, ancient Greek.
As it turned out, ancient Greek -- specifically the ancient Greek Olympics --
would be Coubertin's and France's salvation.
The young aristocrat spent his youth fencing, boxing and riding horses. But
Coubertin then visited England in 1883 and had a vision. He toured Rugby and
Eton, on whose playing fields Waterloo had been won. What if France had had
its own playing fields, Coubertin wondered? Would it have lost at Waterloo?
Or been humiliated in its war with Germany in 1870? Couldn't organized sports
remake France's martial spirit?
In fact, couldn't it also counter the ills of industrialization and urbanization
that were transforming France and sickening its citizens? Coubertin decided to
rejuvenate a pallid and puny France. His aim was to put "color in the cheeks
of a solitary and confined youth, [toughen] his body and character by sport."
Coubertin quickly discovered that the lack of green spaces was matched by the
state's lack of interest. Many officials even believed physical competition
But Coubertin persisted. The turning point was a meeting he organized in Paris
in 1894, where representatives from thirteen countries agreed to revive the ancient
Olympics. Coubertin was overjoyed: he believed the resurrected Olympics would make
the world more peaceful. He also thought they would offer a healthy and pure ideal
to a world swept by mass industrialization, mass entertainment, and mass consumption.
And so, the Olympics were reborn in 1896. But what about Coubertin's dreams? Some
might say they were stillborn; WWI certainly buried his internationalist hopes.
And the ills of modernization have not gone away. Look at China, overwhelmed by
the same problems that plagued 19th century Europe, but at a vastly greater scale.
In 2002, there were 25,000 premature deaths in Beijing alone due to particulate
matter. In comparison, Coubertin's goal of putting color back in youthful cheeks
seems positively quaint. Less quaint is the prospect of athletes running and
jumping with asthma inhalers at hand.
Yet, the perseverance of these athletes reflects Coubertin's own doggedness on behalf
of an ideal that, though battered, still inspires. Let the games begin!
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. Weber, My France: Politics, Culture and Myth.
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
For more on the founding of the modern Olympics see Episode 1137.
Jesse Owens, victor at Hitler's 1936 Olympics (internationalism ensnared). Both images courtesy
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.