It is no coincidence that two of the greatest movers over the last two centuries were of Franco heritage. Two men so passionate about their causes that they would have to swim against the current of society, occasionally while being handcuffed and tied to a fleet of boats. One man gave us the Modern Olympic Games and the other gave mainstream medical legitimacy to physical fitness. But is there something unique about the French that inspires an affinity for physical activity and feats of strength?
Liberté, égalité, fraternité;
How the French Revolution led to the Olympics
The 18th century brought about two great revolutions in the European sphere; the American Revolution and the French Revolution. It was a time of great upheaval and redefinition of national values. In America, we experimented with what is now known as the American Trinity (Liberty, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum) while France declared as the motto of their Revolution; Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The two are seemingly identical mottos- save for the obvious religious overtones of the American set- however, these two national ethea shaped two very different nations.
As the French elevated the idea of equality-of-all-citizens, they lowered sharp blades upon the necks of the aristocracy and the clergy. This secularization left no author of moral ideals such as equality, but man himself. If man grants equality, man must maintain equality through constant progressive and politically-correct social reconstruction. This national value of man-made equality was not constrained just to economics. The egalitarianism went so far as to affect the distinction between the sexes.
84 years after the end of the Revolution, at the age of twenty, Pierre de Coubertin found himself in a country of men more concerned with vanity than masculinity. He was concerned with the “sexual suicide” Geroge Gilder would later write about.
Having been born to an aristocratic family in Paris, France, young Pierre had the means to spend his days romanticizing the classic depiction of masculinity he only found in the great works of the Ancients.
He felt frustrated with the comparison of his experience in life and the heroic figures he read about in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He took up the crusade to bring sports and physical education to French public schools as a way to restore the sense of “moral and social strength” in his fellow Frenchmen. Physical strength and contest was something that seemingly fell out of the Franco mind when the Revolutionaries replaced Hercules (a long time symbol of the pre-Revolutionary French monarchy) as a national symbol with Marrianne.
After many years of multi-national campaigning, Pierre de Coubertin revived the Ancient Olympiad and gave the world what is so cherished as the Modern Olympic Games. What was initially done to reverse the spread of feminism over his fellow man, has become an inspiration to many individual athletes and given pause to the nations they represent, to reflect upon whatever political and physical wars in which they may be engaged. The dream of de Coubertin was that at least every 4 years, the world will be at peace and relegate all animosity to the field, court, pitch, pool or track.
Francois Henri le Magnifique
One year before Pierre de Coubertin left this Earth, a young son of French immigrants opened what is thought to be one of the first modern health clubs in America. “Jack” LaLanne had spent the latter part of his adolescence rabidly self-teaching and exploring the mysteries of physical fitness and bodybuilding. One must understand that Jack’s message was delivered at a time when much of America had only seen men of his physical stature at the circus. This “strongman” in a jumpsuit had to rely on great feats of strength and endurance in order to be taken seriously by the American public.
Sitting here on my physio-ball chair, typing this exploration of physical virtue, I am awe-struck at the seemingly insurmountable social resistance young Jack LaLanne faced as he pioneered and invented the fitness industry. He saw a certain complacency amongst his fellow Americans and he stopped at nothing to inspire us for our own good, to get our collective butts off the couch and move. Much of what we take for granted, such as the “Jumping Jack” and the Smith machine are creations from ideas first created inside the brain of the Magnificent Jack LaLanne.
So much “runoff” good has come from the individual dreams of these two men. They both saw great flaws in their respective society and they worked tirelessly for their cause. Their revolutionary thinking resulted in the unconventional utilization of sport and physical activity for the purpose of building character, virtue, mental fortitude and eventually a greater awareness of the necessity to maintain a healthy balance of both mind and body. It seems that with any enlightenment and advancement in areas of the mind comes a corporeal neglect that overcomes a people and marginalizes anyone who espouses the metaphysical worth to the individual and the society at large of a life in motion. The seemingly intuitive lessons of sportsmanship, honor and a sense of overcoming adversity go lost to a society that does not properly respect the mind/body dynamic. Both men served as reminders to us just as we had become too far intoxicated with the post enlightenment thought of the 18th century and the post Industrial Revolution brought on by Henry Ford in the 20th century. Today we are faced with a population led by a government more focused on genetically engineering our food supply and providing sick-care on mass rather than heeding the simple messages of Coubertin and LaLanne. Do not sacrifice the body for the sake of an enlightened and more sophisticated mind, for as smart and advanced as we are, the wonders of the physical body are still a mystery to us. With our minds, we have freed slaves, negotiated treaties, created the internet and sent men to the moon; but we have yet to manufacture a kidney or cure a cold.