— Published 30 May 2023

“Olympism is not sport”

A paradox. Until 2019, France did not have a single Olympic Studies Centre. At the time, the IOC counted 43 around the world. But not a single one in the homeland of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, two years after Paris was awarded the Summer Games in 2024.

This historical ‘oversight’ has now been rectified. A Centre for Olympic University Studies and Research (CEROU) was opened in December 2019 in Besançon, in eastern France. Hosted since its creation by the University of Franche-Comté, it is directed by Eric Monnin, who is also a member of the IOC’s Olympic Education Commission. For FrancsJeux, he took an academic look at the Olympic movement, its development and its challenges.

FrancsJeux: What do you teach at an Olympic Studies Centre?

Eric Monnin: In Besançon, the CEROU is organised around four strategic areas: teaching, promoting Olympism, expertise and research. Olympism is an extremely diverse universe. It’s not just sport, but a frontier where many different players come together. A Master’s student is focusing on the IOC’s TOP programme, trying to understand what its members get out of their partnership. A PhD student is looking at the role of timekeeping at the Games. Another is working on Olympic posters and how countries use them to promote their cultural wealth. We are also studying the role of the French-speaking world, the Games and Antiquity, governance, etc.

Do you deal with political issues? Russia and Belarus?

Of course we do. Politics has always been present in the Olympic movement. It has been from the start. Turkey boycotted the Athens Games in 1896 because of its conflict with Greece over the end of the Ottoman Empire. At CEROU, we therefore raise the Russian and Belarusian question. But we need to put it into perspective, because we must not forget that there are 70 armed or political conflicts in the world today.

Will Russia and Belarus be present at the Paris 2024 Games?

This is not a question for the IOC, but for the United Nations. It is up to them to adopt a resolution authorising or banning Russia and Belarus from the Paris 2024 Games. They did so in the 1960s to ban South Africa from the Olympic movement because of its apartheid policy. But Russia, like China, now sits on the UN Security Council…

Is the Olympic movement currently going through a cycle dominated by political issues?

No. The current cycle, since the early 2000s, has been dominated by sustainability and saving the planet. Paris 2024 is a case in point. For the first time at a major sporting event, electricity at the competition venues will not be provided by generators. This is just one example. The previous cycle, between Los Angeles 1984 and Sydney 2000, was more economical. But, inevitably, politics continues to intrude. The Olympic movement cannot escape it. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi demonstrated this. To this day, they remain the last to have been conceived and designed as a showcase for the State.

The host countries of the Games often emphasise the impact of the event on society, particularly in terms of sports participation. Is this impact real?

It’s real, but often short-lived. The buzz quickly dies down. The IOC has understood this. Since 2003-2004, it has been working hard on the intangible legacy of the Olympic Games. Paris 2024 seems to me to be moving in this direction, with 30 minutes of sport a day in schools and Generation 2024. The OCOG is trying to help encourage people to take up sport. Time will tell whether its efforts have paid off.

What do you consider to be the most memorable edition of the Olympic Games?

I can think of three. The Stockholm Games in 1912. They gave pride of place to cultural competitions, while at the same time giving birth to the concept of the Youth Olympic Camp, which is still relevant today. These Games succeeded in combining the work of the body and the mind. More recently, the Barcelona Games in 1992. These were the first universal Games, with the presence of the Dream Team and a team from the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States, after the break-up of the Soviet bloc. Barcelona 1992 was not only a sporting revolution, but also an urban one. Finally, the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, where the highly utopian idea of a unified Korean team was brought to life at the opening ceremony (photo above).

Can the Olympic Games be a tool for peace?

They are a tool for bringing together all the nations of the world. The UN currently has 193 countries, while the IOC has 206. Bringing so many people together in one place facilitates dialogue and discussion. At the Helsinki Games in 1952, the USSR and its satellite countries took part for the first time. Everyone was brought together. Major international sporting events help to initiate a different vision of society. That’s why I’m in favour of all athletes taking part, even if some have neutral status.