The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed in 1896 to govern the organization and development of what were understood to be a modern version of the Greek Olympic Games. Its first president was Dimitros Vikelas, a Greek, and its secretary was Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin’s energy and his vision have been the true inspiration behind the modern Olympic movement.
The IOC has effectively governed the Olympic movement for over 100 years. However, that period of time has seen many conflicts and controversies within the IOC and in the Olympic movement as a whole. At first, the main obstacle de Coubertin faced to creating an international Olympic movement was the lack of organization of sport internationally. Early sports organizations-most of them amateur-had trouble organizing their own sports and leagues nationally. As a result, cooperating with the IOC internationally was an extreme challenge.
In the early years, de Coubertin’s own vision for the Games dictated much of the IOC’s policies and procedures. His prejudices also influenced the movement. For example, de Coubertin was adamant in his rejection of female athletes’ participation in the Games. An embodiment of Victorian ideals and prejudices, de Coubertin thought women’s place was in the home, and bearing and raising children. Indeed, he thought of women’s competition as unnatural, immoral, and “indecent.” As a result of de Coubertin’s powerful position within the IOC, it would take many years to have women participating in any significant way.
The IOC has always claimed a “hands-off” approach to political struggles and controversies surrounding the Games. Claiming, now for over 100 years, that the IOC is not a political organization, and that sport in its purest sense (one represented best by the IOC, of course) is inherently nonpolitical, the IOC has always had trouble answering critics who point out obvious exceptions to the claim. At the simplest level, the act of competing under national flags-something the IOC encourages-is a political event. At a higher political level, the Olympic Games have been used for political demonstration through boycotts, and the Olympic movement was probably the most visible means of symbolically fighting the Cold War.
The post-World War II years were lean ones for the Olympic movement. The IOC and hosting cities and nations often had trouble breaking even. At its worst, the Games went into great financial debt, most notoriously in the Summer Games in Montreal in 1976. However, since that time, the Games have taken a more “market friendly” approach, encouraging private sponsorship and negotiating massive television contracts with networks around the world, especially those in the U.S.A. As a result, the IOC is a much more financially solvent organization than it was a few decades ago. However, it is not clear that the IOC is following its founder’s original plan for the movement. After all, de Coubertin was a pure amateur at heart. The current commercially oriented Olympics would make de Coubertin concerned, to say the least.