De Coubertin medal: 4th Olympic medal, True Spirit of Sportsmanship
August 27, 2016 2:52 PM   Subscribe

68 years after the first modern Olympic Games, a fourth medal was added to recognize athletes who displayed exceptional sportsmanship. Awarded on rare occasions, the Pierre de Coubertin medal, also known as the True Spirit of Sportsmanship medal, was inaugurated at the 1964 Winter Olympics. It was there that Eugenio Monti's kind gestures lead to two gold medals, for the two- and four-man bobsled, but for the other teams. The medal has now been awarded 18 times, with the latest medal going to New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin and US's Abbey D’Agostino, after the pair tangled in their 5,000m race in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, but got up to complete the race together.

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was a French educator and historian, founder of the International Olympic Committee, and is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. He died in 1937, and this medal is awarded in celebration of his view of the games (and life), which are retold on the BBC's introduction to Sports Ethics guide: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Not all awards were given to participants in Summer or Winter games, and thrice the medal has been awarded posthumously. Here's a quick list of the 18 exceptional individuals:
  1. 1936 Summer Olympics - Lu(t)z Long of Germany, awarded posthumously in 1964 for suggesting to Jesse Owens to make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there to play it safe, after Owens had fouled two prior qualifying attempts. Owens followed this suggestion, then went on not only to qualify, but take the gold. Long was the first to congratulate Owens.
    "It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens said. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II." Owens, though, would continue to correspond with Long's family.
  2. 1964 Winter Olympics - Eugenio Monti was expected to take gold with his two- and four-man bobsled teams for Italy. After learning that the British bobsledders broke their sled and needed a bolt, Monti lent them the part only to have the British pair of Robin Dixon and Tony Nash run a spectacular time and claim the gold. He also lent parts to the Canadian bobsled team (or Monti's mechanics repaired the Canadian sled), who would also go on to win the gold in the four-man race. While Monti's two teams only won bronze in both events, he was later honored with the first Pierre de Coubertin medal for his sportsmanship. And then Monti returned to the Olympics four years later and took gold with his two- and four-man bobsled teams.
  3. 1969 - On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the modern Olympic movement by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and his fellow idealists, an Olympic Week was celebrated in the German Democratic Republic. It was there that President Franz Jonas of Austria received the Coubertin medal. (PDF)
  4. 1976 Winter Olympics - Karl Heinz Klee was awarded the De Coubertin medal in February 1977, after Klee served as the secretary-general of the '76 Innsbruck Olympics Committee, which was dubbed the "simple Olympics" by it's organizers (Google books preview). Klee was recognized four years after he resigned as president of the Austrian Ski Federation, when Austrian racer Karl Schranz was expelled from the '72 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan over his dispute with IOC president Avery Brundage, a wealthy American businessman.
  5. 1988 Summer Olympics - Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was in second place, half way through the fifth of the seven total races to determine the medalists in the Finn class when he saw the Singapore team's dinghy capsize. Lemieux deviated from his course to pull Joseph Chan and Siew Shaw Her from the water, and then they waited for another boat to take the rescued sailors back to shore. Then he rejoined the heat, coming in twenty-second place. However, the International Yacht Racing Union recognized his actions and decided to reinstate Lemieux's position when he went off course, rewarding with a second-place finish in his race. Lemieux went on to place eleventh in the class, but was awarded Lemieux the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for Sportsmanship by Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, who said "by your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage, you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal." When asked about his heroic and selfless act, Lemieux commented
    My thought process was: do they really need help because a lot of times you are able to save yourself. But I couldn’t understand if they were saying yes or no. I just had to go. If I went to them and they didn’t really need help, c’est la vie. If I didn’t go, it would be something you would regret for the rest of your life. But I wasn’t thinking that at the time. It’s only now, in retrospect, you think that way. At the time, you just go.
    Lawrence Lemieux talks about sailing in the windy, choppy conditions and going to the rescue of the Singapore sailors
  6. 1994 Winter Olympics - Australian bobsledder Justin Harley McDonald was the captain for his country's two- and four-man bobsledding teams in Lillehammer, Norway. The coach of the Swedish four-man bobsled team asked the Australian captain if he could spare five kilos -- about 11 pounds -- of ballast. He could and did. Sweden then beat Australia, and the accommodating Australian, Justin McDonald, won a Pierre de Coubertin Fair Play Trophy*.
  7. 1999 - Raymond Gafner was a Swedish ice hockey player, referee, and a member of the IOC between 1969 and 1990, and President of the Swiss Olympic Committee (PDF). When numerous new countries were born after decolonisation, he was one of the first to encourage the support of their athletes. (PDF) Because of this, he became a member of the International Olympic Aid Committee (PDF), an organization which has since become Olympic Solidarity. As an IOC honorary member and administrateur délégué was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal by the Executive Board during its last meeting of the year. This award pays tribute to those who, through their teaching, research and writing of Intellectual works, have contributed to the promotion of Olympism in the spirit of Pierre de Coubertin. (PDF)
  8. 1952 Summer Olympics - Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who had never marathon before, won gold in 10,000 meter, 5,000 meters and marathon races (modern edits of period footage from the official Olympic Channel on YT). International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch awarded Zátopek posthumously the Pierre de Coubertin medal, the IOC's highest honour.
    "I was in the Olympic stadium in Helsinki in 1952 when he was the winner of the marathon," he said. "All 60,000 spectators were standing and crying Zátopek, Zátopek, Zátopek. At that moment, I understood very well what the Olympic spirit means. "Emil was a living legend for all generations. Emil Zátopek was a legend, and a legend never dies."
    He is remembered fondly, with touching stories, by Richard Askwith and Mike Sandrock, and you can see a recent short piece from CNN. Each year, the Czech Republic celebrates the three gold medals Emil won at the Helsinki Olympics with Zátopek's Golden Week, with three races take place in a different city in the Czech Republic each year, always on the same dates that Zátopek won his medals.
  9. 2002 Winter Olympics - Spencer Eccles helped organize the 2002 Olympic Winter Games hosted by Salt Lake City (PDF) as a member of the three person executive committee of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee and, in recognition of his critical contribution to the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake, was appointed mayor of the Olympic Village during the games. He was awarded the De Coubertin medal on February 2002.
  10. 2003 Rugby Test Match - All Blacks captain Tana Umaga stopped the game to check on Colin Charvis of Wales after he was knocked unconscious. the International Fair Play Committee* awarded Umaga the Pierre de Coubertin medal, making Umaga the first New Zealander to receive the award.
  11. 2004 Summer Olympics - Brazilian long-distance runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima had been running for almost two hours, leading the race when he got attacked by a protester who pushed him to the side of the road, four miles from the finish. Vanderlei recovered and kept running, but was surpassed by Stefano Baldini and Meb Keflezighi, ended up taking 3rd.
    “The attack was a surprise for me. I couldn’t defend myself because I was concentrating on my race. I don’t know what would have happened if the Greek man who helped me so quickly (Polyvios Kossivas) hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage. Perhaps things could have been different, because I started to have problems after that, I couldn't concentrate. It was very difficult for me to finish. With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal. Still, I am very proud of myself, because this is the result of very hard work. I was well trained and I was expecting to win a medal. I have achieved my goal, no matter what happened, and I am happy to be on the medal podium with these athletes.”
  12. May 17, 2007 - Russian foil fencer Elena Novikova-Belova was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for outstanding services to the Olympic Movement at the Official Closing Ceremony of the XI International Scientific Congress “Modern Olympic Sports and Sport for All” in the Sports Palace in Minsk, Belarus.
  13. May 17, 2007 - Israeli racewalker Shaul Ladany, who is one of the few of Yugoslavia's 70,000 Jews to outlive the Holocaust, went on to compete in two Olympic Games. Though he didn't medal either year, he also survived the Munich massacre in '72, and , he holds the world 100km and world 50-mile records, which he set in 1972. In 2007, Ladany was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal as a special person with "unusual outstanding sports achievements during a span covering over four decades." He turned 80 this year, and he continues to compete in race-walking and swimming events.
  14. 2008 Summer Olympics - Pavle Kostov, Petar Cupać and their coach Ivan Bulaja, out of the medal running, lent their boat to Danes Jonas Warrer and Martin Kirketerp Ibsen whose mast had broken shortly before the start of their race. The Danes went on to win a gold medal, while the Croatian team was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin International Trophy for Fair Play* on November 18, 2008.
  15. April 2, 2009 - Australian Ronald Harvey, former CEO of the Australian Sports Commission and Director of the Australian Institute of Sport Ron Harvey became the second Australian to receive the prestigious De Coubertin medal. A long-time basketballer player and coach and leading sports administrator who served as director of the Australian Institute of Sport from 1987 to 1988 and as Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Sports Commission from 1988 to 1989. He was awarded for "an outstanding contribution to the promotion of the Olympic spirit."
  16. 2014 Winter Olympics - Canadian sports journalist and writer Richard Garneau was posthumously awarded on February 6, 2014.
    The French voice of sports in Canada, Richard Garneau’s career spanned six decades and took him to 23 Olympic Games, more than any other journalist in the world. During the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Garneau was posthumously awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal by the International Olympic Committee in recognition of his exceptional service to the Olympic movement.... But his true passion was the non-professional sports of the Olympic Games. He loved track and field and was himself a marathon runner. At one time he was head of the Quebec Federation of Athletics.
  17. October 13, 2014 - Michael Hwang is a Barrister and Arbitrator in Singapore. Between 2004 and 2013 he served as Singapore's Non-Resident Ambassador to Switzerland. On stepping down form the Council in 2014 he was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for services to the International Olympic Council.
    On behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IOC President Dr Thomas Bach, IOC Member Mr Ng Ser Miang awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal to Mr Michael Hwang, 71, for his exceptional services to the Olympic movement at the Singapore Sports Museum.
  18. 2016 Summer Olympics - The story of runners Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (NZL) is one of humanity and sacrifice which has already captured the hearts of people across the globe. New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin tripped and fell to the ground during the 5,000m race, accidentally bringing American D’Agostino down behind her with around 2,000m to go. The 24-year-old D’Agostino was quick to get up again, yet instead of carrying on with her race she stopped to help the stricken Hamblin to her feet, encouraging her to join her in attempting to finish the race. However, during her tumble, D’Agostino suffered an ankle injury, slowing the runner down, but Hamblin sportingly hung back to in return offer her encouragements. The two women went on to complete the race together.
    Hamblin spoke to reporters afterward to praise D’Agostino’s kindness. “I went down, and I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ ” Hamblin said. “Then suddenly, there’s this hand on my shoulder [and D’Agostino saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.’ “I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. That girl is the Olympic spirit right there. I’ve never met her before. I’ve never met this girl before, and isn’t that just so amazing? Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that you’re never, ever going to forget for the rest of your life, that girl shaking my shoulder like, ‘Come on, get up.’ ”
    The IOC decided to award both the New Zealander and the American the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin award. Otherwise known as the International Fair Play Trophy, the award has only been handed out 17 [or so] times in Olympic history.
* The International Fair Play Committee, posted previously, has three kinds of World Fair Play Trophies, inspired by Pierre de Coubertin, Jean Borotra, and Willi Daume, for gestures of fair play in which an athlete impedes their own performance to aid a fellow competitor, athletes who have displayed fair play throughout their careers, and person or organisation that has promoted the spirit of fair play, respectively. The De Coubertin Medal and the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy are different awards, but have significant overlap and might have lead to a longer list of De Coubertin Medal recipients on Wikipedia than there should be.
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Great post! I didn't know this medal existed.
posted by jonathanhughes at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wonderful post.

The Hamblin / D'Agostino story was my favourite of the 2016 Olympics, like 'wanting to bake these women magically no-calorie cupcakes from now until roughly eternity' favourite. I had no idea that the De Coubertin medal existed, and I'm so glad those two have something to commemorate that moment, and that it places them in the same lineage of sportsmanship as Lutz Long and Jesse Owens.
posted by Collaterly Sisters at 3:18 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I never heard of this medal until it was awarded to Hamblin and D'Agostino. It really was an amazing moment in the Games.
posted by SisterHavana at 3:29 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The last letter that Long wrote to Owens during WWII, while Long was stationed in North Africa with the German army.

Wonderful post. Thank you for taking the time to put it together.
posted by lharmon at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2016 [50 favorites]

A footnote to Vanderlei's receiving the trophy - he lit the Olympic torch in the stadium during the opening ceremony this year, probably for precisely that reason.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:26 PM on August 27, 2016

Jesus, that Luz Long letter to Jesse Owens. The Gambling/D'Agistino story got the tears loaded; that letter just brought on full-on weeping.
posted by KingEdRa at 4:27 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Remembering Tana Umaga makes me want to move home to NZ. The very definition of a good bastard. Also had one of the best comebacks to a ref when done for a (not) high Rugby tackle "We're not playing tiddlywinks here". The fact that he's a good Petone boy and resembles the Predator also helps.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wonderful post, thank you!
posted by phunniemee at 6:15 PM on August 27, 2016

The last letter that Long wrote to Owens during WWII, while Long was stationed in North Africa with the German army.

Wonderful find, thanks for sharing lharmon!
posted by filthy light thief at 6:18 PM on August 27, 2016

Thank you for sharing this! I never even knew these medals existed. I wish the Olympic committee (and media) would highlight De Coubertin medals more.
posted by theappleonatree at 8:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the things I like about sports, when I watch them, is that there are moments like these that end up showcasing some other wonderful quality than winning. The thing I remember most about the 2014 Winter Olympics is Jeremy Abbott taking a bad fall during the figure skating finals, hitting the boards, and then getting up to finish his routine.

Earlier this year, at one of my son's gymnastics meets, a teammate of his did very poorly on parallel bars. These are kids of 8 and 9, and Teammate cried. But by the time they moved on to the next apparatus, Teammate had pulled himself together, and he did very well for the rest of his meet. I was proud of him in a different way than you're proud and happy for someone who goes out there and kills it. The skillset that good athletes have is much broader and deeper than simply "can do this physical thing really well."
posted by not that girl at 8:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

So about 2/3 of these are stories like Hamblin and D'Agistino, but sprinkled in there are quite a few cases of giving this to an admin that people liked, or a runner that was very good? That's weird, right? That the popular guy who organized the athletes' village or ran the Australian sports fed gets the same award as the guy who stopped racing to saved some capsized sailors or the Holocaust survivor. Unless I'm missing something, Zátopek was awarded a sportsmanship medal for winning a bunch of different races. Like everything Olympics, there's clearly an affecting story surrounded by haze of weird/political decisions.

posted by thecjm at 8:39 PM on August 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

It looks like Hamblin and D'Agostino are also the first women to be awarded the medal. Congratulations to both of them.
posted by daybeforetheday at 9:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Great post. Much thanks for all the research and information.
posted by AugustWest at 10:33 PM on August 27, 2016

daybeforetheday, Hamblin and D'Agostino were preceded by Yelena Novikova-Belova, the Russian fencer. She's #12!

So about 2/3 of these are stories like Hamblin and D'Agistino, but sprinkled in there are quite a few cases of giving this to an admin that people liked, or a runner that was very good? That's weird, right?

I can't imagine a better demonstration of the actual Olympic spirit, really.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:09 PM on August 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

This is a fantastic post. Thank you so much for putting all this together.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:02 AM on August 28, 2016

I like very few things about the olympics, because I am a grumpypants. But I am definitely adding "the existence of a special, very rare medal for being good at Olympics rather than for being good at any specific Olympics event" to my list of reasons to like the Olympics.

(the list is currently two items long. The other item is short track speed skating, which as far as I can tell is the perfect sport, and I'm sad that I only get to watch it once every four years)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2016

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