The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
This is the current form of the Olympic Creed (also termed the Olympic Code, the Olympic Credo, an alternative Olympic Motto or the Olympic Competition Motto; see Olympic Motto as it appears on the scoreboard at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, although many permutations of this basic message have been seen. The exact origin of this phrase is not clear, but it is possible that Pierre de Coubertin adopted this creed after hearing Ethelbert Talbot, the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, speak at St. Paul’s Cathedral on 19 July 1908, during the London Olympics. The service was given for the Olympic athletes who were all invited. Talbot was in London for the fifth Conference of Anglican Bishops. During the conference, many of the visiting bishops spoke in various churches. Talbot actually did not say anything close to the above exact words during his speech, stating instead:
The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St. Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible, but incorruptible, and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share the equal joy of the contest.
However, Coubertin heard Talbot speak and, at a banquet at the Grafton Galleries on 24 July 1908, he echoed Bishop Talbot’s words as follows:
L’important dans ces Olympiades, c’est moins d’y gagner que d’y prendre part. (The important thing at these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part.)
He then went on to say that these very words were the foundation of a clear and sound philosophy:
L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe mais le combat. L’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu. (The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.”)
More recent research by Prof. David C. Young indicates that Coubertin probably had this thought in mind prior to hearing the speech of the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. Young attributes the phrase to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Coubertin had read in school. A sentence in that work reads,
Nec tam turpe fuit vinci quam contendisse decorum est (It was not so shameful to be beaten as it is honorable to have contended)
Coubertin’s knowledge of this statement is supplemented by a speech he gave in November 1894, given to the Parnassus Literary Society in Athens, in which he said,
Le déshonneur ne consisterait pas ici à être battu: il consisterait à ne pas se battre. (The dishonor here would consist not of being beaten, it would consist of not contending.)
In connection with the Olympic Games in Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920, Coubertin again spoke of the words of the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, but it did not attract any notice. At the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1928 no reference was made to Bishop Talbot’s sermon in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1908. However, at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1932) the message appeared during the Opening Ceremonies on the great scoreboard of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was finally established at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin when, at the Opening Ceremony, Pierre de Coubertin’s voice was heard over the loudspeaker, in a recording, delivering his message,
Important aux Jeux Olympiques, ce n’est pas tant d’y gagner que d’y avoir pris part; car l’essentiel dans la vie, ce n’est pas tant de conquérir que d’avoir bien lutté. (Important in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; for the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.)