Philip Barker

A week ago there came a point in the Opening Ceremony when the Olympic motto was displayed on the floor of the stadium. "Faster, Higher, Stronger….Together."

The addition of the word "together" was at the suggestion of current International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach earlier this year. The International Pierre de Coubertin Committee raised no objection to the change. 

It is undoubtedly a well-intentioned addition. The concept of "together" has been heavily promoted this year by the IOC after so many had been kept apart as a result of the pandemic.

The original motto, expressed in Latin as "Citius, Altius, Fortius," was inspired by a friend of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Father Henri Didon devised it as a means to encourage his pupils at a sporting event. The motto has become known throughout the world, but the Olympic creed, which says "the important thing in the Olympic Games is not so much to win but to take part, just as the important thing in life is not the victory but the struggle," does not seem as prominent here in Tokyo.

As with the original Olympic motto, it was inspired by a man of the church. London hosted the Olympics in 1908, but that summer a major conference of prominent churchmen was also staged in the city. Amongst those attending was Ethelbert Talbot, who had been the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. He was a member of a committee of 58 bishops, including four archbishops, and health with "Reunion and Intercommunion," concepts that have had a resonance here in Tokyo after the isolation experienced by so many in the pandemic.

The Olympic Oath was taken by two judges, two coaches and two athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
The Olympic Oath was taken by two judges, two coaches and two athletes at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Many of the clergymen were invited to give sermons. Talbot himself was invited to speak at St Paul’s Cathedral in London at a special service arranged for athletes and officials attending the Games. "We have just been contemplating the great Olympic Games," Talbot said. "What does it mean? It means that young men of robust physical life have come from all parts of the world.

"Of course, it is very true, as he says, that each athlete strives not only for the sake of sport, but for the sake of his country. Thus a new rivalry is invented."

There had been disputes at those 1908 Games, most famously in the men’s 400 metres when the American competitor John Carpenter was disqualified for jostling his British rival Wyndham Halswelle off the track. A re-run was ordered, but so angry were the other American runners that they withdrew from the race in sympathy.

Talbot noted that athletes were already representing the honour of their teams but also gave a warning. "It does mean, I think, internationalism, as seen in the stadium, has an element of danger. The only safety lies in the real Olympia. St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Only one may share the laurel wreath but all may share the equal joy of the contest. All encouragement be given to the exhilarating -- I might say soul-saving -- interest that comes in active clean and fair Olympic sports.”

What he said that day had a profound effect on Coubertin. The IOC President later spoke at a banquet for dignitaries and officials. "Remember this strong phrase, gentlemen. It forms the basis for a philosophy that is both sound and clear. The importance in life is not necessarily the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

He used French words to interpret the words of the bishop. "The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part."

IOC President Thomas Bach added the word "together" to the Olympic motto before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach added the word "together" to the Olympic motto before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

There was a time when this was regularly displayed on the scoreboard in the main stadium. It was shown on the great scoreboard of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at the 1932 Games. In the 1936 Games, a recording of Coubertin’s voice was heard over the loudspeaker saying "important in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; for the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well." In 1948 and at many subsequent Games, it was also shown on the scoreboard. In more recent Games, it has been harder to find, and here in Tokyo, not displayed at all.

The other important part of Olympic philosophy is embodied in the Olympic Oath, which was introduced 101 years ago at the suggestion of Coubertin. It was first taken by the fencer Victor Boin at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. Back then it was rather flowery, which translated into English with the rather splendid language: "We swear that we will take part in the Olympic Games in loyal competition, respecting the regulations which govern them and desirous of participating in them in the true spirit of sportsmanship for the honour of our country and for the glory of sport."

Unsurprisingly, they have updated the wording. Ever since the Sydney Games in 2000, taken by Australian hockey player Rechelle Hawkes, the Oath has included a clause on doping. But the directors of Opening Ceremonies have often played fast and loose with the order of the ceremony and sometimes the meaning of the important protocol of the Games seems to have played second fiddle to the show.

In Tokyo, the Oath was actually pronounced before the Games had been opened by Emperor Naruhito. It had originally been taken by an athlete. A Japanese ski jumping judge called Fumio Asaki became the first official to do so at Sapporo 1972. Then coaches were added in 2012 before in 2018, the three sporting stakeholders were combined. Last week it was taken by two judges, two coaches and two athletes to give further emphasis to the concept of gender equality.

The Olympic Oath, then, has changed throughout the years. And now, here in Tokyo, Bach has evolved it once more.