Conquering the Olympic Sorbonne Heritage

Story Tangible Intangible
Organization name
University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

In 2018, I joined an Erasmus Mundus program in Sustainable Development across Italy, Belgium, and France. In Padua, we delved into its rich history and heritage, exploring landmarks like the UNESCO site, Orto Botanico di Padova, and notable figures like Galileo Galilei and Elena Piscopia, the first woman to earn a philosophy doctorate in 1678. In Leuven, Belgium, I discovered Desiderius Erasmus's legacy of multiculturalism and attended a UNESCO UNITWIN Conference on heritage, including the post-Olympic Games.

Upon arriving in Paris at Sorbonne, I was eager to explore Marie Curie's lecture hall. Having been impressed by university heritage since Padua, I eagerly anticipated visiting the historic building of Sorbonne, especially the room where Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894. However, after two guided visits, I learned that this room was restricted to visitors.

In 2022, upon becoming a staff member at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, I felt even more compelled to pursue my goal of preserving the Olympic Sorbonne Heritage. When the European Heritage Days were announced in 2023, I volunteered to arrange visits to the historic building. Finally, in September, I successfully coordinated six guided tours, achieving my aim of sharing the Olympic Sorbonne's heritage with the assistance of friends and Olympic experts.

My story highlights how university heritage can inspire personal narratives, emphasizing its significance and the role of individuals in local activities. Despite the high demand for guided tours in Paris, residents are keen to explore both the tangible and intangible aspects of their heritage.

After recounting the story of the Sorbonne Olympic Heritage, I will step back and share my own journey. At 18 years old, I lived in Belgium as an exchange student. Despite my excitement about this opportunity, I harbored some prejudices against my home country, Brazil. I often pondered how I could contribute to changing Brazil's international image. When Brazil was chosen to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016, I made a commitment to utilize my skills to participate in the event and enhance my country's global reputation.

As a volunteer during the Games, I gained valuable insights into my own culture. Initially, I believed I would be showcasing my abilities, but I ended up being profoundly transformed by the experience of interacting with diverse cultures. It was during this time that I also discovered the underlying values of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which were inspired by ancient Greece.

In 2018, when I embarked on my European journey as an Erasmus Student, I was captivated by the rich tapestry of stories surrounding me. The numerous sites, museums, and buildings symbolized a diverse, rich, and intangible heritage. Singular stories such as those of Galileo Galilei, Elena Piscopia, Desiderius Erasmus, Marie Curie, Pierre de Coubertin, and many others intrigued me, prompting me to explore how they could be so revolutionary in their respective times, always considering the society in which they lived.

Pierre de Coubertin's story particularly fascinated me. As I read his memoirs, his vivid descriptions not only depicted the Sorbonne amphitheater but also conveyed the emotions of various moments that led him to create a movement that would evolve into the most multicultural event on earth in peacetime. Inspired by his writings, I humbly resolved to convey the significance of the Sorbonne Olympic Heritage with the support of friends and experts.

To achieve this, six guided visits were organized during the European Heritage Days. Each visit was unique as different experts delved into topics they were familiar with, such as Coubertin's views on women's participation in Olympic competitions or the Greek statues and symbols that enriched the Sorbonne's universal and multicultural experience.

During the visits, every aspect of the Olympic tour route was meticulously chosen to achieve this goal.

Point 1: Starting from the grand hall, the imposing statue of the Greek poet Homer, renowned for his epics "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," immersed participants in a Hellenic ambiance.

Point 2: Ascending towards the peristyle, the murals depicted ancient values, such as outdoor classes, echoing practices in the Greek Agoras of antiquity. This conveyed the notion that the university is a boundary-free space. Within the peristyle, the statue of Justice symbolized a fusion of ideologies. The Phrygian cap evoked the ideals of the French Revolution, a deliberate choice mirrored in the Olympic and Paralympic mascots of Paris 2024. The representation of the goddess Athena underscored the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, as well as the principles of fair and honorable competition, inherent in both ancient and modern Olympic values.

Point 3: During the resurgence of the modern Olympic Games, Octave Gréard, Sorbonne's rector in the late 19th century, played a pivotal supportive role for Pierre de Coubertin. His presence at the former Sorbonne amphitheater during the 1892 Congress, as described in Coubertin's "Olympic Memoirs," highlighted his active involvement. In 1894, the creation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed five days of meetings. The room where these discussions transpired, named the Gréard Room, became a focal point during the 2023 Heritage Days, despite its usual inaccessibility to the public. A commemorative plaque installed in 1994 honored the centenary of the IOC's founding at the Sorbonne.

Point 4: Another standout location on the tour was the grand amphitheater. Visitors not only had the opportunity to ascend its stage but also enjoyed the exclusive privilege of sitting in the stands during the Heritage Days, evoking the presence of illustrious personalities who have graced the Sorbonne over the years. Over the decades, the grand amphitheater of the Sorbonne continues to serve as an iconic venue in Paris, hosting a myriad of events, from those featuring prominent figures to more modest guided visits during the European Heritage Days led by volunteers passionate about preserving the rich heritage of the Sorbonne.

European Dimension

When the ruins of Olympia in Greece were discovered, numerous athletic competitions across Europe were named after Olympia to emphasize the ancient values of culture, health, and personal achievement. However, Pierre de Coubertin was the visionary who imagined international Olympic activities not only to foster competitive spirit among nations but also to promote peace among them. Initially, Coubertin's ideas were met with skepticism, and many people even made jokes about them.

In pursuit of his dream, he traveled not only across Europe but also to America to garner support for his goals. This support primarily came from universities worldwide. When Pierre de Coubertin decided to organize an event at the Sorbonne to present his idea for the revitalization of the Olympic Games in 1894, he chose this venue with great significance, emphasizing the pivotal role that universities can play as centers of innovation and solutions. Coubertin was not the only one to understand the central role of universities. This underscores the importance of highlighting the Sorbonne's heritage, especially in achieving peace.

Pierre also mentioned during his lifetime that an international event, rooted mainly in European values at the time, could be a solution. While the Olympic Games have evolved over time and adapted to modern contexts, Coubertin's crucial and initial ideas demonstrate that European values, represented by our intangible heritage, can contribute to international integration.