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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1988 (Issue 68) - Vocational and Educational Guidance I: Situation, Methods, Techniques (UNESCO, 1988, 166 p.)
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View the documentProfiles of educators : Jean Borotra: A teacher working for, and through, sport - Jean-François Brisson
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Profiles of educators : Jean Borotra: A teacher working for, and through, sport - Jean-François Brisson

Since teaching is the art of educating, it cannot disregard any method which will help to instil in pupils’ minds not simply knowledge, but the principles and rules that should guide their behaviour. There is, then, a method of teaching by way of example which increases the influence of the teacher, enabling him of her to back up the precepts expounded orally or in writing with a demonstration that amounts to a profession of implicit faith: ‘What I teach you I put into practice myself.’ This obvious point is made only to account for the inclusion of a number of biographical details by way of introduction to this study of Jean Borotra the teacher in order to show what kind of man he is.


Borotra’s father died in 1907. Jean, the eldest of four children, was only 8 years old and following the tradition of his region, the Basque country, he became the symbolic head of the family, though his mother continued to cope fully with her responsibilities.

He thus acquired a sense of duty very early on in life, and that was strengthened by the influence of his excellent teacher who, even in those days, was practising an activity method and saw himself as an educator involved in more than teaching the rudiments of knowledge that the primary school was intended to provide. He virtually lived with his pupils during recreation breaks and sometimes even during their holidays, joining in their games of marbles, pelota and prisoners’ base.1

1. Race between two sides each delimited by a line traced on the ground.

It was during one of these games that the young Borotra received his first, and undoubtedly most valuable, lesson in ethics. Coveting his teacher’s pretty coloured marble and hoping to win it, he surreptitiously moved his own marble forward. When he was caught cheating he was severely reprimanded and warned that he might no longer be allowed to play with his teacher. As Borotra still remembers, he was so distressed for several days, fearing that he would not be forgiven, that fairness became a permanent part of his behaviour and half a century later he launched a crusade on behalf of fair play.

Borotra completed his secondary education at the Bayonne lycée, 10 kilometres from his village, Arbonne. He preferred, for his mother’s sake, to be a day student, cycling daily along the hilly roads, morning and evening, summer and winter, on his father’s old-fashioned gearless bicycle. These arduous journeys helped to develop his muscles and his character but he did not experience his first contact with tennis, the sport to which he was to do such honour, until 1912, during an educational visit to England. The family with whom he was staying, impressed by the agility of the young French boy who had no racket but was able to return a tennis ball with his bare hands like a pelotari,2 equipped him so that he could learn the game properly.

2. Players of the basque game of pelota.

After swimming and rugby which he had practised since childhood, fencing provided him with a different form of sporting experience. All able-bodied men had recently been called up for military service, and Jean Borotra, like many adolescents, tried to join a troop train leaving for the front, although he was only a fatherless 15-year old who intended to enter the École Polytechnique),3 an ambition which demanded strenuous, unflagging work. He was considered too young and frail and was rejected with the advice that if he wished to be accepted at a later date he should engage in intensive physical exercise.

3. Military academy with a very high scientific level.

He therefore took up fencing and at the Biarritz gymnasium he frequently met another would-be recruit who had been rejected for the same reason and who was subsequently to become famous, the fighter pilot Georges Guynemer.

He then continued his studies in the special preparatory class for the École Polytechnique at the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris. Eventually, at the age of 18, with the agreement of his mother, he enlisted in the 121st Artillery Regiment of La Rochelle. He commanded a battery at the age of 20 and was demobilized three years later with the rank of second lieutenant, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre and been mentioned twice in dispatches.

When peace returned he resumed his studies at the Lycée Michelet and entered the École Polytechnique from which he graduated in 1922 as a civil engineer, the holder of a law degree, and the player of a seventh sport, football, which had proved to be an indispensable distraction after his intensive intellectual work and enabled him to win the title of military champion of France with the École Polytechnique. And so two careers opened before him - industry and sport - and his exceptional gifts and drive made him successful in both.

He made an effective contribution to the development of a company producing petrol pumps and, at the same time, became a legendary tennis-player as one of the ‘Musketeers’ (together with Lacoste, Cochet and Brugnon), winning the Davis Cup five years in succession.

He won many victories on the courts by his merit and skill at a time when the best tennis-players were not paid and training could not take place during office hours. By means of a carefully worked out timetable he managed to fit in his business trips abroad in the places to which he travelled in connection with sport, winning sixty French national titles; twenty-three British titles (including six at Wimbledon); thirteen titles in the United States; three titles in Australia, not counting his successes in the Davis Cup from 1927 to 1932.

His career in industry was interrupted only by the Second World War during which, as a captain in the artillery, he won the Croix de Guerre for the second time and was mentioned in dispatches. He also won the medal for escaped prisoners, succeeding on his third attempt to rejoin the French lines after being encircled by German forces. He was demobilized by General Weygand by special order in order to fight on alongside the British but, as ill luck would have it, the dramatic events of Mers El Kebir took place on the very day on which he was to leave.4

4. The British destroyed most of the French fleet at Mers El Kebir.

On his return to civilian life he accepted a task in connection with which he was sometimes criticized, that of Commissioner-General for General Education and Sport in the government of Marshal Pétain.

It is not for us here to pass judgement on the deeds or misdeeds of those who were the leaders of France when it was reduced to accepting the presence of a conqueror within its frontiers after the Armistice in 1940. But before describing Borotra’s work as an educator during the twenty months in which he exercised official responsibility in those circumstances, let us simply recall the words of Mrs Léon Jouhaux,5 wife of the Secretary-General of the Confederation Générale du Travail who, with her husband, shared Borotra’s period of captivity at the Castle of Itter in the Austrian Tyrol from 1943 to 1945:

It may certainly not be said that in accepting that task he was blinded by political passions since, as he says, he never engaged in politics. His fellow prisoners noted, in fact, the generosity of his character which was free from all prejudice, his trusting nature, sometimes bordering on ingenuousness, for which he suffered, and his sense of duty. In July 1940 this duty for him was to help provide more adequate training for young people and to preserve their sense of honour. He told me that he also saw it as his duty to rejoin the French Army in North Africa.... He was arrested by the Gestapo following a telephone conversation with one of his relations which was tapped. He was held for several days at Fresnes then deported to Sachsenhausen where he was placed in solitary confinement for six months and where, at the beginning of May 1943, he met Paul Reynaud6 with whom he was transferred to Itter on 12 May. He told me that the Germans accused him of refusing to take a stand in favour of collaboration, of having fostered a spirit of revenge in French young people and of wanting to reach Free France in North Africa in order to resume the struggle.

5. Augusta Leon-Jouhaux, Prison pour hommes d’État, p. 9, Paris, Denoël-Gonthier, 1973.

6. Paul Reynaud was the French Prime Minister before Marshal Pétain and was against the request for an armistice.

Accordingly, during his imprisonment with Paul Reynaud in the fortress of Itter along with such prominent figures as Albert Lebrun, the last President of the Third Republic, Édouard Daladier, the former Minister of Defence, Generals Gamelin and Weygand, who had been successive Commanders-in-Chief of the French forces, and Léon Jouhaux, Borotra, who was the youngest of these famous prisoners, again felt that he simply must escape as Allied troops entered Germany in April 1944.

In her book Mrs Jouhaux describes an attempt which nearly succeeded. It is worth mentioning as evidence of the audacity and the amazing physical powers of a man of 47 who, every morning, ran several kilometres along the rampart walk and performed his physical exercises, a habit which never left him.

He put his plan into operation one Sunday afternoon at the end of April when some of the SS had a day’s leave. He had noticed that the sentry armed with a submachine gun used to leave his post on Sundays in order to issue the bread ration. Borotra had only to worry about the three rifles in the bands of the other two guards and the personal guard who had been assigned to him during his excursions on the ramparts ever since his first escape attempt. He bad studied in minute detail the behaviour of the sentries and the exact point at which he had to jump from the parapet in order to land one and a half metres below on a tree trunk before dashing to the barbed-wire fence 40 metres further on at the point where he had noticed a gap.... Everything went according to plan and with such speed that he was already crawling under the barbed wire when the first bullet whistled past his ear. A 100-metre sprint accompanied by a dozen bullets from the three sentries brought him to the wood which ran down to the stream.

Spotting an SS guard returning to Itter far ahead of him in the valley he took virtually the opposite direction. Unfortunately, he had been seen by the guard who reported him to his pursuers.

After a desperate chase lasting a quarter of an hour among rocks and small ravines and several very dangerous falls he was surrounded and held at gunpoint.7

7. Léon-Jouhaux, op. cit., p. 142.

Thus the attempt failed but several weeks later, as the American forces drew nearer, Borotra, profiting from the confusion resulting from the fighting around the fortress, again slipped through the nearby SS units, this time successfully, to meet the Americans and lead them to his companions in adversity who were still prisoners.

As a sportsman, serviceman and industrialist, Borotra has combined the human and civic qualities which ensure that a prominent individual has the influence he needs to persuade and lead those he addresses.


Borotra has always been fond of maxims which sum up and illustrate ideas. The two he prefers are ‘Ne pas subir’ (Do not submit), which was the motto of General de Lattre de Tassigny, and ‘Le sport, cette chevalerie moderne’ (Sport, the modern form of chivalry) which draws its inspiration from the ideas of Pierre de Coubertin. The first forbade him to admit defeat on the battlefield while the second encouraged him to bear defeat gracefully on the sports ground after a fair and courageous contest.

In accepting the position of Commissioner-General for General Education and Sport, the popular champion, strengthened by his distinguished reputation, intended to put into practice Montaigne’s well-known views: ‘It is not the mind or the body but the whole person who must be trained and, as Plato says, “neither must be trained without the other, both must be led together like a pair of horses harnessed to the same shafts”.’ Hence his choice of the expression ‘general education’ which worried some teachers who were afraid that physical exercise might acquire a dominant position or even become thereby a form of indoctrination. Borotra sought to clear up the point during a lecture to pupils of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, delivered on 23 March 1942, just before he gave up office:

‘General education’ is quite simply the opposite of specific education which concerns only one branch of education. General education subjects are aimed at the whole individual.... If that individual is to develop harmoniously, achieving the balance between his various faculties which is so precious, then activities which involve the individual in his or her entirety rather than any single aspect must play an important part in education.

Hence, general education activities demand at one and the same time intelligence, moral strength (or ‘character’) and muscle. This search for balanced and harmonious development is summed up in a term employed by Pierre de Coubertin: ‘eurythmy’. Here is how Borotra described it:

General physical education is the basic training which is essential to build up the health of children and adolescents. It is less concerned with developing muscles than the major functions (breathing, circulation). The method adopted replaced specific exercises by an integrated system as proposed in the ‘natural method’ developed by a naval lieutenant, Georges Hébert, at the beginning of the century and tried out successfully on the marines at Lorient and on children of school age.

Introduction to sport is a rational preparation for the discipline through its theoretical and practical study, consisting of a schooling in patience and effort.

Sport ‘extends and complements the two aspects already mentioned. By the vigorous - or at times even violent - exercise of every part of the active individual it can, if practised in the spirit which should henceforth be its driving force, develop to a remarkable extent all of the physical and moral qualities which are essential to the man of action: strength, endurance, skill, tenacity, courage, loyalty, self-control, decisiveness, a sense of discipline and authority, team spirit and the spirit of sacrifice which is one of the elements of social awareness’.

Games ‘bring all the faculties of children and young people into play in an expression of joy’.

Training for the open-air life, ‘camping and mountaineering toughen the body and develop a sense of reality and a spirit of companionship, inculcating a love of nature which too many of us have lost because of the material progress of civilization’.

Manual work teaches children ‘that matter is resistant and that patience is required in order to master it; it develops what might be described as manual intelligence, instilling a liking for work well done and a social awareness of the merits and difficulty of the work; it teaches intellectuals to accord manual workers the esteem which they deserve and, when performed in groups, it gives children their first idea of joint effort’.

First-aid work, is ‘the necessary complement to the sporting, open-air life, fostering self-control, coolness and a spirit of mutual assistance’.

Educational excursions provide opportunities for contact not only with nature but with local life, trades, traditions, folklore and artistic treasures.

Education through rhythm includes, among other things, rhythmic exercises which promote co-ordinated movement and self-expression through movement; and choral singing which ‘develops the aesthetic sense’ and has proved to be ‘one of the best ways of generating group feeling’.

This range of activities, most of which lay outside the formal educational framework, required first of all additional resources in terms of staff and equipment. A long-term effort was needed if only to break the routine.

Borotra declared that, in addition to physical education for which they were already responsible, primary-school teachers could assume responsibility for general education as a whole. An innovation was proposed in secondary education: the appointment of a ‘teacher of general education’ to be selected from among the teachers of academic subjects with responsibility for co-ordinating all general education activities each of which would be entrusted to a specialist.

It was certainly an ambitious programme which required the general support of the teaching profession. Organizational problems could be foreseen in connection with its application but is was difficult to criticize the programme’s ultimate aim.

At the outside those responsible for physical education and more especially sport might have disputed the choice of the Hébert method. This method makes a judicious choice in favour of the all-round development of the individual and therefore rejects any premature specialization in sport but it pursues a doctrinaire approach, taking as its basis the practice, during each session if possible, of ten sets of exercises, which used to be performed through necessity by primitive peoples when moving about (walking, running, jumping), hunting and fishing for their food and searching for shelter (throwing, climbing, carrying, etc.).

This meant that, in addition to the ‘natural’ techniques, which often had to be relearned by the civilized and robotized young people of our industrial countries, ‘sports techniques’ had to be mastered as well. It would certainly have been a better idea to have adapted the Hébert method to sports techniques with a similar educational potential while maintaining the diversity advocated by its creator. Such a combination would perhaps have encouraged the introduction of sport at school while preserving its educational purpose, a goal which has often been set yet never reached.

Borotra did not leave the task of making France a genuinely sporting nation to the schools alone. He also launched an appeal to all the voluntary leaders of sports associations:

These sports associations must increasingly become genuine centres of general education.

This would admittedly be a new ideal for them; in general, sportsmen have been primarily concerned in the past with technical goals and their performances; as someone to whom sports competitions have given such joy and who has seen the great excitement - sometimes excessive - that surrounds international meetings, I should be the last person to ask them to abandon this concern....

These sports associations must therefore continue to strive towards their technical goals but sport must do more than that. It must be more, in fact, than a source of physical well-being and healthy amusement; it must become a splendid activity enabling each and every one of us to achieve and, subsequently maintain the full physical, moral and intellectual development which every individual owes to his country and to society and which the athlete sets himself as a goal when he promises in his oath8 ‘to practise sport in a disciplined, unselfish and fair manner in order to improve myself and serve my country better’.

8. An ‘athlete’s oath’ was required of all amateur sportsmen.

Borotra then provided some guidance as to which sports should be encouraged. Unesco’s International Charter of Physical Education and Sport was to declare thirty-five years later that the sports concerned were those ‘whose educational value is most evident’ (Article 9.1).

He considered that athletics and swimming were the ‘two basic sports’. He then recommended a ‘tough sport’ for young people whereby they would ‘learn to face up to shocks, blows and risks: boxing, rugby, mountaineering, sailing, etc.’. Finally, so as not to confine the choice to individual activities, he recommended ‘at least one of the team sports which teach the individual to become part of the group’, He appealed to teachers and intellectuals to join the ranks of club leaders who were clearly dedicated people but did not often see themselves as educators.

‘Are there any points of contact between manual and intellectual workers which are more natural and more productive at present than those provided by the sports field, the club changing-room and the management committee of the sports club?’ he asked.


For just over eighteen months Borotra worked hard to develop a programme of educational action which would restore vigour, hope and confidence to a generation of young people who had lost their bearings. Sport was at the top of the list, of course, but as the Commissioner-General stated in 1942, it should be ‘practised in the spirit which should henceforth be its driving force’. Subsequent events were to show that the hoped-for change did not take place. The years went by and no appreciable improvement could be seen in school programmes for physical education and sport or in the atmosphere of clubs and the attitude of their managers. Sport had not really assumed its rightful place as an instrument of education.

A policy for sport, as framed by the public authorities, seeks, in the best of cases, to provide sports training and inculcate sporting habits and sportsmanship in all young people through the school system. But if easy solutions and cost-cutting measures are adopted, this policy may simply concentrate on the vogue for top-level spectator sport in order to attract young people. In such cases, considerations of national prestige, the dreams inspired by the considerable earnings of the star players, the pressures of financial interests and the media all combine to produce an image of sport which is not one of beneficial exercise, a source of equilibrium and fulfilment for all at every level.

Attention is focused on the ‘show’, the excitement of victories and defeats, the personality of the champions and also abuses and scandals (cheating, drug-taking, violence) which become increasingly widespread when the importance of competitions is no longer measured solely by the degree of public interest in them but is calculated in terms of the interests of financial backers and politicians. Education through sport is then frustrated by the lack of education for sport which is essential.

Twenty-two years after his work in government Borotra was summoned by Maurice Herzog, the Secretary of State for Youth and Sport, to chair a commission whose task it was to produce an Essai de doctrine du sport (Tentative Theory of Sport).

In the preface to the document Maurice Herzog wrote that

the conclusions of the commission chaired by Mr Jean Borotra and comprising sixty prominent members required two years of considerable effort. I should like to pay tribute to the scope and rewarding results of the work which has been carried out and also express my warm thanks to the chairman for his invaluable leadership.... If the necessary precautions are taken against possible abuses, the development of sport should make an effective contribution to human progress.... It becomes part of a genuine humanist outlook.

But it will only became a part of the life of the individual and the nation, guaranteeing their dynamic force and their equilibrium, when it has first entered the life of the child. Sport contributes to children’s intellectual development. It demonstrates the need for rules and the benefits of disinterested, organized effort.... Fair play, which communicates a sense of what is permissible and what is not, a propensity for chivalrous behaviour and a sense of honour, is already, in fact, a moral attitude in itself and the self-discipline which it demands is a part of one’s education.9

9. Essai de doctrine du sport, pp. 3-4, 19-25. Paris, Haut Comité des Sports, 1965.

The entire document followed on directly from the work done during the few months in which Borotra had tried to promote education through sport, and for sport. But, ‘the necessary precautions’ against ‘possible abuses’ proved yet again to be inadequate.

The importance attached to sport throughout the world and, particularly, to top-level spectator sport could be seen in different forms: governments equipped themselves with ministers for sport, large companies used sport for advertising purposes, newspapers gave greater coverage to international sporting events and, above all, there was a new factor: television, which offered the spectacle of the most prestigious sports events to hundreds of millions of viewers. The Olympic Games and the World Cup were followed by more than 1,000 million television viewers.

While this upgrading of sport has contributed to the development of mass sport and to the vogue for certain sports popularized by the visual media it has also been partly responsible for the exaggerated importance attached to victories in the sports-ground. ‘Winning’ has too often been the keyword and ‘gamesmanship’ (winning by any means) is tending to replace fair play which is the basis of sportsmanship. Competition in the developed countries has been extended to all fields and particularly industry where it has reached the level of real ‘economic warfare’. Advertisements tell us that many firms are looking for ‘aggressive’ salesmen.

Thus the climate of increasing violence throughout the world, which is not limited to war zones but extends to the daily life of countries at peace, has not spared either those competing in sport or, even more frequently, the spectators.

This situation which has been reported and even aggravated by the media is so alarming that the second International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport, which was held in Moscow in November 1988 on the initiative of Unesco, paid special attention to that problem.

Borotra did not fail to react to this predictable trend. For the last twenty-five years he has constantly sought to identify remedies and alert opinion, the public authorities and sports organizations so that preventive action might be taken in the form of a painstaking educational process which, in the long term, could change attitudes and behaviour.

As far back as 1965, in a joint initiative with the former pupils of the Bayonne lycée, he established an education prize which was actually a ‘prize for eurythmy’ as it was awarded to pupils who were outstanding both in the classroom and on the sports ground. Ten years later, the Academy of Sports of which he is a member adopted the idea and introduced it throughout the school system.

He also conducted his ‘crusade’ with the assistance of two international non-governmental organizations: the Pierre de Coubertin Committee which was set up to publicize the work of the man who revived the Olympic Games and his humanist ideal of sport as a form of education and, more importantly, the International Fair Play Committee.

The latter committee was also set up in 1965 by Borotra to support the work of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) with which he was already involved. The aim of the new body was to explain and promote fair play. A manifesto drawn up in 1976 under the auspices of the ICSSPE, the International Olympic Committee and Unesco was widely distributed. To quote the Introduction:

Competitive sport is moving towards a crisis point. If it is to realize its potentials, including the fostering of international understanding, indeed if in the longer term it is to survive as a desirable form of human activity and endeavour, a new allegiance to fair play is urgently needed. Without fair play sport is no longer sport.

Fair play is exemplified by: unquestioning acceptance of the referee’s decision, except in those sports where this decision may be followed by an appeal permitted by rule; [by] playing to win as an essential first objective, but refusing resolutely to seek victory by any means. Pair play is a ‘way of behaving’ which develops from self-respect and entails: honesty, straightforwardness and a firm and dignified attitude when others do not play fairly.... Fair play is embodied in modesty in victory, in graciousness in defeat, and in that generosity of outlook which creates warm and lasting human relationship.

After enumerating the threats to sport the manifesto continued:

All who are involved in competitive sport, the competitors themselves, parents, teachers, sports organizations, coaches including trainers and managers, medical officers, referees, public authorities, journalists and spectators, have their own special responsibilities for the promotion of fair play and the only hope for sport is that they recognize these responsibilities and act upon them.

The manifesto also advocated the formation of national committees for fair play and urged sports organizations to use the fair play pamphlet to formulate a code of fair play, for display in changing rooms, sports arenas and meeting places, taking account of the particular features of each sport.

But Borotra was aware that the only way to attract the interest of the media was to create an event and present exceptional individuals for public admiration. The Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport over which he has presided for twenty-eight years accordingly awards annual Pierre de Coubertin Fair Play Trophies to well-known sportsmen or women who have distinguished themselves by a particularly commendable act of fair play, such as refusing to accept victory after committing a fault which has gone undetected, or to individuals whose entire career has been characterized by a spirit of fair play or who have made an effective contribution to its promotion. These trophies or diplomas are presented during an official ceremony at Unesco presided over by the Director-General of the Organization.

Whatever its symbolic value, the spotlighting of exemplary sportsmen in this manner cannot outshine the brilliance of their records and victories or mobilize the entire press and television, nevertheless, such tributes do not go unnoticed and they help to counter the deteriorating image of sport.

But is not enough to encourage the good features: the bad aspects must be tackled. The Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport has therefore joined forces, under a permanent agreement, with the International Committee Against Violence in Sport which seeks to identify and implement any form of action which will check and eliminate that scourge from sports grounds.

It was difficult to do more in an area where what is required is the mobilization of all the modern resources available to educators rather than legislation, regulation or remonstration.

Let us hope, then, that Jean Borotra will be heard and his example followed, and let us salute the contribution to the safeguarding of sport and to its integration in education by a man who, at the age of 90, has kept intact all his faith, enthusiasm and crusading zeal.

Jean-François BRISSON
Member of the French Olympic Committee,
the Academy of Sports and the
Pierre de Coubertin Committee