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Who was Willibald Gebhardt?

Karl August Willibald Gebhardt was born on January 17th, 1861 in Berlin and also died there on April 30th, 1921. He was a supporter of modern international Olympic games and founder of the Olympic movement in Germany, even though the modern international Olympic movement is most often only associated with Pierre de Coubertin. Gebhardt founded Olympic committees for each of the Olympic games in Athens 1896, in Paris 1900 and in St. Louis 1904 to make a participation of German gymnasts and athlets at the Olympic games possible. In March 1904, only a few weeks before the Olympic games of St. Louis, he managed to found the first permanent Olympic committee for Germany (Deutscher Reichsausschuss für Olympische Spiele, DRAfOS) in cooperation with some former opponents, representatives of the German Central Committee for Promoting Folk and Youth Games (Zentralausschuss für die Förderung der Volks- und Jugendspiele, ZA), and became its first secretary general. In 1896 Gebhardt was appointed to be the first German representative in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to which he belonged until 1909. As “chef de mission” he accompanied the German teams to the Olympic games in 1896, 1900, 1904, and he was member of the German delegation at the intermediate games in Athens 1906. At the Olympic games in St. Louis 1904 he was representative of the IOC together with his friend Ferenc Kemeny from Hungary.
Despite all success, the relationship between Willibald Gebhardt and Pierre de Coubertin is to be estimated as a kind of problematic. Gebhardt did everything possible during his period to counteract against the political defamation of the French baron and his idea to arrange international Olympic Games among the German gymnasts (DT), among the German press and among the national representatives of sport organizations (ZA), and he also tried to win his opponents for cooperation. Nonetheless Pierre de Coubertin could not refrain to snob the German Gebhardt personally and in public at sessions and congresses of the IOC, e.g. in L`Havre 1897  because Gebhardt like other IOC members from Europe became Panhelleinic supporters of Olympic Games only in Athens..

Up to the present day there is no complete biography of Willibald Gebhardt, and also official acknowledgement and appreciations of his numerous impulses and efforts for the German sport and its international representation within the Olympic movement  could only be achieved rudimentally within the last few years and are still to come.
For a long time solely a plaque at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and a grass field in the “Sportforum” which is situated behind the Olympic stadium bearing his name have reminded of the national and international merits of the founder of the Olympic movement and the first protagonist of a scientific investigation of sport in Germany.

The Willibald Gebhardt Institute (WGI), founded in Essen in 1992 and relocated to Münster in 2017, has been bearing his name since it was established and reminded with three anthologies published in its own book series of this Olympic pioneer (volumes 3,7,and 14). The WGI will remind all members of the institute and affiliated partners on the 100th anniversary of Gebhardt`s death in spring 2021 and there will be a symposium and commemorate book on behalf of the true father of German Olympism.

Due to the efforts of the institute, of the chairwoman of the association of friends and supporters of the WGI (Mrs. Renate Hass-Zurkalowski) and of the Sport Confederation of Berlin (LSB) the sport center Berlin-Schöneberg has borne his name since February 2003. On November 10, 2005 a plaque, designed by the famous Berlin sculptor Paul Brandenburg, could be inaugurated. This tribute to Willibald Gebhardt  was made possible thanks to financial support from the WGI, the Sport Confederation of Berlin (LSB BERLIN), the German Sport Association (DSB) and the National Olympic Committee (NOK) as well as private donations.



More about Gebhardt's Biography

After his graduation Willibald Gebhardt studied chemistry at Marburg University and at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After his PhD in 1885 he went on with his studies in the fields of physiology and hygiene before he emigrated to the USA in 1890 for five years. There he studied modern heliotherapy and got to know about the early American Olympic movement as well as the hygiene movement (i.a. at the World Exhibition in Chicago 1893).

In the years after his return from the USA in 1895 Gebhardt not only supported successfully the participation of Germany at the international Olympic games, but also worked as businessman and inventor, but not that financially successful. Against the general opposition of the national representatives for German gymnastics and sports, the German gymnasts association (DT) and the German Central Committee for Promoting Folk and Youth Games (ZA), but with support of the imperial family of Germany he managed to found the first committee for Germany’s participation at the Olympic games in Athens 1896. He himself got close to fencing and became a member of foundation of the first German fencing association in 1897.

Several designs and patents for different apparatus of heliotherapy as well as equipment for a dietic nutrition were registered in his name at the German Patent Office. As natural scientist (PhD) he early asked for anthropometric measurements of German gymnasts and sportsmen and also wanted a scientifically based training institution for Olympic athletes. The scientific investigation of the striving sport was as important to him as the conveying of Olympic norms and values through education at school. His efforts at the IOC to organize Olympic Games in Berlin in 1904, 1908 and 1912 remained unsuccessful for several reasons. The plans of building a representative stadium in Berlin stemmed from these efforts; but it was not until 1912 when Berlin obtained the contract to organize Olympic Games for 1916 that these plans were implemented successfully only within two years (1912/1913). ). The German Stadion, dedicated to host the VI. Olympiad in 1916, was successfully opened with the German Emporer Wilhelm II on behalf of his 25th anniversary of Emperorship.

Up to the present day there are speculations about true reasons for Gebhardt’s resignation from his office in the DRAfOS only a few month after the intermediate games in Athens 1906 and also from his duty as German representative in the IOC after the session in Berlin in 1909. Had there only been personal financial problems; had it been the young journalist Carl Diem who pushed Willibald Gebhardt aside in 1906 with his energy and his talent for organization; had it been noble military officers who turned to the German Olympic movement rapidly from 1905 onwards and who did not see a strong German representative in the bourgeois civilian Gebhardt who was close to the international peace movement? Or had it been Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself who preferred more willing German noblemen who support his ideas than the individual thinking and selfconscious of Gebhardt who always developed his own ideas about the Olympic Games movement?

Nevertheless, Gebhardt remained involved in the Olympic movement and spoke as former secretary-general vehemently to his successor Carl Diem and to Pierre de Coubertin when the DRAfOS – under the auspices of Carl Diem – officially left the international Olympic movement in 1917, because they exclusively wanted to organize German Combat Games (Deutsche Kampfspiele) from then on as the national alternative to the international Olympic Games. Towards Pierre de Coubertin Gebhardt protested against the decision of the IOC, to exclude Germany and its’ allies from the participation at following Olympic Games, such as those in Antwerp 1920 and in Paris 1924. For Gebhardt Diem and de Coubertin had failed, each in his own way, and both had offended against the Olympic idea. The only possibility to get over the French-German borders after the First World War was in Gebhardt’s eyes a political reformation of the IOC to a “League of Nations for Olympic Games”. But there was no interest in Gebhardt’s suggestions from the German side after having obtained advice from Diem. Only a few weeks before his death these news reached Gebhardt, and only a few month later in 1922 the 1. German Combat Games which had been promoted by Diem were inaugurated in Berlin.

These and some other chapters of Willibald Gebhardt’s life from 1906 to 1921 still wait for further investigation. Up to the present day there is no complete biography of Willibald Gebhardt, and also official acknowledgement and appreciations of his numerous impulses and efforts for the German sport and its international representation within the Olympic movement  could only be achieved rudimentally within the last few years and are still to come.

Gebhardt’s life in numbers

born on January 17 in Berlin

First German representative appointed to the Internationale Olympic Committee (IOC)

Founding member of Germany’s first Fencing Association

Inaugural permanent German National Olympic Committee is established

Died on April 30 in Berlin