Atlanta resident George Hirthler receives rare Pierre de Coubertin Medal from International Olympic Committee

George Hirthler (left) receives Coubertin Medal from IOC President Thomas Bach on June 23, 2022.

Credit: IOC/Greg Martin

Credit: IOC/Greg Martin

George Hirthler (left) receives Coubertin Medal from IOC President Thomas Bach on June 23, 2022.

George Hirthler remembers the Lausanne library where, in 1989, he began researching the Olympics to write a bid campaign for Atlanta. Fifteen minutes in, he opens a dusty old book to a photograph of a 70-year-old man with a gigantic gray mustache. Above the photo was the name Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games.

Little did Hirthler know that three decades later, he would become the third American to win the Pierre de Coubertin medal, honoring those who promote Olympism through research and intellectual work.

“We only thought of it as, we’re bidding on the world’s greatest sporting event. We didn’t really think we were going to conduct a campaign to help unite the world in friendship and peace through sport,” Hirthler said. “We knew that intuitively, but we didn’t really understand the background behind it.”

On Thursday, Hirthler was awarded the medal in Lausanne for works including “The Idealist,” his historical novel about Coubertin. The award had previously been won by Henry Kissinger and financier Spencer Eccles. Hirthler was alerted that he won in July 2020, but he waited to receive his medal on Olympic Day, June 23, when in 1894 the Olympic Congress in Paris decided to go forward with the modern Olympics.

“To me in some ways, it’s the pinnacle recognition I hoped I would get for telling Coubertin’s story, somewhere along the way,” he said.

After participating in anti-war protests in the 1960s, the Pennsylvania native got his start in advertising and freelance writing for brands including Turner Broadcasting. But that Lausanne library, he said, was the turning point in his life.

“The question that jumped out at me... was why haven’t I heard of this guy before?” he said. “How could the guy who created the Olympic Games be so unknown?”

George Hirthler stands with the Coubertin statue in Centennial Olympic Park.

Credit: Courtesy of George Hirthler

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Credit: Courtesy of George Hirthler

Bid campaigns at that time had seven major milestones requiring presentations, filings and celebrity meetings. The IOC had announced six host cities including Atlanta, and over the course of two years, Hirthler and his team made the best case for Atlanta, stressing Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement as parallel to the values of Coubertin and the Olympics.

In 1990, Hirthler learned that his bid for the Atlanta Olympics was successful. Hirthler and design partner Brad Copeland formed Copeland Hirthler, one of the leading creative Olympic firms during the 1990s.

Copeland, who also played a major role in bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, was encouraged by now-CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena Steve Koonin to submit a design for the Olympic logo. Sure enough, Copeland’s design of five As was chosen.

Copeland Hirthler was in business for about 10 years, during which time Copeland became design director of the Olympic Games and Hirthler wrote speeches and prep material. The two decorated venues, designed programs and created a guide for IOC on branding practices. They worked on three Olympic bids, racking up three million miles together, before splitting up in 2000.

The two have remained close friends over the years, going hiking and hosting barbecues together.

“George is the idealist,” said Copeland. “He’s probably one of the truest believers in what Coubertin stood for and what the games are supposed to be about.”

Another of Hirthler’s partners was Terrence Burns, who directed Delta Air Lines’ successful sponsorship of the Atlanta Olympics and served as lead brand and marketing consultant for many other successful Olympic bids. Burns joined Hirthler in a creative collaboration in 2000 called Helikon Media, and after the company closed in 2003, the two collaborated on standalone projects and stayed close over the past few years.

“George truly understood the Olympics far beyond what you see on TV,” Burns said. “He really understood the liturgy and the religion of it, the ethos of it, and he taught me what I’m able to do and what I do, working with bid cities, helping them articulate their value proposition for the movement.”

Burns remembers during a debate about the tagline for the Vancouver Games, there was a discussion about the Sea to Sky Highway that went from Vancouver to Whistler. Hirthler stood in front of a whiteboard writing “The Sea to Sky Games” and simply said, “here’s your answer right there,” prompting immediate pushback. Hirthler successfully insisted that this would resonate with viewers and differentiate Vancouver from other bid sites.

George Hirthler presents "The Idealist" to IOC President Thomas Bach in 2016.

Credit: Courtesy of George Hirthler

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Credit: Courtesy of George Hirthler

Hirthler still knew Coubertin’s story needed to be told. He got in contact with Coubertin’s great nephew and spent three days at the family home, after which he founded the United States Pierre de Coubertin Committee in 1993. The organization commissioned a $500,000 statue of Coubertin for Centennial Park — many of the plaques throughout the park were written by Hirthler — and members translated 700 pages of Coubertin’s Olympic writings into English, published by the IOC and distributed to 4,000 colleges and universities.

Hirthler left the committee but felt his work on Coubertin was incomplete. In 2011, he finally embarked on his book about Coubertin’s life.

The first scene he wrote was inspired by a photograph of Coubertin, then 72, rowing on Lake Geneva. Hirthler knew Coubertin’s story would best be told through a mix of history and fiction. The book took him four and a half years to write, and “The Idealist” was published in 2016.

Film rights to the book were sold to Oscar-nominated film producer Mark Mitten, and in 2020 he formed documentary production company Atlanta Story Partners with filmmaker Bob Judson. Their feature documentary called “The Games in Black & White” will offer a comprehensive look at the Atlanta Olympics and the story of how leading advocate Billy Payne and Ambassador Andrew Young elevated social justice causes via the Olympics.

Hirthler also began a website called Coubertin Speaks with commentary on 365 inspiring Coubertin quotes, which have been shared throughout the world. Hirthler is now working on a nonfiction biography of Coubertin as a companion piece to his novel.

“The way to look at my story, I think, is that here’s a guy who found a hero, and who found one of history’s greatest forgotten heroes through his work, and has spent 30 years attempting to tell his story on an ever broader scale,” he said.