Getting into the Olympic Spirit in Lausanne

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The Olympic Museum, Le Musée Olympique, Lausanne, Switzerland

Just before the start of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeong-Chang, I thought it would be fun to visit the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.  I’d seen that they had various Korean bits and pieces which I thought could be a good reason for visiting, besides which I’m a fan of the Olympics and had wanted to go to the museum at some point anyway.

The museum is on a beautiful patch of land, whose gardens slope down towards Lake Geneva.  The building itself, which is from 1993, is a modern, airy and moderately attractive structure which fits in with the greenery and landscaping around it.  There were a fair amount of joggers going through the grounds, which was both disconcerting and kind of cute.  It’s nice that the grounds are open to the public and that they are used and enjoyed by the locals.

We ended up by going into the museum through the back entrance: which meant that we ran along the track lines which led to the doors.  We ran 100m in 8.1 seconds.  We’re that awesome, Sister Chickpea and I, me with my stubby legs and her with her bad back.

If you do go in through the same entrance as us, be aware that you need to get your tickets from the ground floor – just pop in the lift and all will be well.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been based in Lausanne since 1915, but it took seven years for the authorities to designate a building for them to use as their headquarters.  Finally, two floors of the city-owned Villa Mon-Repos was given over for IOC administration, the office of the IOC’s President, Baron de Coubertin, and a small museum.  Subsequently there was bickering between the IOC – who had since moved to a villa in nearby Vidy – and the local authorities about the future of the Olympic museum, which was getting too big for Mon-Repos.  Finally the new museum opened in 1993 in Ouchy, with renovations being completed in 2013 to give it its current layout.

There are three sections to the museum, each on its own floor.  The first looks at the history of the games; the second has objects belonging to Olympians; and the third fosters the idea of being in the Olympic Village.

The Olympic World

The history of the modern Olympic Games starts with the history of the ancient Games.  These started out as a way of celebrating the cult of the god Zeus in Olympia, but over time Greek citizens from anywhere in the Greek world could go and compete for the glory of winning an olive-wreath crown and prestige for their home-town.  Like the modern version, the games were held every four years.

What is interesting is the fact that the games were seen as so important that there would be a truce called among the city-states (who frequently indulged in going to war against each other) so that everyone could participate in safety.  This was largely observed, and the ability to ban and heavily fine those who didn’t observe the truce was evidently genuinely an incentive to stay peaceful.  It’s interesting that Sparta, who were the bad-boys of the Greek world, appealed against their ban to attend the games when they were accused of attacking another city during the period of the truce.  The fact that they just moaned about it and didn’t swaddle themselves up in armour and invade Olympia kinda shows how much the event was respected.

Rather like in modern times, the games took on a political edge, with the city-states trying to get one over on the others.  The prestige of the games and the glory associated with the winners was so great that it wasn’t unknown for participants to switch allegiances for money: yes, I’m talking about you, Sotades.  He was a Cretan, who competed for his city in one games, but then switched to represent Ephesus for the next set of games – because they paid him to.

The games eventually consisted of 23 different sports, including long distance running, wrestling, boxing and horse racing.  We mainly know about the sports through the lovely drawings of them on pottery, and there’s a neat selection of them in the gallery.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real discus before, so that was cool.  I was also really taken with the little oil bottle, aryballos, which the athlete would use to pour oil on his body before scraping it off with a strigil, the strange metal L-shaped object that strikes me as being painful to use.  The fellow on the vase below is holding a strigil in his left hand, while the lady behind him is holding his aryballos.

Having established the origins of the Olympics we then look at Pierre de Coubertin.  He was an interesting man, keen on history and education.  He’d read Tom Brown’s School Days and went to visit Rugby School in 1883, along with other English educational establishments.  He particularly admired Thomas Arnold of Rugby for developing physical education and thought that sport could “create moral and social strength” and provided the sort of training young men needed to go off and be the types that brought the British success in the 19th century.

Coubertin decided that French schools needed to institute some similar plan, for the betterment of the individual, but also to create men who wouldn’t let France lose a war as badly as they’d lost the Franco-Prussian War.  Sadly, Coubertin didn’t succeed in getting more PE in schools, and we all know what happened in the two world wars.  He, at least, would probably have seen a link here.

While Coubertin is credited with starting the modern Olympic movement, people had been trying to do something similar throughout the 19th century.  In fact, there were local, national Olympics held in Europe, but what Coubertin wanted to do was make these competitions international.  In 1894, after five years of planning, there was a meeting in Paris.  It was decided that there would be an international Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896.  The organisation of this event was seen to by the Greek authorities and the 1st President of the International Olympic Committee, Demetrius Vikelas.

The Olympics didn’t meet with immediate success.  It took a few competitions for it to build up momentum and to gain the prestige of being the ultimate sporting event for amateur athletes around the world.  It’s generally acknowledged that the Stockholm 1912 Games were a breakthrough for the Olympic movement, not only because it was the first time, since the first one in Athens, that was held as its own, stand-alone tournament – previously it was staged along with World Fairs – but because it was the first time that contestants came from five continents.

The competition, which Coubertin hoped would bring peace and better understanding between peoples of different countries, was suspended by war.  The IOC headquarters were based in Paris, and to make sure that they didn’t get moved to Berlin, Coubertin looked to neutral Switzerland as a place to move to.  In 1915, he moved the IOC to Lausanne.

Once the importance of Coubertin is established, the gallery moves on to various objects relevant to the games.  There were some trophies which were attractive, particularly the one donated by Tsar Nicholas II, which has a fantastically dynamic power with the figures on the boat.

Moving along we came to the section about the Olympic torches, which starts with the one from 1936 and progresses through all the weird, wonderful and stupid shapes that have been designed over the years.  What I thought was particularly strange was the way I actually recognised so many of them – the designs do seep into your subconscious.

But what really seeps into your subconscious is the merchandising.  Ah!  The mascots!  Don’t they all look delightfully crazy in their cage?  I mean display-case.

One of my favourite mascots is Sam the Eagle.  When I was a toddler, I was randomly but kindly given a little figurine of Sam by a guy on a bus, so he was always a special toy for me.  Now I look at him with the eyes of an adult, he looks utterly mad.

The design and visual impact of the games is also incredibly important for building memories.  There was a sketch for the Los Angeles games, which was really interesting to see, and made me wish there were more examples from other games of the thought processes behind the marketing and publicity for each competition.

But now we go back to the merchandising… I love it!

One of the most informative parts of the display was about the 1928 Amsterdam Games – the first to be called the Summer Games, with the introduction of the Winter Games in 1924.  Not only did Amsterdam establish many traditions in the way the Olympics are run (and they were the first to have Coca-Cola advertising), these were also the Olympics that upped their merchandising game.  Olympic related goods flooded the market and symbols, such as the Olympic rings, began to appear on merchandise.

One fascinating object on show was a kimono from the cancelled 1940 Summer Games in  Tokyo.  Tokyo would have been the first non-Western city to host the Olympics, and the planning was fully underway, with posters and advertising material distributed internationally and construction work starting on buildings.  With the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Japan were not the most popular kids on the block, and they forfeited the games a year later.  The IOC gave the 1940 Olympics to Helsinki instead.  Well, the war saw to it that those games never happened, either.  Most jinxed games ever.

It was also nice to see some costumes used during the opening ceremonies.  Again, it would have been interesting to see more of them, because there have been some really beautiful and really weird outfits over the years…  as we were reminded during some of the footage being shown on the screens.  Not that I could watch much of it for fear of having an epileptic fit.

I wish I could wear a Russian dress…

The Olympic Games

The next floor of the museum looks at individual Olympians and has a range of items worn and used by those who have competed at the Summer and Winter Games.  The museum’s website says that in this section “stories come alive through the presentation of equipment and photo and video documents”.  Honestly, the stories didn’t really come alive to me – but it was interesting highlighting individuals and their achievements.  And seeing how big Rafa Nadal’s feet are.

Perhaps I should have mentioned at the beginning that I’m not a massive sports fan – I love watching the Olympics and there are a few sports that I dip in and out of, but on the whole I’d say I’m pretty ignorant.  Nevertheless, I found enough people I recognised to make it interesting for me, along with a few objects which did tell intriguing histories I was glad to learn about.


The Olympic Spirit

The final section of the museum takes us, apparently, to the heart of the Olympic Village.  I hope this is not true, because it seemed like a pretty grim and barren place.

The subjects of nutrition, training and relaxation are looked at, and it was fun seeing the kind of meals different types of athletes eat.  It could have been more informative, but to be honest, the same can be said for much of what’s in the museum.

In a section which will appeal to children, and big-children, like me, there are interactive games towards the end of the display.  There was a balancing game, where you had to make a ball go into the centre through a bit of an obstacle course.  The one I went on was clearly not working, because it refused to acknowledge that I did it successfully.  Then I had a go at a running/shooting event, which also was clearly broken, because it wouldn’t acknowledge my excellent shooting.

So In Summary

While we were walking around the museum, I felt really quite caught up in the Olympic spirit.  How nice it is to have an event that unites people from all around the world and to see personal objects belonging to sportsmen and women of the past century.  It was a well-designed museum, lacking in detail and consistent levels of information about each of the games, but it had enough to engage anyone who is mildly interested in the Olympics.


Then, after I left the the bubble of happiness, and was discussing the museum with Sister Chickpea, I felt a bit like I’d been exposed to propaganda.

I realised that there had been an epic white-washing of history.  I understand that the museum wanted to keep with the ‘pure’ Olympic spirit and therefore avoid ‘controversial’ subjects, but to have colourful, joyful promotional items from the Munich Games, for example, without mentioning the terrorism, is like talking about the beauty of the Titanic without mentioning that it sank.  The truth is, as much as we all respect the ideals of the Olympics, there are lots of miserable people who have exploited the games for their own cause: I’m thinking 1936 in Berlin, drug cheats, various Russian scandals, dodgy refereeing decisions, boycotts, suspensions and racism.  Of course you don’t expect there to be a room dedicated to these things, but an acknowledgement that all is not sweetness and light would be more honest, because the truth is that the games are high-profile events which will always be open to being hijacked by some kind of controversy.

We all want to see the positive and good in the world – but to pretend awkward truths don’t exist, or to refer to it like it’s a minor irritation, comes across as naive.  Yes the fight against doping is mentioned, and yes, there is the odd mention of African-Americans facing racism, but the complexity of people and international relations and politics is integral to any event that features people, international relations and politics.  To imply that the Olympic games, by their very existence, instil noble ideals in the minds of competitors is sadly untrue.  Just look at the number of cases where athletes have been sent home for doing and saying a myriad of stupid things.

But then let’s consider this: the families of those killed during the 1972 Munich Olympics requested that there be a minute’s silence in their memory in the 1976 Montreal games.  Considering the shocking and traumatic nature of the attack, this would seem to be a natural request – a respectful tribute to the athletes who were, after all, murdered by terrorists.  But it was rejected, because it was feared that Muslim delegations would leave if the Israeli victims were mentioned.

This was the IOC’s consistent stand through the following games.  The families pushed again for the minute’s silence to mark the 40th anniversary of the attacks at the 2012 London games, but this was rejected in a vote.  This is the Olympic spirit in action.  If the IOC members themselves can’t put aside religious, racial and political differences, it’s a bit rich to expect individual athletes to do it.

I should add that I saw no reference to the terrorism of the 1972 games in the Olympics Museum.  Of course, I could have missed it – there were interactive displays which I can’t ever be bothered with – but any references to anything negative would have been slipped in, not addressed head on, in any narrative.

Maybe I’ve over-thought this and have over-reacted, but as I’ve read more about the Olympics, I’ve become more annoyed.  I can’t help but get cross when museums cherry-pick the bits of history they find acceptable.  History is history, events run into each other and explain each other.  That is what we learn from – we learn from the failures of the past, not from the idealism of the present.

Further Information

The Olympic Museum holds exhibitions that relate to the games that are being held at the time:  While the website is helpful with the practical information regarding a visit, it’s not so hot on giving away much about their collections.

There’s also a good gift shop where they’ve made old merchandise available to buy again!  It was all out of my budget range, but it was nice for those who can buy!

How To Get There

The Olympics Museum is situated by Lake Geneva, in the Lausanne suburb of Ouchy.  It’s an easy underground ride from the Lausanne train station to Ouchy, and from there, walk towards the lake, and follow the road left.  You will soon get to the gardens of the museum, with packs of teenagers hanging around.  Walk up through the gardens and you get to the main entrance.

Lausanne has a very helpful site in English:

For general transport links from other places in Switzerland, checkout:







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