Switzerland's Olympic Museum: An Ode to Athletes, and to Competition

Lausanne is home to the International Olympic Committee and the largest collection of Olympic memorabilia. The museum's halls carry stories not only of victory, but also of the triumph of competition.

Lausanne, Switzerland has been recognized as the home of the International Olympic Committee since 1994. Its Olympic Museum opened in 1993 and, with more than 10,000 Olympic artifacts, is now the largest collection of Olympic archives in the world.

With a population of about 142,000 and 28 metro stations, it is the smallest city in the world to have a rapid transit system! We shot down from the Lausanne Palace Resort & Spa in the fast tram in about four minutes then wandered east along the coast of Lake Geneva for 10 minutes till we arrived at the handsome building that rises over the lake to house this museum.

The museum presentation was very classy but everything in this country seems similarly upscale. The visitor approaches with a sense almost of reverence as if Here be giants! Lausanne has spent time to get it right. The visitor walks up somewhat steep steps in an ascent to the front entrance past statues that show the human body in its perfection. A statue of a male Greek nude shows particular perfection not only that the left testicle always hangs lower than the right but that sculptors used models that had the “Greek foot,“ the more perfect foot where the longest toe was always the second and symmetrical one.

The steps lead up to the museum. In the original Olympic games competitors performed in the nude and if women were found watching they were flung from cliff tops. The Greek (perfect) foot.

Once up the steps the entrance awaits you. The permanent flame. Painting of Pierre de Coubertin whose enthusiasm re-awakened and invigorated the Olympic Games.

Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman, was born in Paris in 1863. He became an educator with a profound respect for the British so-called public (private) school system. He founded the International Olympic Committee, his only failure perhaps being his interest in trying to create Equestrian Fencing as an Olympic Sport. One of his admonitions in sport was the important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete. We think of that as we walk the corridors here and view the exhibits and imagine how he might have shuddered as the stories surfaced of cities like Salt Lake City bribing delegates of the International Olympic Committee to be the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ultimately the press broke the story that the bribery scandal had gone back years. Radical reforms were announced. But the stories never stop and now Russian doping has become a huge issue as the sporting world wonders if that country will be allowed to compete in Rio.

We think of all this as we stand in front of the statue of the “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) the runner who won five Gold medals in one Olympics in Paris in 1924, two of the races for the 1,500-metere and the 5,000-meter races being only one hour apart. Nurmi dedicated himself to running. He once said, “If you want to tell something to an athlete, say it quickly and give no alternatives. This is a game of winning and losing. It is senseless to explain and explain.”

What a fluid loping style Paavo Nurmi had and obviously there was not an ounce of fat on his body. Olympic historians wonder what he might have achieved had he been able to discover modern training methods.

Emil Zatopek, of Czechoslavakia (1922-2000), won three Gold medals in the 5,000-meter, the 10,000-meter and the marathon in the 1952 Olympics Helsinki. No one had ever done this before. But there was more to Zatopek than distance running. He was a friend to the community of athletes, a devoted husband to his javelin-throwing Olympic Gold wife and an absolute gentleman in the sport. Click here for a deeply moving Zatopek story.

Emil Zatopek had an unusual running style described by one journalist as: “he ran like a man with a noose around his neck. He seemed on the verge of strangulation,” but nobody laughed when he kept winning races. The shoe inserted in our statue image is Zatopek’s from the Olympic Adidas Archive inside the museum.

Exhibits vary from Greek nudes and vases and plates to some of the track suits different countries favor.

The equipment has advanced in bicycling from the Elswick racing bike of the late 19th century with only one gear and no brakes (John Pinkerton archive) to the replica of the Lotus Bike with a monocoque frame made from carbon fiber which enabled Chris Boardman to break the individual pursuit world speed record in Barcelona 1992. The most striking change was the aerodynamic “Superman” position later prohibited by the UCI in 1996.

The Elswick racing bike with one gear and no brakes and the 1992 Lotus carbon fiber bike that shattered records in Barcelona in 1992.

On show are some of the symbols of the Olympic Games and a hologram as if you were attending the original Games in Olympia — and competitive sleds showing the changes over the years.

What American doesn’t remember that USA has surprisingly had great moments in ice hockey and water polo, not always sports that get much publicity or encouragement as common sports in America.

Recent locations for sites for the Olympics Games reminding us that not all maintained the spirit of the games especially Berlin and Munich.

This museum attempts to answer questions and make observations about all this.

How is the Olympic World expanding?

How is sport evolving?

Who were the great champions?

Would you like to watch some of our 1,000 video clips?

Or would you care to take part in some of our audio-visual immersion techniques?

How do you become an Olympic champion?

How does it feel to win?

Then it senses it may have a role in helping young people mature, because it also asks the other side of the question: How does it feel to… lose?

Photography by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.