In 1915, there was nothing to suggest that Lausanne would become the epicentre of the sporting world. Today, the five interlocking rings welcome travellers as they arrive at the railway station – and this is by no means the only expression of the Olympic spirit in the city. While Lausanne, nestled on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, is now known internationally as the Olympic Capital, it owes this status to the resolve of a certain French baron who had fallen in love with the area, and to the terrible context of the First World War.
While Lausanne is known today throughout the world as the Olympic Capital, it owes this status to the reviver of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin. The French baron was very much taken with the Vaudois capital, located on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, and the surrounding area, and he visited the city during the early part of the 20th century. In 1906, in the wake of the difficulties encountered in organising the Games in 1900 and 1904, he wrote: “If, one day, a New Olympia is to be established somewhere in Europe, it is most probably on the shores of a Swiss lake that its buildings will rise.” He therefore began looking for a long-term solution. Why not, he thought, create a permanent site to host the Olympic Games? He initially set his sights on Morges, a town situated near Lausanne, and began work on the project, designing plans for the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Village and the canteen. But the project never materialised, among other reasons after encountering opposition from International Olympic Committee (IOC) Members who wanted to continue to hold the Games every four years in a different city around the world.
Nevertheless, Coubertin remained very attached to the Lausanne region and the Canton of Vaud. In the 1906 Olympic Review, he hailed Switzerland as the “queen” of sport and declared that the country would “become the point of convergence for global sport”. In 1914, shortly after the Olympic Congress in Paris, where he presented the emblem he had designed – the five interlocking Olympic rings, representing all the continents united by Olympism – a deadly conflict broke out in Europe and soon spread throughout the world. The First World War interrupted the Games cycle, and Coubertin decided to leave Paris and find a neutral territory in which to establish the IOC headquarters. He opted, naturally, for Lausanne. In April 1915, he met the Mayor of the city, Paul Maillefer, and premises were assigned to the relatively young international institution in the Casino de Montbenon, overlooking the city. On the 10th of that month, a ceremony was held at the town hall to formalise the IOC’s establishment in Lausanne.
In his speech, Coubertin explained: “The present act has been in preparation for some time. It had been envisaged since 1907 that this country would become the focal point of our international activity […] This beautiful city, where Greece and France alike have so many friends, is well versed in the various expressions of contemporary civilization. Its hospitality is proverbial, its renown universal. The work of balance and beauty that the International [Olympic] Committee has started and directed these past 20 years will continue productively here. In the proud and independent atmosphere of Lausanne, Olympism will find guarantees of the freedom it must enjoy in order to move forward.”
It was not just the IOC headquarters that Coubertin established in Lausanne. In parallel, the visionary educator created a library (which would later evolve into the Olympic Studies Centre) and a museum, which over time would build up a collection of Olympic treasures from antiquity and the present day. Eager to educate young people by introducing them to his humanist philosophy, Coubertin also founded the Olympic Institute of Lausanne (IOL), which hosted talks and classes in several sports, including boxing, fencing, gymnastics and wrestling. In April 1919, once the war was over, the 18th IOC Session was held in Lausanne. The Session included celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the IOC, and saw Antwerp awarded the 1920 Games. The VII Olympic Congress and the 20th IOC Session also took place in Lausanne in June 1921. The following year, the IOC headquarters, the museum and the library were moved to the Villa Mon-Repos, which was – and still is – owned by the city.
Relations between the IOC and Switzerland were further enhanced with the staging of the II Olympic Winter Games in St Moritz in 1928. Gradually, International Federations and a range of other sports institutions chose to set up their headquarters in Lausanne; and more than 55 are currently based in the Vaudois capital. Coubertin, meanwhile, found another reason to stay in his beloved Lausanne even after stepping down as IOC President in 1925 – namely pursuing a new vocation managing the museum at the Villa Mon-Repos until his death in 1937.
In 1968 – although, since Coubertin, no IOC President had lived in Lausanne – the city authorities granted the IOC the use of a new site: the Château de Vidy, surrounded by the greenery of the Louis Bourget Park on the lakeshore. It was to this site that the headquarters were moved, and ultimately where they would remain. IOC Sessions continued to take place in the city over the course of the 20th century, while the museum was relocated from the Villa Mon-Repos to Rue Ruchonnet, temporarily, in 1982.
Relations between Lausanne and the IOC were strengthened considerably when Juan Antonio Samaranch became President in 1980. He was the first IOC President to perform the role full time, and also the first since Coubertin to move to Lausanne. In September 1981, the Swiss Federal Council issued a decree granting the IOC “special status that takes into account its worldwide activities and its specific nature as an international institution”. In 1982, the first ever Olympic Week was organised in Lausanne, under the auspices of the local authorities and the IOC, which presented the Olympic flag to the city during a ceremony held at the town hall. That same year, Lausanne officially became the “Olympic city”.
New projects were launched in quick succession. Plans were drawn up to build a new, modern building in Vidy, right next to the Château, to serve as the IOC’s administrative headquarters. A project to build a new museum on Quai d’Ouchy was conceived; the IOC organised numerous international events in the city; and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was established in Lausanne in 1983. On 11 January 1983, a charter was signed between the city and the IOC setting out their shared objectives and expressing the desire to address and resolve any potential issues. In 1984, a stamp bearing the words “Lausanne, Olympic city” was issued. The new Olympic House in Vidy was inaugurated in 1986.
This shared, longstanding history, the global significance of the Olympic Games, the strengthening of relations between the city and the sports institution, and Lausanne’s international standing all culminated in the event on 5 December 1993, when the IOC declared the city the “Olympic Capital”. With this act, President Samaranch and the Olympic Movement as a whole sought to underline the permanence and strength of the links between the International Olympic Committee and the city chosen by Coubertin in the midst of a global conflict.
The 21st century began with The Olympic Museum on Quai d’Ouchy drawing large numbers of visitors from all over the world, and the nearby Olympic Studies Centre offering its historical collection of works to researchers from a range of backgrounds. Then, in 2015, construction work began on a new building in Vidy. Built in line with the most stringent environmental and sustainability standards, and blending in seamlessly with the greenery and history of its surroundings, the headquarters brought together all the IOC staff under one roof. At the official inauguration on 23 June 2019 – the IOC’s 125th anniversary – President Thomas Bach declared that the new Olympic House was a “demonstration of our deep bond to Lausanne, the Canton of Vaud and all of Switzerland. In 1915, Pierre de Coubertin moved the IOC headquarters from Paris to Lausanne, to escape the ravages of World War One. In this way, he wanted to emphasise the political neutrality of the IOC”.
He added: “But besides these important considerations, Pierre de Coubertin also had great affection for the city, as he revealed in his writings: ‘Spread out delightfully along the shores of the lake, crowned by forests, provided with every conceivable sporting possibility… Lausanne was the most apt location imaginable for the establishment of the administrative headquarters of Olympism.’ If I may, I share Coubertin’s sentiments. Just as it was then, today this environment is the best possible place to make the world better through sport.”
And the story did not end there: after several unsuccessful candidatures to host the Summer Games, in July 2015 Lausanne was selected as host of the 3rd Winter Youth Olympic Games. And so, in January 2020, taking place in an extraordinary atmosphere, the Games “returned home”. The shared history, which began in 1915, is still very much being written.