Coubertin and Lausanne

Pierre de Coubertin and the choice of Lausanne as the IOC headquarters
By Patrick Clastres

At the beginning of the 20th century, nothing predisposed Lausanne to become the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1915. In general, Switzerland is barely awakening to the phenomenon of sport, even though it has a long conscriptive tradition embodied in the ideal of the citizen-gymnast-soldier. Admittedly, it very early became a “playground” for the British in residence on the shores of its lakes or set out to conquer its peaks. Of course, it also does not remain outside the dynamic of internationalization of sport, as evidenced by the organisation of the congresses of the International Association of Physical Education in Geneva in 1904 and the International Rowing Federation in Lucerne in 1908.

So, when he set out on his way to Switzerland in 1905, Pierre de Coubertin’s first idea was not to establish the IOC’s headquarters in Lausanne but rather to “one day hold the Olympic Games in Switzerland”. He does not yet know in which city or on which date because the 1908 ones are planned in Rome anyway. Moreover, Greece has not given up on its ambition to keep the modern games ad aeternam in Athens since it is preparing to organise international games in the spring of 1906 for the 10th anniversary of their recovery. What is certain is that Coubertin was thinking at that time about a solution to loosen the grip of the universal exhibitions during which the Paris 1900 and Saint-Louis 1904 games were held. But how can the Olympic Games be made autonomous from governments or entertainment entrepreneurs?

His idea seems to have taken shape in the summer of 1906 when the Greeks, supported by the Germans, succeeded in their bet to organise magnificently “the games of the decade” and the Italians gave up organising those in Rome. But he is still very evasive in his correspondence with Godefroy de Blonay. What is to be understood, in fact, when he refers to “the Great Work that will have Switzerland as its object”? Everything seemed to clear up the following November with the publication in the Olympic Review of an article entitled “La Suisse, reine des sports”. Pierre de Coubertin refers to the founding of a “New Olympia… probably on the shores of a Swiss lake”. But what is “this great revolution” that is being prepared in Switzerland? It is simply a question of putting an end to the principle of roaming modern games from one capital to another by definitively organising the games in a Swiss city.

For this “new Olympia”, Pierre de Coubertin did not think of Lausanne in October 1906, but of the village of Morges. Negotiations even progressed sufficiently so that, in May 1909, the syndic made public his municipality’s agreement on the grounds that “people would come from all over the world” and that this “affluence would flow into our locality”. Its failure in the local elections of the following November explains why Morges never became “the headquarters of the Olympic Games and the International Committee”. For a time in disarray, Pierre de Coubertin finally set his sights on the city of… Basel. In 1911, he established the administrative and banking headquarters of the Olympic Review there and in March 1912 organised the only meeting of the IOC “Bureau” held before the Great War. But the question of building a Swiss Olympia has not yet been resolved. Pierre de Coubertin then extended his stays in Switzerland and travelled all over the country to rally political, military, medical, university, journalistic, economic and sports elites to his project to install Olympism on the shores of Lake Geneva.

To overcome the reluctance of the municipality and population of Lausanne, but also of the Vaud State Council and the Swiss Federal Council, Pierre de Coubertin has taken a number of initiatives. In March 1911, he awarded the first Olympic architecture prize to the project designed by Eugène Monod and Alphonse Laverrière, whom he carefully guided. The latter locate their utopian sports city on the Vidy site, where the Romans had built the vicus of Lousonna and where the IOC headquarters would be established in 1968. To mobilize the Swiss elite in sport, Coubertin encouraged the creation of the Swiss Olympic Committee (COS), which was founded at the Hotel Meurice in Ouchy, at the bottom of Lausanne, in October 1912. And to finish by rallying local academics, teachers and doctors, he still organises in Ouchy, in 1913, an Olympic Congress devoted to “sports psychology and physiology”. The outbreak of Great War would ruin his plans. In April 1915, it was therefore surreptitiously, without consulting his IOC colleagues, that he used his own military commitment as a pretext to hand over the presidency of the IOC ad interim to Swiss Baron Godefroy de Blonay, and that he imposed on the syndic Paul Maillefer the establishment of the IOC headquarters in Lausanne.