The five Olympic rings above the city railway station in Lausanne, Switzerland, leave visitors in no doubt that they are in the “Olympic Capital”.
The title was formally bestowed in 1994, but Lausanne’s Olympic connections have endured for more than a century. The first IOC office was in the home of Pierre de Coubertin’s parents in Paris. The IOC was then moved to Lausanne in 1915 because Coubertin found the city a more peaceful and stable environment in a time of war in Europe.
Although it was in 1915 that the official papers were signed to formally establish the Olympic Movement in Lausanne, Coubertin had long been an enthusiast of the city: “Lausanne was the most apt location imaginable for the establishment of the administrative headquarters of Olympism,” he wrote. “Spread out delightfully along the shores of the lake, crowned by forests, provided with every conceivable sporting possibility.”
His ambition was reinforced by a successful IOC Session and Congress held in Lausanne in the summer of 1913. Coubertin was also impressed by a cultural programme which included a Venetian fête, a performance by the combined choirs of Lausanne, and a wrestling display illuminated by torchlight. “The town was bedecked with flags, and a troop of small boy scouts formed a guard of honour on the steps.”
As war broke out, Coubertin returned to Lausanne to establish the Olympic headquarters in a neutral country. He declared at the time: “The Olympic spirit will find the pledge of freedom that it needs to progress in the independent and proud atmosphere that one breathes in Lausanne.”
At first, the IOC headquarters were situated high above the city at the Casino de Montbenon. Then, in 1922, the city allocated the organisation rooms at the Villa Mon-Repos, an imposing 18th century mansion set in picturesque gardens. Coubertin had his study here, and in time would move into personal quarters with his wife Marie. There were also rooms for the small IOC secretariat and a small museum of Olympic artefacts.
Although Coubertin stood down as IOC President in 1925, he remained closely attached to the city and was made a freeman of Lausanne shortly before his death. Such was his affection for the city that he was buried in the Bois-de-Vaux cemetery. In the park at Mon-Repos, a memorial stele was installed, a companion to that at Ancient Olympia, where Coubertin’s heart is interred.
After the war, Lausanne jeweller Otto Mayer became IOC Chancellor and continued to handle the institution’s administrative affairs. But as the Olympic Movement grew, it became clear that Mon-Repos was too small.
It was briefly rumoured that the IOC might relocate to another Swiss city or even abroad, but in 1968, the city invited the organisation to move another stately property in Lausanne, the Château de Vidy, built in the 18th century on the site of a former church. But the growth of the Olympic Movement soon made necessary an expansion of the headquarters. Construction was begun on “Olympic House”, which opened in October 1986, a few days before the IOC Session was held in the city. It was built to the design of Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and Jean-Pierre Cahen. The duo also planned The Olympic Museum, constructed a few kilometres away at the Quai d’Ouchy. The project was energised by the enthusiasm of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, and The Museum opened on Olympic Day, 23 June 1993.
“Our great ship is afloat. It is an event of the first order for the Olympic Movement," said IOC Member Raymond Gafner, who had been the project coordinator, as figure skating champion Katarina Witt lit an eternal flame which welcomed visitors.
The Olympic family made regular returns to the city, and in 2019 the IOC inaugurated Olympic House in Vidy. Complete with solar panels and technology to harness the waters of the lake, Olympic House is to be “a place that respects tradition and brings modernity and transparency to the Movement”. The IOC believes this will be the perfect launching pad for a second century in Lausanne.
1922: The IOC establishes its offices in Mon-Repos
1948: Olympic Flame in Lausanne
1968: The IOC offices/general secretariat moved to the Château de Vidy
1982: Opening of the provisional Olympic Museum in Avenue Ruchonnet
1986: Inauguration of the first Olympic House in Vidy
1993: Inauguration of the Olympic Museum and the Olympic Studies Centre in Ouchy
1994: Formalisation of Lausanne as the “Olympic Capital”
2019: Inauguration of the new Olympic House