Visiting the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland

Lausanne is home to the Olympic movement (Photo Ian Young)

Living, as I do, in a traditionally Sabbatarian country I really shouldn’t be surprised to find myself somewhere where nothing happens on a Sunday morning. But I am. Here in Lausanne (which, the guidebook promised, is a lively city where there’s always something happening) on a blazing hot weekend in the middle of the tourist season, the place is dead.

Sunday Morning in Lausanne

It isn’t even that early – it’s 11 o’clock – and having struggled up the (horribly steep) hill from the station to the old town to find the supposedly-thronged streets eerily empty, we’re in desperate need of a coffee. There’s nowhere open, except a solitary Starbucks. Don’t the Swiss need to refuel from time to time?

In Your Bucket Because:

  • The tranquil setting contrasts strangely with the exertions of all those Olympic athletes!
  • Lausanne’s lakeside suburb of Ouchy is a wonderful setting for a cup of coffee and an ice cream.
  • Great for sports fans – and sports historians.

Lausanne's market square on a Sunday morning

By mutual agreement we turn back down the hill, on the premise that at least the lakeside will be cooler. With a pair of reluctant teenagers and two adults in desperate need of a shot of caffeine, it doesn’t take long for tempers to fray.

“This is further than you said it was.”

“I never said how far it is.”

Adding insult to injury, every chocolate shop we pass displays tantalising glimpses of unreachable treats behind a shuttered door.

Just as we’re considering the benefits of divorce and adoption, we round the corner to the lakeside. Stone and concrete give way to grass and trees. People jostle on the pavements, splash about on Lake Geneva in pedalos. And a broad stretch of pavement spreads out in the sunshine. “Ice cream!” cries someone, in tones of agonised relief. As one we make for the café.

The Olympic Museum and Park

Once we’re fortified, it’s time to stroll along the waterfront to our destination for the day: the Olympic Museum. Although Lausanne has never hosted the Olympic Games it’s the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee and so is home to the Olympic Museum. And with the London games just days away, it seems to call us.

Displays are simple but effective

Except it’s shut – not because it’s a Sunday, either, but for a full refurbishment. Fortunately, there’s an inviting temporary exhibit, which is actually more appealing than the present building. It’s housed in a former lake steamer, moored opposite the Olympic fountain and rocking gently to and fro on the choppy waters of Lake Geneva. And it includes some compelling memorabilia that evoke the legends of past Olympics.

I generally prefer the smaller, more intimate museums to those whose swanky fully-interactive exhibits do no more than fill your head with light and sound. Strangely, this old boat, with its limited floor space and few exhibits, is rewarding; its focused collection, manageable size, and simplicity seem to hone in on the essence of the Olympics.

Will it be gold, silver or bronze at London 2012? (Photo Ian Young)

This essence, this enduring appeal is something that is difficult to define; correspondingly, it is easy to be cynical about the event’s ruthless commercial drive and regular disqualifications for doping offences. By going into the museum I know I’m exposing myself to the wiles of a highly-paid marketing team. I’m giving them an open invitation to sell me their brand, their dream of glory – and the names and products of their sponsors.

Despite this knowledge, they do sell it to me. This simple collection of posters and exhibits touches the emotional core of the Olympics. The exhibits recall iconic moments, at least for those of us with a dozen or more Olympiads in our memory banks (though the display of gold, silver and bronze medals from every single games is, I’m afraid to say, rather dull).

I’m intrigued to see Chris Boardman’s home-made bike (it doesn’t say whether it’s true that he made it out of washing machine parts). The basketball signed by the 1992 US Dream Team has a touch of magic about it. In the one interactive display the touch screen takes you to great Olympic moments such as Carl Lewis’ four gold medals in Los Angeles and the Iraqi football team showing that minnows can make a splash with their fourth place in Athens. And, just in case we’d forgotten, we can’t miss the right-up-to-date 2012 Olympic torch.

Outside in the Olympic Park, bronze torsos, naked running figures and explosions of something-or-other that somehow manage to represent swimming dot the hillside around the building site that is next year’s museum. As we drift back through the sunlight I find myself dwelling on a video clip from the museum – athlete Derek Redmond, crippled by a torn hamstring, hobbling to complete the race on the arm of his father. And I find myself wondering what it’s all about, what the Olympics really mean.

The new museum promises us “‘a total metamorphosis…implementation of a whole universe of knowledge and emotions, made possible through the latest interactive and multimedia technology.” This worries me a little, in case somehow in all the glitz and all the glory we might lose sight of what it’s all about. Medals and records are all very well. But I do hope they keep the clip about Derek Redmond.

The museum has done its job.


  • The Olympic Museum, currently closed for refurbishment, is due to reopen in late 2013 with over 6,500 sq m of galleries, plus amphitheatre, flame esplanade and all sorts of bells and whistles
  • Its temporary replacement is right on the lakeside. Admission is free. If you come by train it’s a steep walk down the hill – and back up. The lake steamers stop nearby.
  • There are plenty of places to stop and eat at the lakeside at Ouchy.

Leave a Comment