LAUSANNE, Switzerland: Fancy measuring up against the mighty Usain Bolt, or hitting the track with your heart beating like a champion’s? The Olympic museum helps visitors unlock the secrets of sporting success. The museum in Lausanne, the hub of the Olympic movement, has been metamorphosed during a two-year shutdown and is due to reopen to the public on Dec. 21.
Lying on the shores of Lake Geneva, it is the mothership of 25 Olympic museums scattered around the globe.
The $62 million renovation has gone beyond the physical, thoroughly rethinking the way the museum traces the history of Olympianism.
In a radical change from the previous chronological timeline, visitors will now be treated to thematic exhibits, starting with the ancient Greek Temple of Zeus in Olympus.
“We’re the museum of an idea, a culture and a philosophy called Olympianism,” the museum’s director Francis Gabet stressed. “That doesn’t stop at pure competition or physical activity. It goes beyond sport.”
Displayed like icons in the museum are master copies of all the medals of the modern Olympics, starting with the first edition in Athens in 1896, as well as every Olympic torch, first used in Berlin in 1936 in a return to the games’ ancient religious roots.
The 1936 Olympics are best known for the quartet of gold medals won by black American athlete Jessie Owens, whose powerful performances raised the hackles of Nazi Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler.
One of Owens’ golds was sold recently at auction for almost $1.5 million, and the museum dreamed of being able to put such a powerful sporting symbol on display.
“The question arose as to whether we should join the bidding race,” Gabet said. “But for us, a medal is priceless, and there’s a risk of encouraging commercialism.”
The objects on exhibition include the Carmen-style dress of German figure skater Katarina Witt, the retro-style skis of Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy, the outfit of Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura and the fencing foil and kit of Germany’s Thomas Bach, the new head of the International Olympic Committee.
The museum does not seek to be a hall of fame of Olympians, however.
“We don’t set out to deny the existence of stars,” Gabet said, “but our aim is to help understand what lies behind the glitz.”
In the museum’s grounds, a 100-meter corridor enables visitors to appreciate the speed of Bolt, the world’s fastest man, with speeding shafts of light replicating his 9.58 second world record.
Thanks to interactive displays, it is easy to imagine oneself as a champion parading at the opening ceremony, living in the Olympic Village and then emotionally entering the stadium.
“Time just isn’t the same when you’re in competition,” Gabet explained. “For some, it slows down and for others, it speeds up. That’s what athletes call ‘getting into the zone,’ a mental state of hyperconcentration just before the starting pistol.”
Leaving the museum, visitors have a chance to reflect on the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics, whose statue stands in front of the building.
“The important thing in life is not triumph,” he once said, “but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”