Last summer, I had the privilege and good fortune to visit two of the best Olympic museums in the world back-to-back, with an added, rare, intimate backstage tour of one of them.
First up was The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Olympic Museum (TOM) is the official Olympic museum in the world; it is the showpiece of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which owns, runs and oversees the global Olympic movement.
A few months ago, while doing research for an article for the Journal of the International Society of Olympic Historians, I had reached out to TOM with a query, and also casually mentioned that I might be visiting Lausanne in September. While my main query was answered easily enough, I got a counter-offer of “Would (I) be interested in a private, backstage tour of the museum?” in return. Does one need to inhale oxygen to stay alive?
Holy Zeus, I immediately and graciously accepted the offer of an unsolicited “backstage tour” of the archives at Mount Olympus. This was a singular honor, probably not even extended to the some odd-110 members of the IOC. The exclusive invitation, I could only guess, was prompted by my book, Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (originally published 2010.) This serendipitous occurrence came about by a concept I’ve always believed in and practiced—making your own luck in life.
The invitation came from a Miss P.R. (her true initials) who, very strangely, seemed to come with no title. Apparently, they aren’t big on job titles at the Olympic Museum. The young clerks at the Gift Shop didn’t even know PR or her Department (and I will safeguard her identity). It was only later that I was able to surmise that PR was someone like a Head Curator of Research and the Acquisitions Department. It felt awkward to ask what her exact title was since they didn’t seem to make a big deal of it. After all, getting the invitation was the important thing.
When my host PR came and we met, she led the way to the basement (bunker?) level where her office was located. Of course, a little kilig (mini-thrill) came over me. Here I was descending into the inner sanctum of the IOC Museum about to see Olympic artifacts and memorabilia not yet ready to be shown to the general public.
Since PR knew me from my book, my backstage visit would concentrate on the ceremonial aspects of the Olympics. What greeted me behind the door was an open work table where a few artifacts were in the process of being photographed and catalogued. There was an athlete’s Victory outfit, I forget from which Games edition, and a wolf (or coyote) headdress from the Salt Lake City 2002 opening ceremony. (Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photographs backstage.)
PR then complimented me on my book, asking how did I find the unique stories which went into it. (To find out which ones, dear reader, may I suggest you peruse the book on amazon.com.)
She then moved us to the rolling stacks which held the museum’s spare Olympic torches. Of course, I was tongue-tied half the time since here I was actually being shown, touching and seeing up-close the historic torches tht grace every edition of the modern Olympic Games.
Very randomly, I saw several torches and canisters from Berlin 1936 (the so-called “Nazi” Games) when the very first Olympic Torch Relay was staged. There were numerous spare Berlin 1936 torches since the Krupp Armaments Co. crafted some 3,840 of them and over 5,000 incendiary canisters.
Then there were three torches from Mexico 1968 of varying designs. I asked PR how come Mexico 1968 ended up with several designs? She replied that design changes were necessitated along the way by weight problems. (Just recently I found out that there were seven variations of the two basic designs. I shared that info with PR; and she was most excited by that latest fact.)
Rarest and Most Valuable of Olympic Memorabilia
The torches along with the gold medals won by athletes are among the most valuable Modern Era memorabilia. While only two gold medals are known to have sold for more than a million dollars, torches of which in the last 30 years several thousands have been manufactured, fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.
One Helsinki 1952 torch, of which only 22 are known to have been made, sold for $400,000 at a February 2011 auction. Another went for either $185,000 or $232,000 in a private sale in December 2006. Because it was a private sale, the correct amount cannot be certified. Another torch for Grenoble 1968 sold for $247,500 at an October 2012 auction.
And those aren’t even the rarest torches. That record belongs to the Innsbruck 1964 torch. It was so rare that the Olympic Museum didn’t even have one until 1988. It was only then that IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch wanted to complete the IOC’s collection that they sought out a 1964 torch of which only two are known to have survived.
Replacing Lost Torches and Medals
They found one with Austrian skier Josl Reider, the man who lit the cauldron in Innsbruck in 1964. Two authorized copies were made, one of which is on permanent display, and the other is a back-up in the vaults. However, several unauthorized copies have hit the market and those too are commanding top dollar.
My host then showed me some dupes of older gold medals dated before 1984 when the IOC had the foresight to request for duplicate medals. This brings up questions and answers on how the IOC handles the matter of, shall we say, “defrocking” medalists who, after the fact, were found to have cheated their way to victory, primarily by using banned substances.
If Gold Medal Athlete X is found to have cheated, his/her victory is thus revoked, and the 2nd and 3rd-place winners, i.e., the silver and bronze medalists, move up the ranking, if they are clean. The IOC then demands the return of all the medals previously awarded, new victors are officially declared and re-ranked medals are awarded, including the 4th placer who has moved up to bronze-medal status.
In the last three decades, the IOC has requested additional medals from the various organizing committees for just such contingencies (which with more advanced testing methods, have uncovered more and more cheats). And if they were still available, the IOC has also requested for the molds of the various medals.
Contingency Plans for a Swiss Revolution
During a past Olympic forum, I often joked with fellow Olympic aficionados that if ever there was a revolution in Switzerland—say, an “Alpine spring”--we should head not for the Rolex, Patek Philippe or Vacheron showrooms, but for the IOC compound in Lausanne. We would storm the IOC ramparts, breach museum security and the first items we would grab would be the Olympic torches! I now knew the layout. Enter with pitchforks; and leave with the gleaming torches! (Of course, I did not share this thought with my TOM host, Miss PR.)
Soon, it neared 14:00 p.m.; PR was casting me adrift. She had to catch a flight. So, my private tour ended but not before I realized what a unique experience I had been afforded and that I now had an even more personal contact within the IOC. Her parting words to me were that I would be quite surprised by the museum in Barcelona. It would be a good one.
I then took in the regular public galleries of the Museum on my own.
The main floor of TOM shows a history of the Olympic Games, from the ancient times (with a sort of interactive display); to its disappearance for 15 centuries, until their revival in 1896 due to the vision and efforts of a French educator-nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
The second level was devoted to sports, the Torch Collection and my favorite section of all, to the Olympic Opening Ceremony. It was something that held a special place in my heart.
The Crying Room
On a large screen, a seven-minute film of what constitutes an Olympic Opening Ceremony, spooled afresh every ten minutes. It featured clips of the “Call to the Nations” section at the Atlanta 1996 Centennial Games’ opening (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0b8BAuT9F8)
(The “Call to the Nations” section takes place in the first ten minutes of the ceremony and involves the 600+ performers decked out in strange, surrealistic costumes designed by Cirque du Soleil and in the five Olympic colors [and gold], representing the five “tribes” of humanity.)
Sitting there in that darkened room, of course, I got a lump in my throat, seeing my “Call to the Nations” section being played on the TOM screen. It was in 1996 when, with 3,200 other cast members, we shimmied, grunted under masks, doing our best for the celebration of Olympic ideals. Now, twenty-one years later, here I was in Lausanne, watching that evening’s highlights relived on the big screen of The Olympic Museum. That moment and other glorious bits of other Opening Ceremonies are now forever enshrined in that room, and will be reviewed again and anew by thousands of visitors annually. It’s in moments like those when our species attempts to be the best we can be; and after thousands of years, we are still trying to get it right. I left that room quite misty-eyed.
There were scale models of outstanding stadia (like Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium), one of the drumming tables of Beijing 2008 and a few examples of the other lavish costumes used for opening and closing ceremonies.
The bottom level was a recreation of the Olympic Village “concept” wherein, for about two weeks, athletes from every corner of the globe, break bread and get to know each other on a friendlier and more personal basis, away from the field of competition. De Coubertin, in his most uncompromised vision, hoped that those who compete in the Olympic Games, would go home with more than just medals—with memories and friendships that would span oceans and last a lifetime.
In one corner was a small section on the nasty matter of doping, i.e., cheating your colleagues in the heat of competition. It was hard to materialize that concept exhibit-wise.
Lausanne’s Olympic Museum on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3tS1H8Hvyg
Baron Pierre de Coubertin
The second museum was the Museu Olympic i de L’Esport - Joan Antoni Samaranch (MOLE-JAS) in Barcelona, Spain, site of the 1992 (Summer) Olympic Games (more later.)
The next day, I flew to Barcelona where I had last visited in 1992 but then strictly just to attend the Summer Games and did no sightseeing. This visit was going to repair that omission (and included plans to visit the ancestral Garcia/del Fierro hearth in Galicia). I had already previously dealt with the Barcelona Museum, which also housed the Barcelona Olympic Foundation from whom I had bought publication rights for two images used in my Olympic book.
MOLE-JAS is located in the city’s Montjuic hill, just a stone’s throw from the 1992 Olympic Stadium. It has a very unprepossessing façade which disguises the fact that three other levels are sunk into the ground. While TOM in Lausanne imposes itself as being on Mount Olympus, MOLE-JAS does just the opposite, it burrows deep into historic Montjuic soil. (I suppose its acronym, MOLE, is inadvertently appropriate in English.)
I found MOLE-JAS more compact than TOM, and understandably so since it concentrated on the 1992 Summer Games, Spain and Catalonia’s sports achievements, and a celebration of the career of Juan Antonio Samaranch. Samaranch was the IOC president from 1980 to 2000, who raised the IOC from a penurious organization to a billion-dollar not-profit enterprise.
Again, this museum’s depiction of the Olympic Games was laid out chronologically. But what made it different from TOM, and for which I preferred it over TOM, was it took a more comprehensive approach to telling the Olympic story. Considering that its holdings are far more limited than TOM’s, MOLE-JAS presented, I believe, a more international picture of sports, as a whole. Not only did it honor Olympic achievements in a traditional timeline, but it also marked those against other major sports events, like:
• the conquest of Mount Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay
• the Tour de France, a sporting milestone in Cycling in any year
• the recognition of Chess as a legitimate sport
• the historic America’s Cup race of 1983, one of yachting’s premier events
• the advent of technology in the Olympics, e.g., first use of black-and-white television in London 1948; and then color broadcasts of Tokyo 1964; the timekeeping—all of which made the Olympics the global phenomenon it is today
• right beside the oh-so-serious Samaranch gallery was an odd assortment of posters and cartoons which, using humor, wit and self-mockery, showed that sportspeople don’t take themselves so seriously and laugh at themselves and the world as well; and
• best of all, MOLE-JAS was free to seniors from anywhere. (I had to pay the regular admission of 16.50 Swiss francs in Lausanne.)
Taken all together, the sum provides context not just to the Olympic Games but also to some other event that might have additional meaning from the visitor’s perspective.
Then there was a room devoted to Spanish and Catalan sports achievements—a lot of football. If Catalonia succeeds in separating from Spain, MOLE-JAS will be a fitting Olympic Museum for the new nation.
An exhibit that had special resonance for me was one celebrating the ground-breaking opening ceremony of 1992. It stoked such nostalgic memories from a quarter century earlier.
This photo and the next show some of the props and costumes used in the 1992 Opening Ceremony. This one has a blue bull representing Pablo Picasso’s art. (From author’s collection.)
Finally, the bottom level was devoted to the memory of the controversial Juan Antonio Samaranch, who started out as a young Franco Falangist but became a global force to be reckoned with, in turning the Olympic movement around into a solvent and self-sustaining entity.
In the gallery of Samaranch’s many meetings with heads of state, there was this interesting photograph (below) of Samaranch meeting with Ferdinand Marcos.
Dueling Historic Arrows
On Opening night in 1992, Olympic ceremonial history was made when a physically disabled archer launched a flaming arrow halfway across the stadium to ignite the cauldron. Both museums claim to have the final arrow made for that iconic Barcelona '92 moment.
How could that be? There could only have been one true arrow. I know; I witnessed the event. Thus, I could not imagine that MOLE-JAS would give up its historic arrow to the “mother ship” in Lausanne. My guess is that TOM got an arrow used in the Dress Rehearsal but mistakenly identified it as the real Opening Ceremony fletch.
When I returned home, I brought this matter to Miss PR of TOM. The latest feedback I received was that both museums were conferring on the matter.
A Dr. Jose Rizal-Montjuic Connection
Rehearsals for the arrow-lighting maneuver were practiced in utmost secrecy at Montjuic’s old Fort (or garrison). The fort, up to 1980, was an active garrison and therein lies a historic Olympic-Jose Rizal footnote. It was here that Rizal spent his last nights on European soil. From Cuba in 1892, Rizal was brought to Barcelona where he was temporarily incarcerated at Fort Montjuic until the next ship back to the Philippines became available. That was in June 1892 when a ship took the national hero to Dapitan for his continued exile. That voyage marked Rizal’s final trip home to the islands until his execution four years later.
For those visiting Barcelona, set aside a whole day for Montjuic in order to view its multiple offerings – the Olympic Stadium, MOLE-JAS, Palau Saint-Jordi, the Castle/National Art Museum, the Ethnographic Village, and the old Fort. My half-day did not do it justice.
Some videos of the Barcelona Olympic Museum:
Other Olympic Museums Around the World. There are three museums in ancient Olympia, Greece—after all, that’s where it all began; one Olympic museum each in Athens and Thessaloniki. Most of the ex-Olympic host cities (both summer and winter), have Olympic museums; and for major sporting nations like the USA, its major Olympic museum is in Colorado Springs, where the USOC is headquartered.
I’m looking forward to PyeongChang 2018; sadly, there will be no Filipino participation at these Winter Games. Manila figure skater Michael Martinez failed to qualify for 2018. Fil-Am hopes, however, will be carried by speed skater J.R. Celski who will be the senior man in the Short Track squad for the 2018 US Winter team.
Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies, Myles A. Garcia, MAG Publishing, P.O.D., © 2016, p. 115-117
The 1964 Innsbruck torch: a rare piece of Olympic memorabilia, article by Dr. Gerhard Siegl, Journal of Olympic History, International Society of Olympic Historians, Vol 25, Number 3, 2017, p. 23-29
ADDENDUM: Positive last-minute developments for the Philippines. Due to Sweden not filling their quota spot for an individual male figure skater, a late opening occurred for the Philippines. Thus, skater Michael Christian Martinez will be able to compete in these, his second Olympic Games. He will be joined by Asa Miller, a dual citizenship Fil-Am for alpine skiing, who carried the Philippine flag at the Opening Ceremony.
Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”, features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication. The book is presently available onamazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).
Myles’ two other books are: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from amazon.com.
Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.
Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco. The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.
For any enquiries on the above: contact firstname.lastname@example.org
More articles from Myles A. Garcia