A History of Switzerland at the Olympic Games

Society, politics and the symbolic value of sport: Switzerland's attitude to the Olympic Games mirrors a hundred years of national history.

The first modern Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896. 249 athletes took part: 168 Greeks and 81 from 13 other countries (including three Swiss). There were nine disciplines in all: athletics, cycling, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, fencing, weight lifting, tennis and shooting. Only five sports have been a constant feature of the summer Olympics since then: athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics and swimming.

French educator Baron de Coubertin (1863-1937) is regarded as the father of the modern Olympic movement. Adopting an English educational principle, he saw sport as vital in teaching values and preparing young people for life in a competitive world. Following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), de Coubertin reproached the French intellectual class for "sitting around too much on their brains", while neglecting to cultivate physical prowess. On his initiative the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in Paris in 1894 and transferred to Lausanne during the First World War.

The first Swiss athlete to compete in the Games was the Neuchâtel-born gymnast Louis Zutter. Way back in 1896 he travelled privately to Athens and came home with two silver medals and one gold. Zutter's achievement passed almost unnoticed: a few lines in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for example, and an error in the spelling of his name! Even the specialist magazine Schweizerische Turnzeitung more or less ignored the events in Athens while devoting many column inches to a men's gymnastics meeting in canton Aargau.

The first Swiss member of the ICO, Baron Godefroy de Blonay, became the first president of the Swiss Olympic Committee, created in 1912. At the same time, the commercial aspect began to prevail, with a growing emphasis on the importance of results. In the early 20th century, the Olympic spirit was still slow to develop in Switzerland. This was due partly to circumstances—difficult international relations, the First World War, the cancellation of the Games in 1916—and partly to Swiss tradition. Not until 1923 did a real change occur, when the Swiss physical education association (Asef), combining the various national federations, signed an agreement with the Swiss Olympic Committee. The Committee effectively became an organ of Asef, with complete independence in selecting Swiss athletes for the Games and organising the national delegations.

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 saw a change in mentality. In the 1930s, attempts were made to give sport a more patriotic emphasis. In the light of what was happening in neighbouring Germany, where the Olympics were exploited as a great propaganda fest, people became aware of the role of sport in building national cohesion. The change of attitude was even more marked in the 1960s. In 1967, a more scientific approach was reflected in the founding—again at Magglingen—of the Institute of Sports Science. In 1970 sport featured for the first time in the Federal Constitution. Two years later federal legislation promoting gymnastics and sport laid the basis for the "Youth + Sport" movement and provided support for women's events.

Switzerland has sent athletes to compete in every Games since it first participated at the Olympic Games at the inaugural 1896 Games. Swiss athletes have won a total of 185 medals at the Summer Olympic Games, and another 138 at the Winter Olympic Games. Switzerland has hosted the Games on two occasions: the 1938 Winter Olympics in St Moritz and the 1948 Winter Olympics in St Moritz. Let’s hope there are many more opportunities for Switzerland to win Olympic medals in the future!

YouTube video: 'Was macht eigentlich Swiss Olympic?' by the Swiss Olympic Team, available from: goo.gl/gdfv7t.

Info credit: goo.gl/pnNRW4, goo.gl/YLTi8U, goo.gl/Z8lgpX

Image credit: adapted from goo.gl/fao2Up.

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