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Switzerland's long Olympic adventure

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

This content was published on July 16, 2008 - 16:08

Since the first modern Olympiad, 112 years ago, there have been enormous changes in the alpine nation's involvement in the Olympic Games, initially modest and greeted with almost total indifference.

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.

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.

In Switzerland physical activities were practised in the context of national shooting, skiing, horse riding and gymnastics federations, which were more interested in domestic competition than the Olympic Games.

"In those days, gymnastics in particular had a civic character: sport was seen as a way of educating people in Swiss citizenship and this was more important than actual results," says historian Marco Marcacci.

"Gymnastics – gradually introduced into schools at the end of the 19th century – then consisted almost exclusively of collective activities, planned to ensure the harmonious development of all parts of the body," adds Laurent Tissot, professor of contemporary history at Neuchâtel University.

Unity is strength

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 two bodies began cooperating closely and the results were not long in coming: 25 medals in Paris in 1924 and 17 in Amsterdam four years later. The greatest successes were in traditional Swiss disciplines: gymnastics, rowing and wrestling.

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," Marcacci says.

"So even in democratic countries like Switzerland, the idea of using sport as a way of mobilising youth and making it part of military training gained ground."

It was for this reason that in 1944 the government decided to found the Federal Sports School at Magglingen in canton Bern, initially to improve the physical performance of the armed forces.

Demilitarisation of sport

"Physical education lost much of its military character in the post-war years of strong economic growth, when there was a gradual change in mentality," according to Marcacci.

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.

At the same time, "the commercial aspect began to prevail, with a growing emphasis on the importance of results. And this was even more the case in the 1980s", says Marcacci.

The rest is recent history. Though lacking a sporting tradition to compare with that of their winter counterparts, Switzerland's summer athletes – thanks partly to good facilities and generous funding – manage to achieve creditable results.

For example, the silver medal won by Markus Ryffel in the 1984 Games at Los Angeles (5000 metres), the bronze by Werner Günthör in 1988 in Seoul (shot-putting), the gold by tennis player Marc Rosset in Barcelona in 1992 and Xeno Müller four years later in Atlanta (single sculls).

swissinfo, Andrea Clementi

The Olympic Movement

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 member of the ICO, Baron Godefroy de Blonay, also became the first president of the Swiss Olympic Committee, created in 1912.

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The Olympic Games

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.

The most recent summer Games (Athens 2004) was attended by 10,625 athletes from 201 countries. There were 28 disciplines.

To date, Switzerland has won 168 medals at the summer Olympics (42 gold, 68 silver, 58 bronze) and 117 in the winter Games (37, 37, 43).

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Women's involvement

Despite the scepticism of de Coubertin, who thought women would do better to practise sport in private, women began to participate in the Olympics from 1900, when the Games were held in Paris.

On that occasion, 22 female athletes took part (out of a total of 997 participants), competing in five disciplines: tennis, sailing, horse riding, golf and croquet.

Overall, the proportion of women participating progressed from 5% in 1924 to 38.2% in 2006. The first Swiss woman to win an Olympic medal was Helen de Pourtalès, in 1900, in the sailing event held on the River Seine.

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