Even though there is no other city on Earth as closely aligned with the modern Olympic movement as Lausanne, the impact of the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games on the Swiss city promises to be pivotal.
Home to around 60 international sports federations and organisations, Lausanne is the hub of global sports administration. Pierre de Coubertin set up the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters here in 1915, and in 1994 the IOC granted the city its status as ‘Olympic Capital’ – a moniker that has helped to attract and retain sport’s decision-makers, as well as more than 50 other companies that work within the sports industry. Of a population of 140,000, at least 1,500 are thought to work in the sports industry.
Even before the arrival of the IOC, the picturesque city in the canton of Vaud had a proud sporting heritage, with Lausanne Football and Cricket Club established as continental Europe’s first such sports club way back in 1860. But Lausanne is largely viewed as a place where sport meets, rather than plays.
The reason for that is partly geographical: Lausanne is flanked by larger cities, with Geneva to the south and Bern and Zurich to the north.
And though it’s well suited to outdoor pursuits – Lausanne hosted the International Triathlon Union World Championships in 1998 and 2006 and the Sprint World Championships in 2011, while the Marathon of Lausanne and 20km of Lausanne running events bring thousands onto the city’s streets, and thousands more pack the roadside to watch the Tour de Romandie cycling race when it passes through each year – the city’s modest size imposes a natural cap on Lausanne’s major-event hosting potential.
But the Olympic Capital is unaccustomed to allowing diminutiveness to stifle its ambitions, whether sporting or otherwise.
Like in 2008, when Lausanne became the smallest city in the world to launch a full metro system. Or the four failed bids for the Summer Olympics during the 20th Century.
The city has also failed four times in the last 50 years to land the Winter Olympics, most recently as a joint proposal by the Cantons of Vaud and Valais under the Sion bid banner. Such joint efforts are rarely uncomplicated, and the bid was scuppered by an unfavourable referendum in neighbouring Valais.
These challenges underline the importance of the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics, taking place from January 9-22, to Lausanne, to Vaud and to Switzerland.
The Winter Youth Olympics is the first IOC event to be staged under the IOC’s “new norm” reforms – the 118 points introduced in 2018 to encourage cities to adopt more sustainable and cost-effective hosting strategies.
Most obvious of their impact is the collaboration between Lausanne 2020 and Paris 2024, which sees France host the Winter Youth Olympics’ ski jumping, biathlon and Nordic combined skiing events.
“We have developed Games that fully adapt to their region, not the other way around,” Lausanne 2020 Organising Committee president Virginie Faivre said ahead of the start of the Games.
“Our goal is to put together an innovative and smart Youth Olympic Games. We focus on that. If what we do creates a positive foundation for a new Olympic ambition, then it would mean we would have done a good job.”
Among recurrent events, Lausanne hosts the famous Athletissima meet at the 16,000-capacity Stade Olympique de la Pontaise – a key date on the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Diamond League calendar – and has lured the WTA Tour’s Swiss Open women’s tennis tournament, whose the inaugural edition in July 2019 took place just over a month before the city hosted the ITU Grand Final.
In May 2020, Lausanne will co-host the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship with Zurich. Games will be staged at Lausanne’s new 9,600-seat Vaudoise Aréna, which opened in September last year at a cost of CHF220m (€202m/$222m) to provide a timely boost to the city’s sports infrastructure.
Against this backdrop, Faivre says that the Winter Youth Games has helped to accelerate several infrastructure developments, while “local host sites have used the Games opportunity to invest in new solutions for tourism and sports development”.
She adds: “We also innovate in other ways; for example, by being the first Games to have athletes, coaches and fans solely using public transport to go to venues. We go to France for some events because it makes more sense for us and we use a frozen lake in St. Moritz for speed skating, making the most of local expertise.”
Lausanne 2020’s marketing campaign has sought to leverage a unique opportunity to set the agenda in line with the city’s aspirations by focusing on the three pillars of a ‘new Games’, ‘new talents’ and a ‘new Switzerland’.
The ‘new Games’ concept centres on the Youth Olympics serving as an incubator for new Olympic movement ideas, while the ‘new talents’ focus involves not only the athletes, but also the significant number of youngsters who have engaged with the event.
More than 70,000 schoolchildren were enrolled to attend competitions during Lausanne 2020 and several venues will also be used as training hubs for young people as a post-Games legacy.
“We’ve worked with a dozen local schools to develop our mascot, our pictograms, our podiums and our official song,” Faivre says. “Our volunteer, hospitality, athlete education programmes…everything is made by the youth, for the youth.
“We’ve also created a lot of synergies between the various institutions as well as strong sporting legacies in terms of skills and the renovation of infrastructure in the Vaud Alps and the French Jura.”
A part of this is a cross-border agreement between the French department of Jura and Switzerland’s Nordic teams, who for the next 20 years will be able to use the refurbished facilities in Prémanon, including the Stade des Tuffes, a world-class ski jumping, cross-country skiing and biathlon venue.
In terms of a ‘new Switzerland’, Faivre added: “People will come here for what they know about us: mountains, snow, and maybe chocolate and cheese. That’s fine, but when they are here, we want to show them that Switzerland is also a country of youth, of education, of innovation – and of sports.”
Lausanne is keenly aware that its USP is the benefits of agglomeration between the countless international federations and the IOC – which in 2015 agreed a lease to remain in Lausanne for another century – and the various companies, organisations and institutions on the fringes of the Olympic movement that have established roots in the city, such as the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the International Testing Agency.
ThinkSport, founded by the city of Lausanne, the canton of Vaud and the IOC, is keen to maximise networking opportunities by bringing together different organisations in the sports sector, with a focus on businesses, start-ups, investors and academia.
According to ThinkSport director Anna Hellman, who served as executive director of SportAccord from 2004 to 2012, the high concentration of sport-focused federations, organisations and enterprises tallies with the region’s 12 universities and two hospitality schools, with a multitude of their courses overlapping with sport.
“There are also a large number of commercial organisations in the region working within sport – mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises,” she adds. “With this rich sports ecosystem, there are more and more start-ups emerging in and around Lausanne, many of which are spin-offs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the University of Lausanne.”
In July 2018, European Professional Club Rugby, the organising body of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup club rugby union competitions, relocated to Lausanne from the Swiss city of Neuchâtel.
According to EPCR chief executive Vincent Gaillard, the main reason for the move was logistical, while knowledge-sharing opportunities with other sports organisations added to the pulling power of the Olympic Capital.
“The chance to exchange experiences and to grow the team and contribute to the sporting community in which we are based is a major plus,” says Gaillard, the former director general of GAISF, which itself moved from Monte Carlo to Lausanne in 2009.
“Being situated in Vaud has given our team the chance to share experiences with other sporting federations; EPCR representatives have attended their events and they have attended ours as we both seek to develop best practice.”