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'Behind the Screen': The Olympic Exhibition
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'Behind the Screen': The Olympic Exhibition

Picture of Jillian Levick
Updated: 6 January 2017
The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, stands as a beacon of the glory and universality of sport. It features ancient Greek homages to the games appealing to history buffs, awe-inspiring designs for architecture lovers, and endless artefacts testifying to the drive, determination, and spirit of the athletes. The latest exhibit, Behind the Screen, explores the digital revolution that brought the athletes’ stories from the games and into our hearts.
Olympic Museum
Olympic Museum | © Jillian Levick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Olympics are not just for sports lovers. Even those with a penchant for confusing their pole-vaulting with their shot-putting almost never fail to chime in with cheers and support for their home country’s athletes, who create a camaraderie so unifying that we almost convince ourselves we like sports more than just once every 4 years. It is precisely this universality which makes for such an interesting and emotive visit to Lausanne’s Olympic Museum – its focus on the profound endurance of the human spirit is relatable to all. Now, and until January 26 2016, they have put on a show, about the history of showing the greatest show on earth: Behind the Screen tells the story of the coverage of the Olympics.

Before audiovisual materials can be seen and admired by viewers, there are a host of issues to contend with. Digitizing material for public viewing requires a great deal of patience, as though technologies evolve, they are not always advancing at the same rate. Film is never seen in isolation- it is combined with audio and other elements, and these rates of advancement are not always aligned. Furthermore, technology can also move forward in ways one does not want it to, making obsolete or unavailable methods which actually enhance a particular piece of material. Multiple versions also exist of nearly all Olympic films, made with different cuts and in different languages, which literally speaks to their universal relevance. An effort is made to restore pieces to their original version and language, to be true to their story.

The footballers, Niki de Saint Phalle © CIO Catherine Leutenegger
The footballers, Niki de Saint Phalle | © CIO Catherine Leutenegger

It is also a difficult call of judgment to decide what materials to digitize; there is too much to do it all, and anything one works with today could become a piece of history tomorrow. Holding the power to shape collective memory, literally in one’s hands, can be a daunting task. This exhibition, however, embodies the value of these restoration projects. The display of audio, visual, and combined materials from the history of Olympic coverage is spectacular.

In 1995/96 the International Olympic Committee acquired and restored hundreds of hours of material, much of which is put on display in this exhibit. Viewers learn how coverage of the Olympics in 1948, in what was known as the austerity games, was shot on two pieces of film instead of 3 to save money, connecting the games to their wider historical context. One tries to comprehend how the Olympics were not really a spectator sport before radio, as people could only be a part of them remotely, reading re-caps in the newspaper. In fact, newspapers were angry to lose their monopoly on Olympics coverage during the 1932 LA games, for which 15 minute radio segments were introduced. This must have been how TV stations felt when, in the London 2012 games, digital online platforms exceeded TV coverage for the first time in history.

Though radio made way for camera coverage, it still dominated in the 1948 London games, as proven by the BBC, who had 14 TV commentators, and over 100 radio ones. As each digital record is broken, and as each new achievement is explored, it is amazing to its audience. This is a proportional connection, as, though old methods seem uninspiring to modern audiences, that feeling of novelty, of experiencing something never experienced in history before, transcends time and connects audiences past and present. One cannot help but feel connected as well to spectators in the future, while imagining what glories of technology, humanity, and their interactions, they will be experiencing.

It is also possible, however, that with each advancement people become more and more used to media, and gradually it seems that this might not be engaging enough on its own. Therefore, it is the human element, the return to the heart of the games, which makes the spirit of sport so truly timeless. It was Roone Arledge, the American sports and broadcast pioneer and legend, who brought split screens to the picture. Images and clips of athletes in their proud hometowns; of them as children already practicing for their future moments of glory; of them failing in the past but carrying on, superimposed beside their present successes brings the story and the glory to everyone.

L'Elan, Nag Arnoldi © CIO
L’Elan, Nag Arnoldi | © CIO

This accessibility is the driving ethos behind the entire restoration and digitization project – ensuring that archiving is not seen as immobilizing objects, but rather as doing the opposite. By safeguarding, updating, and digitizing, these materials are made available to people of the present and of the future. Suspending them in time allows for their immortality. This mission and method of ensuring availability and sustainability perfectly integrates into the overall feeling of connection conveyed throughout the entire museum.

A room of ancient artifacts depicting the Olympics and images of sport, virtual pieces of paper from the archives floating around on projected surfaces, and touch-screen books filled with press clippings to flip through join disparate materials and times. The immersive nature of the displays allows for the physical accessibility of the games as well, with features like the interactive touch-screen timeline seamlessly amalgamating the past and the present, presenting ancient athleticism through modern media.

The movements from newspapers, to radio, to TV, to audio, to colour in Tokyo 1964, to internet streaming in Athens 2004, to mobile phone streaming in Torino 2006 all acted as invaluable stepping stones to making the games become a universal, public spectacle, with universal appeal, giving people the best seats in the house, from the comfort of their own homes, or indeed, even their tube seats. The Olympic Museum, and Behind the Screens, are not exhibitions of objects, but exhibitions of emotion, in which stories are never static, and past, present, and future are aligned.