Philip Barker

The finishing touches have just been added to ‘’Olympic language’’, a new exhibition at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. It concentrates on the ‘’look‘’ of the Games which coordinates symbols, decoration of the stadium and even street signs.

‘’The look is really the face of the Games,’’ exhibition curator Markus Osterwalder told insidethegames. ‘’This is really the first impression and the lasting impression. Through graphics, through colours, typeface, pictograms, you can communicate the message that you have.’’

Osterwalder has devoted almost 30 years to building a huge collection of memorabilia. He organised a display on a similar theme at Rio 2016 before undertaking this commission for the Olympic Museum.

A year in the making, this exhibition has been planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Mexico 1968 Olympics. The poster has become a design classic. The lettering style was also used during the Mexico World Cup two years later in 1970.

‘’Mexico was really important in graphic terms,’’ insists Osterwalder.

‘’It was the first time there was a global impact with the look of the Games having a very colourful impression of Mexican culture in the design of the whole Games, and a very intensive culture. That’s why we decided to bring Mexico into focus.’’

Designers Beatrice Trueblood and Eduardo Terrazas will visit the museum next week on May 24 to discuss their work as part of a special programme of activities which also includes the screening of films from Mexico 1968.

Curator Markus Osterwalder with a giant ball from Mexico 1968 before it was installed in the exhibition ©Philip Barker
Curator Markus Osterwalder with a giant ball from Mexico 1968 before it was installed in the exhibition ©Philip Barker

The colonnades on the approach to the museum are usually white, but for this display they have decorated in pink. These display the dove symbol which was widespread during the Mexico 1968 Games. Impressively, the exhibition even recreates the giant plastic balloons which were hung through the city streets.

‘’I was in contact with a Mexican collector and noticed from photographs that they had these balloons," said Osterwalder, who uses what spare time he has as honorary secretary of the International Society of Olympic Historians. "We made some enquiries and managed to find the firm that made the originals. They were still going, so we asked them to make replicas."

The display includes some 200 articles but even so it has not been possible to include every single Olympics.

‘’To me everything is important, but we had to reduce and reduce and come to the basics," he added. "We had to find out which pieces were really the best ones.That was the biggest challenge. We had only so much space available.‘’

Tokyo 2020 is included as the next host city and that is fitting because Tokyo was at the forefront of an innovation when the Games were first held there in 1964.

‘’There was one big problem to be solved," Osterwalder added. "Japanese is almost unknown outside Japan. Who would be able to read Japanese characters? It was vital that visitors should be made to feel it home in this megalopolis of a capital city. How to communicate?’’

The answer was a series of symbols or pictograms. These have now become a familiar part of the Games. There were not just pictograms for every sport but signposts for the village, transportation and even toilet facilities.

The original idea was that they would be used for all subsequent Olympic Games but in fact most Organising Committees since have developed pictograms of their own.

The Mexico 1968 symbol outside the Olympic Museum with Barcelona mascot Cobi in the background ©Olympic Museum
The Mexico 1968 symbol outside the Olympic Museum with Barcelona mascot Cobi in the background ©Olympic Museum

The most famous were those devised for Munich 1972. They were part of an overall look which made substantial use of pastel colours. Organisers were determined to put as much distance as possible between their Games and the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The late Otl Aicher led the team. He was reputed to be an intense individual but recruited a team which included cartoonist Gerhard Joksch.

As this exhibition was being prepared, Joksch revealed that he had tried to lighten the mood with his design.

‘’I did something with the last poster that most people don’t know about," he said. "I included all my team members from that time in silhouette form."

Other Olympic designers also proved keen to discuss their work.

‘’If you are a designer, you are always interested in where the piece comes from," added Osterwalder. "What was the source, what was the thinking behind the process? The only way is to go to the designers and ask them.

‘’Once I found them they were happy to tell me their story, and usually I got a lot of material from them and information that is not written in any book. They are happy to see that someone is really interested in their work which they did so many years ago. Usually it was a very open discussion.’’

The designs for Los Angeles 1984 used similar bright colours to Munich. 

The items from the Winter Olympics of Lillehammer 1994 are presented in a wooden casing which reflects the concerns for the environment, a major theme at those Games. The pictograms, successively enlarged and took on the appearance of a cave paintings. It was an idea which was continued in the tablets which display the names of winners at each venue. These were shown on rough hewn pieces of stone.

Lillehammer 1994 presented in wood ©Olympic Museum
Lillehammer 1994 presented in wood ©Olympic Museum

The look for Athens 2004 and the controversial logo for London 2012 are also featured with the early ideas for 2020 when Lausanne will host the Youth Olympic Winter Games. These take place a few months before Tokyo’s second Olympic Games. 

Tokyo’s 2020 logo is also a case of second time around. The original design by Kenjiro Sano was launched but then withdrawn after legal action was threatened by Belgian designer Olivier Debie who claimed the design was too similar to his logo for the Theatre de Liege. 

Curiously, the rejected logo does not appear to be featured in the exhibition.

Unsurprisingly, there is a substantial display of Olympic mascots.

‘’We had to do things for young people. We especially wanted to tell them about the mascots’’ said Osterwalder.

An inflatable Barcelona 1992 mascot ‘’Cobi ‘’ standing eight metres high greets visitors at the entrance to the museum. Inside, outsize versions of twin polar bears Hidy and Howdy from Calgary 1988 and Haakon and Kristin from 1994 dominate an exhibition room. There is also a life size ‘’Wenlock’’.

This was the controversial 2012 mascot named after the English village which staged ‘’Olympian Games" which were a major inspiration for Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who drove the revival of the Olympics. It had originally been on display at one of the official stores at the London Olympic Park.

Mascots on display in the new exhibition ©Olympic Museum
Mascots on display in the new exhibition ©Olympic Museum

The display is a combination of Osterwalder’s own personal collection and material held in the Olympic museum. Much of it, stored in the vaults of the complex has rarely been seen.

The organisers promise '' a truly creative experience''

The display is free to enter and is set to run until March 17, 2019.