Philip Barker

On Saturday, the flame for the 2020 Youth Olympic Winter Games will arrive in the host city of Lausanne to begin its journey around the 26 cantons of Switzerland, before returning to the city known as the "Olympic Capital" for the Games when they open on January 9.

The last Winter Olympics in Switzerland was the 1948 Games in St Moritz. An Olympic flame did burn, but there was no Torch relay.

In those days, both the Summer and Winter Games were held in the same year and the citizens of Lausanne were able to witness a flame passing en route to London.

These were the first Olympics to be held in 12 years. Those scheduled for 1940 and 1944 had been cancelled because of the Second World War.

In 1946, the International Olympic Committee gathered once again in Lausanne. The revival of the Games was a priority and they were keen to include the new ritual of the Torch relay, introduced for the Berlin Games of 1936.

President Sigfried Edstrom reminded members that the relay from Olympia to Berlin had "created interesting publicity". The executive commission (Executive Board) recommended a similar event for 1948.

Prince Axel, the member in Denmark, "warmly approved". Organising committee chairman Lord Burghley "offered all his support" and his committee were charged with making the arrangements. Commander Bill Collins, a retired Royal Navy officer, was given the job of organising the route from the lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia. Although a seaborne voyage would be needed to transport the flame from Greece, the majority of the journey was overland through Europe.

The Torch relay in London in 1948 ©Lausanne 2020
The Torch relay in London in 1948 ©Lausanne 2020

In those days, the day-to-day business of the IOC was handled by a "Chancellor", a Swiss jeweller called Otto Mayer. The files at the Olympic Museum bear testimony to the considerable flow of mail exchanged between the London organisers and Lausanne. In the pre-electronic age, this was all done by letter, with a carbon copy made of each. The personal touch was important and Mr EA Barker flew to Lausanne to discuss such matters as the sports programme, including the football tournament and arrangements for accommodation.

The minutes of their meetings also record that he asked, "if Switzerland would be agreeable to organise the Torch relay through their country". Swiss representative Mr Gassman replied that "he was certain they would do so if the other countries concerned were also willing to cooperate".

In August 1947, Swiss NOC president Marcel Henninger and Secretary Jean Weymann wrote to IOC chancellor Mayer.

"We would have considerable expense and difficulties if we were to undertake to carry the flame on foot across Switzerland. Apart from having to find a considerable number of runners, safety and security in the mountain regions would be difficult and costly."

They set out an alternative plan.

"We propose to transport the flame by car and only to carry it by foot in towns and other main localities."

Mayer responded: "I must inform you that the Torch relay can't be made by car as you had envisaged. It must be made on foot." This was underlined for emphasis.

Mayer suggested the Swiss organisers consult the official report from 1936, "which contains a very precise report including detail timings". He also suggested the London organising committee might have subsidies available to help. Weymann mobilised the Swiss sporting community, with the help of Auguste Kuster of the Vaudois Athletic Association and technical officer Charly Weber. Marcel Pfeuti, a Swiss basketball referee who officiated at the 1948 Olympics, was amongst others who helped make sure sufficient runners were found. These were chosen from "renowned sportsmen".

The flame was duly lit in Ancient Olympia, but a civil war raged in Greece. In a radio broadcast, rebel leader General Markos ordered his partisans to obstruct the flame "by all means possible".

Instead of the usual journey to Athens for a handover ceremony, the flame sailed from the nearby port of Katakolo to Corfu, and then for the European mainland, arriving in Bari. Runners carried the flame north through Italy and it arrived at Gondo on the Italian border with Switzerland at around 11pm on Friday July 23. It was then carried by footballers and athletes from local clubs in the canton Valais. They were the first of 152 runners to do so on Swiss soil.

All wore the same white uniform "without distinction of club or organisation".

"It should be emphasised that foreign and Swiss communities have both taken this noble Olympic mission to heart," said the Journal de Lausanne newspaper. "This is not a competition but an event of symbolism."

That special moment when Lausanne landed the Winter Olympic Games four years ago ©Getty Images
That special moment when Lausanne landed the Winter Olympic Games four years ago ©Getty Images

Each runner carried the flame for a distance between 1.5km and 2.5km. Shortly before noon, the final runner from Valais handed the flame over at at Pont de St Maurice.

After a short ceremony, the first of 56 runners departed. Two-and-a-half hours later, the flame had reached Montreux. Finally, the flame made it to Pully on the outskirts of Lausanne. At shortly before 4.45pm, the runners arrived at the Chateau Mon Repos, the IOC headquarters.

"The ceremonies will be simple and significant," organisers had promised. "There will be no fanfares or redundant speeches. The Torchbearers will be chosen from renowned sportsmen."

Georges Bridel, representing the Grand Conseil of Vaud, spoke of "concord that was possible between peoples".

Swiss Olympic Committee President Marcel Henniger insisted the flame demonstrated "the undying spirit of the Olympic Games. This spirit is passed not only hand to hand but heart to heart".

Pierre de Coubertin's widow, Marie, was also there to greet the cavalcade. "We noted the presence of the Baronne, in spite of her age who still wished to associate herself with the work of her husband," said the local Gazette de Lausanne.

From the headquarters at Mon Repos, the relay departed to the nearby Place Chauderon and then to one final destination in Lausanne. At the "cimitiere du Bois de Vaud", runners paid silent tribute at the grave of Coubertin himself.

Then they set off for Geneva and the French border accompanied by a police escort. The flame was lit at Wembley less than a week later.

As the Games came to an end, Mayer wrote to the Syndic (mayor) of Lausanne to convey the thanks of the IOC President and members "for the kind and generous reception you gave to officials during the passage of the flame. The members of the aforementioned associations were very touched by your kindness and the spontaneous support you have given to this event".

Although a flame was lit at the Olympic Museum when it opened in 1993, it was not until 2004 that the Olympic Torch relay returned to Lausanne.

The organisers of the Athens Olympics planned a global relay. In addition to previous host cities, organisers wanted to include cities "with a particular sporting or cultural significance". The relay therefore visited Geneva and also Lausanne.

IOC President Jacques Rogge took the torch along the shore of Lake Geneva.

"When I first heard the Athens 2004 proposal, I was excited because it had not been done before and it sends the message of the Games to the entire world," said Rogge. "It symbolises the world's unity because it unites people from different countries."

There was a pleasing symmetry. Frederic Jaccard carried the flame on a sunlit day and in doing so emulated his grandfather who had been a Torchbearer back in 1948.

The itinerary for the Rio 2016 flame also visited Switzerland. It was not a Torch relay as such, but a "flame presentation". IOC President Thomas Bach joined Ban Ki Moon to welcome it at the United Nations building in Geneva and, later in the day, the flame was in Lausanne on display at the Olympic Museum. Quite what the old Olympic chancellor Otto Mayer would have thought can only be guessed at.

The 2020 Youth Olympic Games flame was not kindled in Olympia, but in Athens, though the ceremony featured the performance of the "priestesses" and was directed by Artemis Ignatiou, who will also choreograph the lighting of the torch for Tokyo next year.

The first staging post in Lausanne in the Place de la Riponne. This is a place often used for "Olympic" events before.

A gymnastic display celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Olympic movement at this very spot in 1944. In 2015, the festivities to mark 100 years since the IOC first established headquarters in Lausanne were also held here.

In 1948, the local Lausanne newspapers expressed their excitement. Local crowds turned out in their thousands to cheer the popular Italian cyclist Gino Bartali when he won the Tour of Switzerland in the post-war years. 

There will be similar hopes on Saturday.