(Note: This post is a bit long, so if you would prefer to read a paper version, I've uploaded a PDF here!)
To try and get a feeling for the city in 1924 I first need to return to my favourite bench in Paris. From this position, I can not only look out across the city, but also physically connect with the games. The bench is situated on what today is known as the Butte Bergeyre, a compact community of 1930s housing, but the name is actually a reminder of what was situated here before.
Le Stade Bergeyre
Bergeyre was the name of rugby player killed during the First World War. In his honour, his name was given to a new stadium in Paris in 1918. It was situated here, where this bench sits today, on a plateau above the city and alongside the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. In 1920 it hosted a final of the Coupe de France football tournament, encouraging a poet of the time, Paul Souchon, to describe it thus: “C’est un plateau de gazon, une ile Claire et tranquille, que vient batter à l’horizon le flux de l’immense ville” (‘It’s a grass plateau, a light and calm island which sees the flow of the immense city beat against the horizon’)
In 1924 it was used for six matches during the Olympic football tournament, an event which proved to be the most financially successful of all the activities at the games. There were on average around 8000 people at each match, but as the report for the Switzerland v Czechoslovakia game on the 30th May stated, ‘le Stade Bergeyre est plein et l’on refuse du monde’ (the Stade Bergeyre was full and people were turned away’).
Studying the photo above, taken in 1925, with a shadowy Sacre Coeur sitting in one corner, I can establish that the bench would have been situated behind the goal on the other side of the pitch. It is impossible to imagine a football stadium here on the Butte Bergeyre today, with flats, houses and streets replacing the pitch and stadium after its destruction in 1927. I look behind me, back at where the pitch would have been, and contemplate an Olympic venue which had a life span of just 9 years. So much for lasting legacies.
Le Vélodrome d'Hiver
It is impossible to think of this venue today without thinking of what came later, a shameful stain on the history of France when 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up in 1942 and kept here for several days before being sent on to Concentration Camps and an almost certain death. Surprisingly though, the Vel d’Hiv was allowed to continue after the War as a sports and entertainment venue, and wasn’t demolished until 1959 when it became too expensive to maintain.
During the 1924 Olympics it was not a particularly successful venue. Although the Olympic committee noted that, for example, ‘Le Tournoi Olympique de Boxe fut tout à fait remarquable dans son ensemble’, they were referring more to the quality of the athletes rather than the venue or the organization. Little is said in the official report beyond the fact that conditions inside the venue were almost always very hot and heavy, but a clue that things might not have gone as well as expected is found in a letter of thanks from the Canadian CIO member. “The difficulties that arose in boxing, and wrestling were more largely those of the failure of police control, rather than to failure of the technique of the games”. What actually happened remains a mystery!
Time to leave my bench, walk down the steps to the Avenue Simon Bolivar and then on to the Porte des Lilas. Here I will find the last remaining sporting structure from the 1924 games in Paris, but again I will be disappointed.
Piscine des Tourelles
Along with the football tournament, the swimming event was the big winner of the 1924 Olympics. Importantly, the Piscine des Tourelles was the only venue that was specially built for the games, a revolutionary pool that was the first to limit the basin to 50m rather than the previously accepted 100m length for Olympic events, and with room for 10,000 spectators.
It was a magnificent structure, in brick on the outside with a white art deco interior, and was open to the elements. The sun shone for almost the entire week of the swimming event, which brought in large crowds and encouraged the sportsmen and women to many impressive performances. Chief among them was Johnny Weissmuller, who won two gold medals and who would later find international fame as Tarzan in several Hollywood films.
This video, filmed in 1931, shows how the pool looked at the time. What is interesting to note is just how choppy the water in the pool seems, and this can possibly explain to some extent the differences in performance between then and now. In 1924, Weissmuller won the 100m freestyle gold in 59 seconds. In 2008, the Frenchman Alain Bernard claimed gold with a time of 47.21 seconds!
So what is left of the pool today? It still stands in the same spot, but the exterior has changed completely. Redevelopment in the 1980s gave it a second skin of concrete cladding and additional office space, but the interior was largely untouched. Naturally though I was not able to go inside and take photos!
Alongside the swimming pool there is however a building from the era that survives. The Porte des Lilas Metro station was opened in 1922, in good time for the games, and still retains its art deco façade and attractive tiling.
The Olympic Legacy?
What was the legacy of the 1924 Olympics in Paris? In search of an answer I take the Line 11 Metro from Porte des Lilas down to Hotel de Ville. It was here on the 24th June that the city of Paris held a reception for the Olympic committee, an event which would be the consecration for the Baron Pierre de Coubertin and his Olympic games. Thirty years previously at la Sorbonne, the committee launched the new Olympics to much skepticism in France, but everybody reunited at the city hall on this day no longer doubted the success of the event.
All around them in Paris were signs of a popular fervour. Indeed, one of the achievements of these games was that they managed to reunite all members of society, from the very rich who bought Olympic themed jewellery from shops on the Rue de la Paix, to the working classes who attended the events en masse, as well as other events that had sprung up including the Exposition Internationale des Sports at a place called Magic City near the Pont de l'Alma.
At the reception, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin stood up and addressed the invited guests. It is easy to imagine his satisfaction as he began his speech. "J’ai connu, il y 35 ans, des gens qui me témoignaient quelque humeur parce que j’empruntais aux Anglais l’habitude, le goût des exercices sportifs et que je l’introduisais dans ce pays où je risquais, disaient-ils, d’abaisser le niveau des études" (I knew, 35 years ago, people who humoured me because I borrowed from the English the love of sporting exercises, and who believed that I risked bringing down the level of education (in France)).
De Courbertin had become obsessed by the British discipline of physical education at Public Schools, believing that this was behind the nation's success and empire expansion in the 19th century. The legacy that the Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped to leave behind therefore was something similar in France, achieving a balance of the physical and the intellectual. As he made his speech, he firmly believed that the 1924 Olympics had been successfully in doing this.
86 years later, I am not convinced that this is the case. Paris is still very much an intellectual city where sport plays a very minor role. Indeed, in France as a whole, the pratice of certain sports, or even worse, the paying of money to watch them, is still frowned upon by the cultural elite. If the Baron Pierre de Courbertin were to return to Paris today, I am sure that he would not find it surprising that it is London and not Paris that will be hosting the Olympics in 2012.