Friday 5 March 2010

The 1924 Paris Olympics (Part One)

When a city organises the Olympic Games today the most important word attached to the event is legacy. What will be left behind when the Olympic circus packs up and moves on to the next town? This was not a question that was asked in the early years, but surprisingly, several traces of the 1924 games in Paris are still visible. In this first post, a look at the Olympic Stadium in the north-western suburb of Colombes.

A Little Bit of History
Paris had previously organised the games in 1900, but given their length at the time (spread over nearly 6 months between May 14th and October 28th) it is impossible to look at them as resembling the modern event in any way. The 1924 games were different. Sport had become a universally popular activity, particularly as a spectator event, and around 1,000 journalists were present in Paris to report back around the world on the results as they happened.

44 nations and 3,089 athletes took part, and although the games are seen as being the first truly modern Olympics they were not completely so as only 135 of the competitors were women. Most of the athletes were hosted in the first ever Olympic village, a camp of temporary wooden constructions that had been put up alongside the stadium. The athletes here had access to a foreign exchange, a hairdressers, a post office and shops. They were also provided with three meals a day, although the British preferred to bring their own chef, and the Americans decided to organise their own camp next to the Château de Rocquencourt!

In the 1924 Olympics, medals were not only awarded for sporting achievements. There were also artistic competitions including literature, painting and architecture. It is interesting to note that three Soviet artists took part in these competitions despite the country not sending any athletes to the sporting event which they considered to be a “bourgeois festival”!

The Olympic Stadium
Originally a hippodrome holding horse-racing meetings, then a very minor stadium owned by a newspaper, the stadium was eventually converted into an Olympic sized venue with a capacity of 45,000 by the architect Louis Faure-Dujarric (who had previously been the captain of the local Racing Club rugby team).

Stadium capacity was later increased to over 60,000 when it was used as the venue for the 1938 World Cup Final between Italy and Hungary. It was also used for French international football and rugby matches up until the 1970s, with the all time record attendance coming on the 5th March 1969 when 63,638 spectators paid to watch a European Cup football game between Ajax Amsterdam and Benfica Lisbon.

During the 1924 Olympics, it was most famously the scene of victories for Paavo Nurmi, the 'flying Finn' who won five Gold medals, including two within an hour (the 1500 and 5000m events), and for the British victories in the 100 and 400 metres events which later became the subject of the Chariots of Fire film. Don't look too closely at the stadium when watching that film though - it was actually recorded at the Bebington Oval near Liverpool!

The Stadium Today
As I arrive at the stadium, the rain stops falling and the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The light is suddenly perfect, but the stadium is still a sad sight. Today it is used by the Racing Club football and rugby teams and is painted in their sky-blue and white stripes, but much of it is boarded up or crumbling into the ground.

Rather unexpectedly I am free to walk right into the stadium. I can stand on the racetrack and even walk out onto the pitch. Later someone challenges me when I start taking pictures, but when I explain that I'm interested in the crumbling remains of the Olympic stadium and not the Racing Club logos he is happy to let me carry on snapping. I'd previously studied many archive photos and seen that it is only the concrete terraces at either end of the stadium that remain from the Olympics. Although the stadium is still surrounded by open spaces and smaller sporting arenas, there are no traces left of the ramshackle wooden Olympic village.

Most of the terracing has been removed and today it is closed off to spectators. I'm surprised that any of it has survived at all, until I find some offices and changing rooms still in use beneath them.

The changing rooms are about as simple as it is possible to imagine, with long concrete troughs where football or rugby players stop to wash mud off their boots.

Behind the terraces is a rather odd looking building, and perhaps the only surviving structure that predates the Olympics. Used for many years, and almost certainly during the Olympics, as a 'buvette' or refreshment stand, it is today sadly boarded up and no longer in use. This building was part of the original hippodrome and was used as the pavillon de pesage, or the room where jockeys were weighed before being given permission to race.

Outside the Stadium: the Legacy?
Surprisingly the most visible remnants of the 1920s and the dominant Art Deco architecture of the period can be found in a pair of housing blocks just outside the stadium. Built between the Olympics in 1924 and the football World Cup in 1938, they are perhaps testimony to the increased importance these sporting events had brought to the area. Colombes had seen its transport links and other infrastructure improved, including a new train station which is still known as 'Le Stade' today.

Part Two: What is left from the 1924 Olympics in Paris itself?


CarolineLD said...

The thought of the Brits bringing their own chef in preference to eating French food made me smile!

TravelingProfessor said...

There are a few YouTube videos up there. Check out this one:

Starman said...

I really like the Pavillon de pesage. I hope someone has more grandiose plans for it.

PeterParis said...

Your last question is a good one! I'm sure you will find out!

Adam said...

I'd just like to add this video, which shows the stadium in 1969 during the Ajax v Benfica match. An Amsterdam invasion by the looks of things!

Tim said...

What an amazing video! Is the n°10 a youthful Johann Cruyff? A quick Wikipedia search would suggest he was in the team at the time.

It's always amazing to see those old clips when you're more familiar with a venue as being a bit of an empty shell, which is my enduring memory of our occasional outings there to see the lowly Racing football team. Excellent article and very interesting subject matter.

henk van es said...

Yes, I can confirm Cruyff was on the Ajax team (he did not score however).
Henk van Es, Amsterdam

Adam said...

Caroline: I found that funny too, but even more surprising when I found out what was on the menu for the athletes. Here is what the official 1924 Olympics report says was provided (wine or beer twice a day!):

Petit déjeuner. — Café au lait ou chocolat ou thé avec pain, beurre et confitures ou deux oeufs au jambon avec thé.

Repas du midi. — I Hors d’oeuvre, — I poisson, ou I entrée, ou I oeuf, — I plat de viande, — I légume, — fromage,—- fruit. — ½ bouteille de vin rouge ou blanc, ou I canette de bière, ou ½ bouteille d’eau minérale, ou du café au lait ou du thé. — une tasse café.

Repas du soir. — I potage, — I entrée, — I plat de viande, — I légume, — I entremets, — desserts. — Boisson comme au repas de midi. — I tasse d’infusion.

Unknown said...

Hello there Adam! When we are growing up, our dad is the one who introduces to us sports like basketball and rugby. Games and sports are what binds our family. I'm actually born in the 1980's and I love watching the Olympics. And it's good to know that the stadium used in the 1924 Paris Olympics is still standing. How I wish people can do something to preserve it - like the team that manages the Olympics or different sports organization similar to the NBA assoc, rugby league clubs, and so on and so forth. The point is, this stadium has a lot of history, it deserves the right to be taken care of.

Thanks Adam for showing us these pictures. Looking at that old poster, actually made me smile!

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