Roger Federer

Ephemeral sand sculptures at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne celebrate Olympic legends. Leonidas, antiquity’s most renowned runner rubs shoulders with Roger, today’s Swiss tennis hero. Carved out of blocks of compacted sand, they defy the elements but fear the wind as much as they do the rain. If the sculptures stand until the end of the exhibition on 13 September, the public will be invited to destroy them.

This is an exhibition to be seen without delay. The delicately carved Olympic heroes stand proudly on the sloping grounds of the museum garden, but not for very long. They are beginning to wear away, a perfect metaphor for the erosion of fame and glory that each elite sportsperson encounters in his or her career.

It took three sand carvers about two weeks to complete the two sculptures, one of Michael Phelps alone, the other composed of figures from different Olympic periods. They work under the umbrella of a new-age German company, Sand City, that specializes in sensational carvings, not only in sand, but in ice and stone as well. A pool of about 40 carvers, mainly from design universities, is currently working on projects all over Europe.

“It was about 20 years ago in Mexico that I saw sand carvings for the first time” says Benno Lindel, the Director of Sand City. “Returning to Europe, I discovered that the tradition was already well developed in Holland, but only just beginning in France, Belgium and Italy. My marketing background allowed me to identify new opportunities and start developing the service across frontiers.”

Lindel is also the organiser of a world competition that takes place for the second time this summer in Leipzig and that attracts carvers from all over the world.

The connection between the Olympic Museum and Sand City came only recently, following the 120th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birthday in Vevey this spring. A life-size sand carving of The Tramp (see below) greeted visitors to the Saint Antoine Centre in Vevey, close to where Chaplin lived the last decades of his life.

“We can’t use just any sand. In order to obtain good adherence between the grains of sand when pressure is applied, their surfaces must be rough, not smoothed and washed by the sea. The presence of natural clay also helps” explains Lindel.

75 tonnes of sand, mostly from the shores of Lake Constance, were needed for the Olympic Museum project. The sand was poured into wooden casings and then compacted mechanically with the addition of water. The wooden slats were then peeled away to allow the sculptors to start carving.

To maintain the sculptures in shape as long as possible, especially those exposed to weather, the carvers spray a harmless glue made from egg white as they go along. But repairs are almost impossible, so there is little room for mistakes.

The first carving, about 2.5 metres tall, is dedicated to Michael Phelps and conveys the power of the swimmer as he lifts his body out of the water.

The second is an impressive 5 metres tall construction that presents emblematic legends from four periods of Olympic heroism. The East-German ice-skater Katarina Witt is the only woman and she adds grace and movement to the monumental composition.

“The beginning of the Olympic Games in 776 BC and the emergence of the Olympic hero transformed the unwritten rule that only Gods could be depicted in sculptures” says Anne-Gaëlle Lardeau, whose envious job at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne is to explain and share the exhibitions that take place there. “It therefore seemed fitting to have these carvings made, with the added bonus that they become eroded by time, as do all achievements.”

With a sociologist from the University of Lausanne, iconic figures from different periods were selected:

The sprinter and runner unsurpassed in his time, Leonidas of Rhodes, represents the period of antiquity.

The exhibition then leaps to the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 and the first winner of the marathon, Spyridon Louis, who was conveniently a Greek. Hailed as a national hero after four centuries of Turkish domination, legend has it that all “Spiros” wanted from the King in honour of his victory was a donkey for his water-carrying business…

Mohammed Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, is considered to represent a hero of the modern times. He was loved by the media and used his fame to break down the divide between his sports career and his personal life. Neither his refusal to serve in Vietnam nor his conversion to Islam got in the way of the awe he inspired.

From 1980 onwards, the ubiquity of media coverage meant that heroes became global. Roger Federer was chosen to represent the hero who knows no frontiers.

Sand City does not just provide the object, it creates the sensation. “Sand or Ice sculptures are not cheap, but they are worth it!” says Lindel. Judging by the public success and media interest in this project, the Olympic Museum has hit upon an excellent stratagem to promote an exhibition on Heroes that also runs inside its walls and that contains a number of other delights.

To mark the end of the show on 13th September 2009, the public is invited to smash whatever is left of the heroes on that day.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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