Paris 1924 Olympic stadium: pissing away sports history

The former Olympic stadium in Paris, as seen in May 2012.

You don’t need a ticket to see events inside the Olympic stadium this summer. As you approach from the nearby train station, at the corner of the perimeter wall simply peer in through a gaping crack caused by constant pissing.

When I visited the stadium last week, a tell-tale stream of urine, its depositor gone, trickled along a well-worn route from that corner to the gutter.

The Olympic stadium in question is in Colombes, a north-western working-class suburb of Paris. The Games it hosted, in 1924, rate among the most dramatic and mythologised sporting events of the 20th century. On its cinder track two British sprinters, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, dashed to Olympic glory and (later) cinematic immortality as the heroes of the Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’. (This excellent article from The Guardian’s current series on stunning Olympic moments will tell you more about Liddell and his victory in Paris.)

Colombes in 1924 was also the personal fiefdom of Paavo Nurmi, the hardest and most successful of the Flying Finns who dominated distance running in the 1920s. Nurmi won the 1,500 metres and 5,000 metres Olympic finals within an hour and a half, and a couple of days later also won the 3,000 metre team race and the now-discontinued 10km cross-country event where many of his competitors dropped out due to exhaustion and heatstroke. (From the same Guardian series you can also read about Nurmi, as dogged and enigmatic a man as ever stepped on a running track.)

As well as hosting the 1924 Olympic Games, the stadium in Colombes was the venue for the 1938 World Cup Final in football, making it one of only five stadiums to host both of the world’s biggest sporting events. (The other four, should it come up in your next pub quiz, are the Olympic stadiums of Berlin, Munich and Rome, plus the old Wembley stadium in London.) However, that 1938 final tends to go uncelebrated these days, given that it was won by Mussolini-era Italy and featured plenty of fascist salutes.

After the war, the stadium was home to the French national teams in rugby and football until the mid-1970s when the redeveloped Parc des Princes was opened. Since then, it remains the home of Racing Metro rugby club, who compete in the Top 14 national league and recently in the Heineken Cup. The Racing football team also plays there – once a top-flight power, they now drift around the lower divisions of the French league.

Today, now re-named the Stade Olympique Yves du Manoir after a former Racing rugby star who died tragically young, the stadium more befits its basement-level football club than its illustrious international past. The standing terraces at either end have been cordoned off and left to crumble. The main grandstand is complemented by a temporary metal stand opposite, giving a maximum capacity of just 14,000 today compared to almost 60,000 at its post-war peak.

Of its athletics heritage, a worn tartan track is overlapped in parts by the rugby field, the team dugouts and the gravel laid down at either end. No serious track and field event could be held there now. The front facade includes a presidential entrance – a reminder of better days.

Supporters arriving in Colombes today for a football or rugby game see no indication that the Olympics and World Cup Final were once held here; no public plaque to Paavo Nurmi or ‘Chariots of Fire’, no five rings or replica Jules Rimet still gleaming. It’s the public’s loss, and the local community in particular – I’m surely not the only visitor who came here hoping to bask in sports history but found only crumbling terraces, streams of piss and official amnesia.

In recent years the prospect of redevelopment has hovered over the Olympic stadium in Colombes – either rebuilt as a sports venue or knocked down and turned into commercial property. Racing Metro talk of moving to a new arena near the La Défense business district, close to better public transport and the archetypal rugby supporter working in the nearby financial institutions. Should this happen, then the old stadium has an uncertain future – perhaps only as a footnote in Olympic history.

Here is some rare footage from the 1924 Olympics in Paris – Harold Abrahams of Great Britain winning the 100 metres final that featured in the climax of ‘Chariots of Fire’:

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2 Responses to Paris 1924 Olympic stadium: pissing away sports history

  1. Koji Kawano says:

    Thanks for the nice report! When I go to Stockholm in July, I hope to write about its 1912 Olympic stadium, as well as your stadium reports!

    • Run and Jump says:

      Cheers – I hope that the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm is in better condition and still has some Olympic vibes about it!

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