Philip Barker

The destiny of the 2026 Winter Olympics will claim the spotlight in Lausanne this week but behind the scenes, other Olympic awards will also be decided.

These include a trophy which predates even the formal award of gold, silver and bronze medals. The Olympic Cup was established in 1906 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin who was then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President. 

Strictly speaking, the description "cup" is something of a misnomer for an elegant objet d’art awarded to an institution or association "with a general reputation for merit and integrity which has been active and efficient in the service of sport and has contributed substantially to the development of the Olympic Movement".

The original is kept in the Olympic Museum and a replica is presented to the recipients. The first winners were the Touring Club de France and Coubertin arranged the presentation in the suitably grandiose surroundings of the Sorbonne.

The roll of honour later included Rugby School, which inspired Coubertin’s own Olympic career. Almost exactly a century ago, the cup also recognised the efforts of Elwood S. Brown of the YMCA. He became an ally of Coubertin and even addressed an IOC session.

Sometimes the recipients were controversial. The winners in 1939 were Nazi travel organisation Strength through Joy. In 1968, the citizens of Mexico City were honoured. The state President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz received the prize though, unsurprisingly, there was no mention in the citation of the Government-sanctioned massacre of students shortly before the Mexico Olympics in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.

Most recently, then Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes received the award on behalf of his city’s "Cariocas" at the 2016 Closing Ceremony at Maracanã Stadium. Last year, it went to Youth Olympic hosts Buenos Aires.

Eduardo Paes was a recipient of the Olympic Cup award ©Getty Images
Eduardo Paes was a recipient of the Olympic Cup award ©Getty Images

The earliest Olympic award for endeavour off the field of play was the Diploma of Merit, established in 1905. Coubertin wanted a prize "whose value would be linked to its rarity, a diploma that rewards not a specific feat or deed but rather a comprehensive set of athletic, physical and moral qualities continually upheld throughout a man’s life".

American President Theodore Roosevelt was the first recipient, a gesture which reflected Coubertin’s strategy of associating his Movement with the great and the good. Others included German airship pioneer Count Zeppelin and Leni Riefenstahl, who had directed the film Olympia.

In 1939, double Olympic weightlifting gold medallist Louis Hostin of France was awarded the diploma "for his high conception of amateurism". He had won a prize of 35,000 French Francs which he donated to the French federation to safeguard his amateur status.

After the Second World War, the number of Olympic awards increased to such an extent that vice-President Kostantin Adrianov called for "considerable alterations to its list of awards".

It was a sentiment which found agreement from new IOC President Lord Killanin when he took over in 1972. A commission headed by Juan Antonio Samaranch, another future Olympic leader concluded: "More recently several cups or trophies were created by cities or well-known personalities. Thus we arrived at a glut of awards, the only result of which was to weaken their influence with the public."

They suggested abolishing "every award bearing the name of someone who died". Only the Olympic Cup should be retained and an Olympic order should be created to "unite those who have not ceased to commune with a spirit which once animated Pierre de Coubertin".

A seven-member commission was set up to administer it. The IOC President was to be the grandmaster. Presentations were made "in recognition of your outstanding merit in the cause of sport and your faithfulness to the Olympic ideal".

The award was designed by Otl Aicher, who had masterminded the graphic design of the 1972 Munich Games, and it had categories in gold, silver and bronze.

Brazilian football legend Pelé was honoured by the IOC despite never being an Olympian ©Getty Images
Brazilian football legend Pelé was honoured by the IOC despite never being an Olympian ©Getty Images

The insignia was later changed to an "attractively wrought necklace, consisting prominently of the five looped rings and encompassed by a reproduction of the laurel boughs, symbolising victory".

It was possible to rescind the award in the event of a winner bringing the Olympic Movement into disrepute.

The order was often given to heads of state and some were unhappy that Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov were all invested.

Even so, the list of laureates still reads like an international who’s who. United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan joined a number of Presidents and kings and the equally-influential Horst Dassler as recipients. Journalists and historians have also been honoured and David Coleman, who covered the Olympics on television for more than 40 years, became the first broadcaster to be honoured.

Pelé never was an Olympian but he did receive the honour in 2015. So did Pope John Paul II, who joined Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin in receiving the award.

Skater Katarina Witt, boxers Lazlo Papp and Teófilo Stevenson, Ludmilla Tourisheva and Nadia Comaneci from gymnastics and athletes such as Sebastian Coe, Alberto Juantorena, Irina Szewinska and Cathy Freeman make an impressive sporting hall of fame.

The Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship and fair play is even more exclusive. Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima received it after an intruder on the course at the 2004 Olympic race ruined his chances of gold. It was given for "an exceptional demonstration of fair play and Olympic values".

Other winners include Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti, who loaned a vital spare part to his greatest rivals at the 1964 Winter Olympics in a gesture which cost him gold.

The reform of Olympic honours swept away a cabinet of silverware. One had never even left the starting block. Outgoing President Avery Brundage had left a parting shot suggesting an "Olympian Emeritus" award. Coming at a time when reduction not expansion was the policy, his idea did not take flight.

The Fearnley Cup was also withdrawn from service. Donated by the veteran Norwegian IOC member Thomas Fearnley in 1950, it was to honour "a sports club or local sporting organisation as a reward for their meritorious display of sporting qualities and their distinguished achievements in the name of Olympism".

Mohamed Taher Pacha had played a major role in developing Olympism in Africa and had launched a trophy depicting an athlete standing below the Olympic rings. It was to be awarded to "an athlete who by general merit and a career justifies a special distinction in the name of Olympism".

The first winner was four-times Belgian Olympian fencer Paul Ansbach, a double gold medallist at the 1912 Games in Stockholm and Organising Committee secretary for the 1920 Games in Antwerp.

The Trophee Alberto Bonacossa was presented by the Italian Olympic Committee in memory of Count Alberto Bonacossa, a "pioneer of sport in Italy and throughout the world". 

Vanderlei de Lima, pictured with the Rio 2016 Flame, was denied marathon gold by an intruder at the 2004 Olympics ©Getty Images
Vanderlei de Lima, pictured with the Rio 2016 Flame, was denied marathon gold by an intruder at the 2004 Olympics ©Getty Images

He had been an IOC member for almost three decades until his death and had played a crucial role in Cortina D’Ampezzo’s successful bid for the 1956 Winter Olympics. Rendered in silver, the trophy took the form of the emblem of the city of Rome and was presented to the most deserving National Olympic Committee.

In the past, the IOC had also been called on to decide on an award for Alpinism. From the start, Coubertin made no secret of his desire to include an award for climbing mountains, although this was only done intermittently and abolished altogether after the Second World War.

Coubertin also wanted artistic contests and organised a conference at the Comédie-Française in 1906 "to determine to what extent and in what form the arts and literature could be called upon to participate in the modern Games".

From 1912 to 1948, it was possible to win a gold medal for art.

Although these competitions were discontinued after 1948, the arts have remained an important part of the Olympic Movement and last year, in Pyeongchang, IOC President Thomas Bach made presentations to a group of five artists who had taken part in the Artists in Residence Programme at the Games. All five had previously taken part in the Olympics as athletes.

Roald Bradstock, an Olympic competitor in javelin, said: "This collaborative project will give Olympians an opportunity to show their creative side and work together to show unity, community and friendship."

The IOC has also presented an "Olympia Prize" for postage stamps. This was established in 1984 at the urging of then President Samaranch who was a such keen collector, he even chaired the jury.

Selected by members of the IOC and philatelic experts it was ‘’ promote artistic achievement in the design of Olympic postage stamps and to encourage the promotion of the Olympic Games by the participating nations through their postage stamps.’’

The first winner was a Polish stamp depicting fencing.

Thoughts this week will also turn to the next recipient of the newest award. The "Olympic Laurel", introduced in the wake of the recommendations of Agenda 2020, is awarded "for outstanding contributions to Olympism in culture, education, development and peace". 

The trophy itself was fashioned from a stone excavated in Ancient Olympia and IOC President Thomas Bach said: "With its focus on human development through peace and sport, it will connect the modern games with the spirit of the ancient Games."

The first winner was chosen by an independent jury which included UN officials, literary figures and former IOC President Jacques Rogge. Kenya’s great middle-distance runner Kip Keino was honoured for his work establishing schools and a children’s home.