‘This scholarship made my Swiss Dream possible’

Lidia Lesnykh is doing research on the international university sports movement at the University of Lausanne under a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship. Photo: zVg

For years, historian and sports scientist Lidia Lesnykh (27) from Moscow dreamt of the possibility of studying in Switzerland. This wish came true in 2017 when, after finishing her Master's degree in Paris, she was awarded a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship to pursue a PhD at the University of Lausanne. As a sports capital, Lausanne has truly brought her good fortune.

Tells us about the research that you are doing for your doctoral thesis?
Lidia Lesnykh: I am interested in the international university sports movement between 1919 and 1961, specifically the history of international sports competitions held between university students, better known in Switzerland as the ‘Universiade’. This is a movement that developed in parallel to the Olympic Games.

What aspects interest you in particular?
My aim is to show how the international university sports movement was shaped by political, diplomatic, social, cultural and ultimately also by rather personal factors. These factors allow me to analyse how different organisations came into being in the first place, why certain people were appointed to decision-making positions in those organisations and why certain towns were awarded the contract to hold competitions. It is particularly exciting and revealing to conduct interviews with former officials and athletes.

How did you come to this field of research?
By pure coincidence! After my master's thesis in sports history, I wanted to continue my research and found out that practically no historical research has been carried out on the university sports movement. As Lausanne is the Olympic Capital and an important hub for international sports, the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Sport Sciences was the best place to start a research project in this area. The level of expertise and supervision available there provide me with ideal conditions to successfully complete my PhD. There is also a vibrant research community here and I was very quickly accepted into it.

So Lausanne is the perfect place for you.
Absolutely, it suits me even better than I had expected. I started working on my research topic back in 2016, when the International University Sports Federation (FISU), which is crucial for my research, was still based in Brussels. When I came to Lausanne in 2017, I discovered that the FISU was also moving to Lausanne. I also discovered that it would be housed in the very same building where the Institute of Sport Sciences is located. It was a wonderful stroke of luck that opened up the possibility of working with the FISU.

How did you come into contact with the University of Lausanne in the first place?
I had seen the name of my current thesis supervisor Prof. Patrick Clastres in various research papers. Prof. Clastres happened to be on the jury when a friend of mine was defending his thesis and so I introduced myself to him. He was interested in my idea of conducting research on the international university sports movement but then the issue of funding came up. Fortunately, this matter was resolved after I applied for and received the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship.

How well do you work with your thesis supervisor?
Prof. Patrick Clastres has encyclopaedic knowledge of a great many topics. This has helped me enormously in developing my ideas. He is always there to give advice or moral support, which has proven invaluable to me. On a scientific level, he is demanding, but I can only benefit from that.

How do you rate the scholarship programme?
This scholarship made my Swiss Dream possible. I had wanted to come here to study for about ten years, but I had no idea how this could ever happen. This scholarship changed everything. I feel honoured and privileged that it worked out and that I was chosen. I often say to my friends: ‘Where else in the world could I pursue my research at my age under such fantastic conditions?’

How do you like living in Switzerland?
I feel that Switzerland is a country where people value and trust each other. I am happy, feel safe and enjoy the fact that I can quickly be in nature and by the lake. Unfortunately, I don't have enough time to go on a true discovery tour and get to know new places. I certainly haven't adequately used my stay to learn more about other cantons and regions of Switzerland.

What do you miss here?
I used to live in Moscow and Paris, two huge capitals. Sometimes I miss the liveliness of these metropolises a bit, like the stress you feel when you take public transport there. Of course, I know that I really shouldn't miss such things.

What are your future plans?
I would like to continue my academic career and already have some ideas for a postdoc. I would like to go to an English-speaking country to further diversify my experience. At the same time, I am interested in working in an international sports organisation or taking up a position in Geneva, with its strong international presence. It would also be interesting to design exhibitions for museums or organisations in the fields of sports, tourism and culture. So, there are various options that I would like to keep open.

Thesis supervisor

As thesis supervisor, Professor Patrick Clastres benefits from the international network and would like to continue working with scholarship holders in the future. Photo: zVg

Patrick Clastres is an associate professor at the Centre of Cultural History, the Institute of Sport Sciences and the Centre of International History and Political Studies of Globalization at the University of Lausanne. He researches the political and cultural history of sports in a national and international context.

What criteria did you use when deciding to accept Lidia Lesnykh as a PhD student in your research group?
Patrick Clastres: When I met Lidia at the Sorbonne in Paris, I was immediately impressed by her positive and dynamic disposition. She also brought a lot of qualifications with her: She has a dual degree in history and sports science, speaks six languages - including Modern Greek - she received various scholarships in Moscow and Paris and was keenly interested in sports history and the student sports movement. So, I suggested that she apply for a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship and work with me to narrow down a topic that she is already passionate about, one that fits my research focus and that takes into account the current state of literature.

To what extent has working with her benefited you and your research group?
With her numerous visits to archives outside Switzerland and her foreign language skills, Lidia has accelerated the process of networking with foreign researchers. She has also enabled us to open a scientific window to Russia and Eastern Europe. She is currently preparing an international study day on the history of university sports in Europe, which will attract a dozen foreign researchers to Lausanne in autumn 2021. Finally, Lidia's work with the International University Sports Federation, which incidentally is currently chaired by a Russian, is a fine example of fruitful cooperation between academia and the many international sports organisations in Lausanne.

Would you like to continue working in such tandems with scholarship holders in the future?
Absolutely. This kind of cooperation is a wonderful way to connect with historical research activities worldwide. On a human level, it is an opportunity for cultural exchange with young researchers who, because of their origins, may see the world differently. They also represent the future of historical studies, which I hope will be less marked by national narratives.