Olympics and the Arts: A Short-Lived Romance

by Taylor Love

The Olympic Games awarded medals in sculpture, music, painting, and architecture from 1912 to 1952. The creation of the modern Olympic games was inspired by the ancient Games, which were held in Olympia, Greece, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. In 1894 Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the Olympic Movement, which established the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. Baron Pierre de Coubertin believed the Olympics and the arts to be essential to the Games and his vision of a “true Olympian,” but this proved to be a short-lived romance.

The Arts and the Olympian

Richard Stanton, the author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, wrote, “He was raised and educated classically, and he was particularly impressed with the idea of what it meant to be a true Olympian—someone who was not only athletic but skilled in music and literature.”

While the Baron was unable to persuade organizers of the first games, which were held in Athens, St. Louis, and Paris, that art competitions were necessary, he continued to champion the arts as essential in the games.

During the early years, organizing members were struggling to keep the games afloat and did not view the arts as essential. Still, the Baron never let up once, stating, “There is only one difference between our Olympiads and plain sporting championships, and it is precisely the contests of art as they existed in the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, where sports exhibitions walked inequality with artistic exhibitions.”

The Arts in the Spotlight

Finally, in time for the 1912 Stockholm Games, he was able to secure a place for the arts creating categories including architecture, music, painting, sculpture, and literature. The only rule for the competition was that the works had to be inspired by the concept of “sport.” Most of the applicants were European artists, totaling about 33 total participants in the first year it was held.

The Olympics grew into a premier international event over the next decades. The sports gained high prevalence, but the fine arts competitions failed to garner attention. The Baron himself entered the competitions under pseudonyms in fear that there would not be enough participants, seems fair, right?

Artistic works submitted, such as paintings and sculptures, were dramatic depictions of athletes in competition while the majority of the architecture plans were for stadiums and arenas. However, the structure of the competition was inconsistent and confusing, categories often awarded different ranges of medals, and the criteria remained unclear. For example, a category may award a gold and silver medal while another only awarded gold, and another awarded no medals at all (this occurred when the jury felt no entry deserved an award – harsh). 

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