When Arts Used To Be An Olympic Sport!

by hridika ahire
When Arts Used To Be An Olympic Sport!

February 18, 2021

When we hear the word 'Olympics', we promptly associate it with traditional sports. After all, since childhood, we have been taught that the Olympics are a global event where participants compete for a Gold, Silver or Bronze medal in a wide array of sports. But did you know that once upon a time in the Olympics, Arts were also one of the events where participants competed? Can you imagine getting a medal for being the best Painter, Sculptor, Writer at the Olympics? Crazy, right?

Initial Summer Olympics, or the Games of the Olympiad, were the most prestigious sports event for every athlete of the time. Well, speaking of the initial days, the Olympics were the most prestigious event for artists across the globe as well.

The very first Summer Olympics event was held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. People worldwide flocked to see this phenomenal display or sports, athletes, and artists. Yes, artists.

A picture of the very first Olympics, Athens, Greece in 1886

Arts Were Very Much A Part of the Olympics

The International Olympic Committee founder, Pierre de Coubertin, always wanted to merge sports and arts. Therefore, with the committee’s consent, every Olympics between 1912-1948, held a category foe events of art competitions.

In the beginning, people opposed this idea, saying “Arts are not Sports”. This, however, did not faze Coubertin. He took a stand and ensured that all artists interested in competing at the Olympics would get a fair chance.

Olympics’ art events included five categories: Architecture, Literature, Music, Painting and Sculpture. Like all other chapters of the Olympics, the artists were also awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze Olympic medals. The instructions for all the classes were to ‘bear a definite relationship to the Olympic concept,’ i.e. sports-related artwork.

Musical artists were supposed to present music that glorified sports, athletic competition, an athlete, or a connection to sports festivities. Literature was divided into Drama, Lyrics and Poetry. The artists had to follow a 20,000- word limit on their entries strictly. They were allotted an hour to present their art.

Arts Competition in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm

An American Trotter sculptor by Walter Winans which won a gold medal in the year 1912.

The 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm were the first event when the Olympics committee included arts in the tournament. Walter Winans won gold for sharpshooting at the 1908 London Games and a silver for the same event in 1912.

But he won another medal which in 1912 – it was not for sharpshooting but for making a 20-inch-tall ‘horse pulling a small chariot’ sculpture. He named it “An American Trotter” and won the first-ever Olympic gold medal for creating a sculpture.

Total Medals Awarded For Arts Between 1912-1952 Olympic Games

Richard Stanton, who wrote the book The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, said that “Everyone that I’ve ever spoken to about it has been fascinated. I first found out about it reading a history book, when I came across a little comment about Olympics art competitions, and I just said,’ What competition?'” This took him so by surprise that he remains the first and the only person who wrote a book on this subject to date.

Artists of the World Unite-d

Around 33 artists submitted their works in the first Olympics, which included art forms of various kind. Other than sculpture, a modern stadium building plan (architecture), an ‘Olympic Triumphal March’ (music), sceneries depicting winter sports (painting) and ‘Ode to Sports’ (literature) also received gold medals.

The format of including sport in the Art was sometimes inconsistent and chaotic. Every so often, people would get a silver medal, but not a gold one or the jury would be so unpleased that the jurors handed out no awards.

All artists united at these art competitions held at Olympics.

Through the difficulties, the 1932 Olympic Games saw nearly 400,000 people in the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art came to see the art forms in the games. Many well-known artists such as John Russell Pope, the architect of Jefferson Memorial, participated in the competition.

Some of the other artists that participated at the Olympics were Rembrandt Bugatti (Sculptor), Percy Crosby (Cartoonist), Oliver St. John Gogarty (Author), Issac Israels (Painter).

Why Did Arts Cease To Be A Part Of The Olympics?

The Olympics came to a grave halt as the Second World War began in 1940 and continued till 1945. The president of IOC changed, and Avery Brundage became the new in-charge of the IOC. He strongly opposed the idea of having arts mixed with sports.

Brundage had taken part in Olympics art competitions in the 1932 games and even received an Honourable Mention. Yet, he led the campaign against arts being a part of the Olympics.

The painting "Polo Players" by John Copley won the last silver medal.

Eventually, after a lot of debate, the committee scrapped art competitions from the games altogether. Instead, a non-competitive exhibition took place which later came to be known as Cultural Olympiad.

John Copley was the last artist to win a medal in Olympics arts category of competitions. He received a silver in 1948 for his work- Polo Players. He was 73 at the time and also became the oldest Olympic medallist in the history of Olympics. 

Apart from losing arts from its tally, Olympics have been marred with other societal vices too, most prominently with sexism that undercounts female participants and minimises their mettle. Clearly, there’s still a long way to go in perfecting the global union in Olympics. Who knows, maybe they’ll bring back arts too!


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