Olympic Artists    

Artists have a long history of involvement with the Olympic Games, but curiously, this aspect of the Olympics is little known.

  • Did you know that gold, silver, and bronze medals have been awarded not only to Olympic athletes, but also to artists?

  • Did you know that one of the principles of the Olympic charter requires cultural events be held in conjunction with the Games?

  • Has the media told you about the Cultural Olympiad?

AskART hopes that the following historical perspective about the Olympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad may be of interest.

The Cultural Olympiad has been long overshadowed by the Games themselves, and few people are aware even of its existence or that such gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded not only to athletes, but also to artists. To quote the Olympic Museum’s own home page: 'Over and above sporting exploits, Olympism is a source of multiple passions which unite the worlds of sport, art, culture.’  Beginning with the fifth Olympiad, in Stockholm in 1912, and ending with the 14th, in London in 1948, fine arts were an integral part of the competitions. Represented were architecture, sculpture, painting, literature and music. These artistic contests, called the ‘Pentathelon of the Muses’, were held along with the Olympics. Later, the ‘Pentathelon’ evolved into the ‘Arts Olympiads’, or ‘Cultural Olympiads’ and the medals were changed to ‘diplomas’. American artists did well in these international competitions. Walter Winans captured a gold medal in sculpture with his work An American Trotter in Stockholm in 1912. In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles , Ruth Miller placed second for her painting Struggle, and John Russell Pope placed second in the architecture competition for his Design for Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Countless American painters and sculptors have depicted in their works a wide spectrum of sports, from boxing, skating, wrestling, to equestrian events, skiing, track and field and many others; all of which find their ultimate level of competition at the Olympics. Among these artists and examples of such works are: George Bellows (1882-1925) ‘Ringside Seats’, Martin Fletcher (1904-1979) a former boxer himself ‘The Glory’; Frank Ashley (1920 - 2007) ‘Wham’; LeRoy Neiman (1921- ) ‘Downhill Skier’; Joe Brown (1909-1985) ‘Handstand’; Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) ‘The Wrestlers’, Charles Grafly (1862-1929) ‘The Oarsman’, Paul Howard Manship (1885-1966) ‘Wrestlers’, Alexander Archipenko (1887- 1964) ‘Boxers’; R. Tait McKenzie (1867-1938) ‘Pole Vaulter; Mahonri Mackintosh Young (1877-1957) ‘On the Button’; Richmond Barthe (1901-1989) ‘Boxer’; Milton Avery (1983-1965) ‘Fencers’; Fletcher Martin (1904-1976) ‘The Glory’; Alex Colville (1920 - ) ‘Skater’; Bernard Fuchs (1932- ) ‘Paddock’; and Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) athlete series, including ‘Dorothy Hamill.

Today's Olympic Games strive to retain the ideals of Pierre de Coubertin, the ‘father of the modern Olympics’, whose story is detailed below. It was he and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who were responsible for the establishment of competitions, to be held in conjunction with the athletic contests, and called ‘Pentathelons of the Muses’ in which artists would be awarded medals. Although the ‘Pentathalon’ has since been eliminated, its descendant, the ‘Cultural Olympiad’, continues to be a compulsory part of the Olympics. It is intended to showcase all that the host city has to offer, but curiously the cultural aspects of the Olympics are often overlooked, and many people are unaware of the Olympic Arts Festivals. The Economist magazine noted (July 31, 2008) that the Beijing Olympics Fine Art exhibition’s own website had still not displayed its opening time, a mere days before its start.


And yet, Olympic host cities have presented noteworthy displays. For the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics of 2002, contemporary Finnish-American sculptor Eino (who goes by the single name) created a seven-foot tall snowflake sculpture that was placed in the Utah Olympic Park. Works by celebrated glass artist Dale Chihuly, were also exhibited in Salt Lake. In celebration of the Games and their ancient origin, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) hosted an exhibition of Greek antiquities from the J. Paul Getty Museum, featuring 35 objects from ancient Greek life during Olympian times.

The 2002 ‘Cultural Olympiad’ of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 (SLOC) commissioned artists to create works that focus on integral aspects of the 2002 ‘Cultural Olympiad’, and they were unveiled at ArtExpo 2002 in New York. Southwestern artist John Nieto and Utah-artist McRay Magleby created images that reflect upon wildlife and the West, the merger of sport plus art, and the antiquity of Olympic cultural celebrations. John Nieto's artwork for the 2002 Cultural Olympiad reflects a unique interpretation of wildlife and the West. A contemporary artist from the Southwest, Nieto’s heritage is interwoven in his art and notable in a vivid color palette that dominates his canvasses. Utah based McRay Magleby has said that in his works his “objective was to capture the spirit of the ‘Cultural Olympiad’. I found that in antiquity, the Games at Delphi, a sacred Greek site of the ancient Olympic Games, included a competition of singing accompanied by a lyre. To reflect that mood, I chose my image based on Greek Vase painting from the early black figure period.” Magleby’s work featured the spirit of a festive winged Greek athlete playing a lyre surrounded by a flock of doves. The figure emerges from the western United States and expands upward toward the heavens. At the ArtExpo in New York City, Olympic gold medalist Dan O'Brien joined artists Clemens Briels, Guy Buffet, and Aldo Luongo to unveil their artwork.


As part of the commemorative poster program, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) also commissioned artists under various categories. The Cultural Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched an Olympic Art & Sport Contest intended to foster at national and regional level an active synergy between the worlds of art and sport. Among artists winning medals, was sculptor Lori Norwood, a former pentathlete.


A notable institution dedicated to the preservation of sports through art is The American Sport Art Museum and Archives (ASAMA), a division of the United States Sports Academy located in Daphne, Alabama. The ASAMA gallery preserves the performance and movement of man by creating an awareness of the role art mediums play in capturing our sports heroes and perpetuating their performances for posterity, and periodically features showings of renowned sport artists. The ASAMA collection contains almost 1,000 pieces in all mediums: paintings, sculpture, prints, posters, photography and assemblages, and is believed to be one of the largest of sport art in North America.

In Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Museum’s Olympic Art & Sport Contest carries on the tradition of awarding diplomas and cash prizes to artists and creative athletes.


Beijing 2008

More currently, the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing, China, included an Olympic Fine Arts exhibition at the Forbidden City, hosted by the IOC and supported by the Ministry of China. The slogan for the event was: “The arts complete the spirit of the Olympic Games’. Close to 200 artists from around the world were chosen to present their artworks which were as varied as: a painting by Colombian artist Miguel de la Espriella; work by Chinese cut paper artist Liu Ren; and a 106-meter long and 20-meter high monumental sculpture "The Athletes' Alley", the creation of Belgian artist Olivier Strebelle, at age 80. An interesting additional note: the ‘Alley’ design was the eighth one submitted by Strebelle, which may have played in his favor, given that the number eight is considered a particularly lucky number in China. Roughly 800 pieces were displayed in total at the Forbidden City exhibition, having been chosen from about 10,000 works submitted from 40 countries and regions. Ten artists received awards of gold, silver, and copper. The artworks then went on tour to Greece and the United States (through March 2009).


The 2002 Olympic Games may be over, but the Cultural Olympiad, the arts festival surrounding them, has held several events, and continues to do so in numerous venues. In addition to many Salt Lake City exhibits, including a major retrospective of 150 years of Utah painting and sculpture, and the above mentioned ArtExpo in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles has also assembled 'Athletes in Antiquity', a traveling exhibition. Planners for the 2004 Olympics have many upcoming Cultural Olympiad events in anticipation of the Games in Greece, and are addressing such topics as the Parthenon marbles. North America.


The Ancient Olympic Games


The artistic side of the Olympics and the rich history behind the Cultural Olympiad dates back to ancient Greece. Quadrennial celebrations that we now know as the Olympic Games were held in the western Peloponnese, and were the cornerstone and epitome of a culture committed to the harmonious development of the mind and the body, celebrated both in sport and art. From 776 BC to 395 AD, the Olympic Games were a sanctified institution and unifying symbol, much as they are today. The Games invoked a unique accord among those present: agile youths, famous leaders, philosophers, musicians, sculptors and poets. This interaction created an environment of mutual inspiration. Athletes were highly moved by the displays of art, and the prowess and skill of the athletes in turn inspired artists.


For the ancient Greeks, there was no separation between the idea of culture and the Olympic Games. The Games were the manifestation of a full civilization, and all aspects of culture were honored. Fine arts were elements of the ideal of the ‘all around man’ as citizen, soldier, and athlete. This concept of the ‘ideal’ was celebrated in various ways, including sculptural representations of winning athletes, often with idealization of the proportions of their physical form.

As familiar we may be with the Olympic Games, few are aware that competitions in the fine arts have also been part of the Olympics since their origin over two thousand years ago. The first ‘art competitor’ in Olympia is said to have been Herodotus, the historical writer, who in 444 BC. was garlanded along with the winners of the gymnastic and track matches. Much of the history of early Olympic artistic competition has sadly been lost. It is known however that crowned victors paid homage to the god Zeus through votive statues, which were displayed in the sacred grove at Olympia. Although we most often associate the early Olympics with athletic competition between men, women also had a role, albeit separate. Together with the Olympic Games, religious festivals honoring the goddess Hera were held for women. Footraces for unmarried girls took place in the Olympic stadium, and winners were allowed to have celebratory pictorial images, most often painted, displayed in their honor in the temple of Hera, consort of Zeus.


According to legend, it was Heracles (the Roman Hercules), a son of Zeus, who founded the Olympic Games. The first competitions for which we have written records were held in 776 BC, although it is generally believed that the Games had been going on for many years already. At this first Olympic Games on record, a naked runner, who happened to be a cook, won the sole event at the Olympics, the ‘stade’, a run of approximately 192 meters (210 yards). This made ‘Coroebus the cook’ the very first Olympic champion in history. For nearly 1200 years, the ancient Olympic Games grew and continued to be played every four years until 393 AD, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, abolished them because of their pagan influences.


 The ‘Modern’ Olympic Games

Approximately 1500 years later, a young Frenchmen, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, began their revival, and he is now known as the ‘father of the modern Olympics’. Coubertin was a French aristocrat, born in 1863 to a father who was an artist and a mother who was a musician. He was only seven years old when the Germans, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, overran France. Some believe that Coubertin later came to attribute the defeat of France not to its military skills but rather to the French soldiers' lack of vigor. After examining the education of the German, British, and American children, he decided that it was exercise, more specifically sports, that made a well-rounded and vigorous person. Coubertin was obsessed with the Greek ideal known as ‘Olympism’, which encompasses the simultaneous training of the human body and cultivation of the intellect and spirit. This he defined as ‘sport plus art’.

Coubertin’s attempt to get France interested in sports was not met with enthusiasm. Still, he persisted. In 1890, he organized and founded a sports organization, Union des Sociétés Francaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). Two years later, Coubertin first pitched his idea to revive the tradition of the Olympic Games. At a meeting of the Union des Sports Athlétiques in Paris on November 25, 1892, he stated:

“Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally. It inspires me to touch upon another step I now propose and in it I shall ask that the help you have given me hitherto you will extend again, so that together we may attempt to realize, upon a basis suitable to the conditions of our modern life, the splendid and beneficent task of reviving the Olympic Games.”


Though Coubertin was not the first to propose the revival of the Olympics, he was certainly the best connected and most persistent of those to do so. He organized a meeting with 79 delegates who represented nine countries. Gathering these delegates in an auditorium decorated with neoclassical murals and other efforts towards ambiance, he spoke eloquently for the revival of the Olympic Games, and this time aroused interest. The delegates voted unanimously in favor of the Games and an international committee was created to organize them. It was this committee that became the famous International Olympic Committee (IOC; Comité Internationale Olympique) and Demetrious Vikelasfrom Greece was selected to be its first president. Athens was chosen as the site and the planning was begun.


The first modern Olympic Games opened in April 1896. Since the Greek government had been unable to fund construction of a stadium, a wealthy Greek architect,Georgios Averoff, donated one million drachmas (over $100,000) to restore for the Olympic Games the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, originally built in 330 BC. Since the Games weren’t well publicized internationally, contestants were not chosen but rather came individually, at their own expense. Some contestants were tourists who happened to be in the area during the Games. Athletes wore their athletic club uniforms rather than national team ones. Pole vaulting, sprints, shot put, weight lifting, swimming, cycling, target shooting, tennis, marathon and gymnastics were all events at this first Olympics. Swimming competitions were held in the Bay of Zea in the Aegean Sea. Approximately 300 athletes participated in the Games, representing thirteen countries.

 ‘The Pentathelon of the Muses’ and the ‘Cultural Olympics’

Although three Olympiads did take place from 1896-1904, it wasn't until 1906 that Coubertin convened theConsultive Conference on Art, Letters, and Sport. Taking place in Paris, its purpose was to study ways in which art and literature could be incorporated into the Olympic movement. At this conference, it was decided that in addition to athletic competitions, artists would compete and win medals. These artistic contests, introduced at the Stockholm Olympiad in 1912, were called the ‘Pentathlon of the Muses’. From 1912-1948, competitions were held, with varying levels of success and international participation. Gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded to living artists who created works during the four years prior to the subsequent Olympiad. Each work had to be related to sport and approved by the nation in which the artists claimed citizenship. The five areas of competition were architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and literature.


By 1948, however, the IOC stopped rewarding medals in the arts, instead turning them into ‘diplomas’ and the arts competitions evolved into ‘Arts Olympiads’ or ‘Cultural Olympiads’. Following the 1948 Olympiad in London, the fine arts competitions were abolished for a number of reasons, including judging controversies, difficulty in transporting the objects, the variable standard of the amateur artists, and perhaps most symbolically, the public's general lack of interest or even knowledge of the events. Despite the abolition of the competitions, twice during the ‘Pentathlon of the Muses’ the connection between athletics and art was particularly obvious. Two individuals, Walter Winans from the United States, and Alfred Hajos from Hungary, won medals in both the athletic contests and the arts contests. An Olympic shooting medalist in 1900 and 1908, Winans won in 1912 in the sculpture competition. Hajos won two swimming medals and also won a silver medal in 1924 for his architectural plan for a stadium.

In "The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions", one of the few books written on the subject, Richard Stanton, a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, shares his views on the people and reasons behind the abolition of the original contests, and why so few today have ever heard of these competitions. He includes results of the art events and information about several artists, including American sculptor and painter Mahonri Young, cartoonist and painter Percy Crosby, and sculptor Walter Winans.


One of the principles of the Olympic Charter requires each national organizing committee to hold “a program of cultural events...symbolizing the universality and the diversity of human culture." In keeping with this, and de Coubertin's Olympic philosophy, the artistic competitions were replaced by exhibitions, festivals and performances Between 1912 and 1948 art competitions were held alongside the games before being abandoned, partly because of worries that professional artists were undermining the Olympic principle of amateurism. These were revived in 2000, when artists were awarded prizes for works of art with a ‘sporty theme’.

Over the years, these displays of arts programming have differed significantly in both size and focus. Against the backdrop of one of the world's most beautiful cities, Rome's organizing committee mounted an enormous exhibition of ‘Sport in History and Art’ which lasted for six months and presented 2,300 works. In 1968, Mexico hosted a year long festival that included an international film festival and multidisciplinary arts. Both Melbourne in 1956 and Montreal in 1976 presented programs that specifically showcased their national cultures. For the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, Atlanta's Cultural Olympiad Director Jeffrey Babcock assembled a roster of national and international artists. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded several grants for the Olympiad, including an exhibition of temporary site-specific arts projects around Atlanta.

The planners for the Hellenic 2004 Olympics in Greece stated that it was their ambition to make the Cultural Olympiad a permanent institution based in ancient Olympia. They envisioned it as a ‘custodian of the ideals of peace, fair play, creativity, and the universality of man. The cultural Olympiad, working closely alongside the International Olympic Committee, is linked to UNESCO, the UN, and all the countries of the world.’

In the tradition of the original Games of ancient Greece, the skills of both athletes and artists continue to inspire.

Credit for much of the above information is given to: the website of the Friends of the Weber County Library articles: 'Olympic Museum, Lausanne' and 'Culture and Tradition, The Ancient Olympic Games'; to Richard Stanton, author of 'The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions'; to Kris Taylor of Desert News (Utah), 'Cultural Olympiad Has Rich Heritage’; to the website of the Olympic Museum, Lausanne. ; to: en.beijing2008.cn, the website of the Beijing Olympics; 2008art.org (the website of the Beijing Fine Art exhibit); to: economist.com and its July 2008 article: ‘Beijing Blues’; and to www.radio86.co.uk/beijing
Compiled by Teta Collins.

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