Artists once had a sporting chance in Olympics

This week the world is talking about sports, thanks to the 2012 Olympic games in London.

But 100 years ago the Olympics included not just sports, but art. Medals were awarded for sport-themed painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and music in games held between 1912 and 1952.

NPR’s Audie Cornish spoke with historian John MacAloon, who explained the idea was conceived by the founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin:

MACALOON: [He] was inspired by the ancient Greek Olympic Games, which most expressions included competitions in musical performance, in singing and in heralding, public announcement, if you will, he wanted to make sure the modern games follow that.

Secondly, he felt very, very strongly that if you didn’t have competitions in the arts, then all you had, as he put it, was a mere series of sporting world championships. So it was his idea. He fought for it, and it took till the Stockholm Games of 1912 for the first competitions to actually be organized.

CORNISH: Essentially, anybody could submit works of art to the competition to be judged by, I guess, by commissions in the host country. How seriously did the art community take the competition?

MACALOON: Well, this was the problem right from the beginning. The debates began almost immediately. True art is art for art’s sake. How could this art for sport’s sake really be authentic? Would you get any quality submissions? Why would artists create original works against such a new and uncertain format? Artists themselves are not always really happy to compete directly with one another. And when they do, they would prefer a jury of their peers. So the artists were afraid that they would be judged by people from sport, and the sports people were afraid that they’d get submissions from artists that really were not deeply connected with the theme.

As a result, winning submissions – especially in the literature category – were, well… not that winning.

You can read – or listen to – the entire interview here. You can see a slideshow of some of the award-winning sport-themed artwork in a Smithsonian article here.

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