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What if art were part of the Olympic Games?

February 21, 2014

Watching the 2014 Winter Olympics, I am inspired by the sheer athleticism of the competitors. The amount of time that these athletes spend honing their skills to perfection must certainly number into thousands of hours. Most of these athletes likely got their start at a very young age and dedicated their entire lives toward mastering their sport. The crowds cheer, national anthems are played, the awards are given, tears of both victory and defeat are shed.

It makes me wonder, what if art were part of the Olympic Games?

Actually, it was.

In the early years of the modern Olympics, juried art competitions were a part of the games. From 1912 to 1948, artists, writers, musicians and architects could compete in five areas of the arts: painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture. When the Olympic Movement began, there was a great emphasis on the great accomplishments of humanity being showcased through mind and body, and art was a great way to showcase the mental adeptness of the nations represented (it was certainly more entertaining than math quizzes). The catch was that the art had to be inspired by sports. 

Apparently – as with most arts endeavors – the reception was a bit spotty. Some years they had the arts competition, and some years they didn’t, with excuses like, “There wasn’t enough time for the artists,” being thrown out on the years that the arts component was cancelled or modified to simply being an award-free exhibit. The art and their winners weren’t well documented throughout history, and most of the artists and their works are almost completely forgotten. John Copley won a silver medal in 1948, but outside of him, no one you’ve ever heard of won awards or likely even competed in the Olympic art competitions. Not Picasso, not Monet, not Brancusi. Josef Suk won a silver medal in music in 1932 and he is the only well-known musician to have competed. Forgive my ignorance, but I have no clue who that is. 
Alfred Ost De Voetballer silver Olympic medal

Alfred Ost “De Voetballer” – Silver Olympic medal


At the time, there was a big emphasis on the Olympian’s status as an amateur. No professionals were allowed. Of course, now the “no pros” rule has been completely abandoned and we see franchised professionals like Shaun White competing in snowboarding or NBA players competing in the summer games. By 1954, the debate had grown so hot over the fact that these artists had sold their work at one time or another and were professionals, that the International Olympic Committee had elected to replace the competition with an exhibit — free from awards.
From my research online, it seems that the art-as-sport concept was never fully embraced – an afterthought to the original intent to showcase humanity’s achievements. The artists that history has favored refused to participate in the games because they felt it undermined their work, and who could blame them? I’m not sure that I would want my work being judged by an Olympic committee either. I find it refreshing that art had gotten a chance to prove itself, but equally frustrated to see that it failed.
Most people love sports. Friends and family of mine can spend hours discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each NFL team’s roster. As an artist, I’ve never really “got” sports, and sometimes wonder if I’m missing out on something. Any attempts to watch games on TV have proven futile. I just get bored… but most everyone else loves sports. 

I catch myself wondering what would happen if the enthusiasm for sports and athleticism were spread more evenly throughout our culture. In my hometown, every touchdown by the home team is announced by either firing a cannon or shooting fireworks – I’m not sure which – but living a block or two away from the stadium, I can confirm that it is very loud and very close. I can’t help but wonder what might happen if I fired a cannon with every successful completion of a painting. I can guarantee that there would not be a packed grandstand cheering along…

I think that the reason that art isn’t embraced with the same amount of passion as sports is two-fold. For one, it usually takes an undetermined, but lengthy amount of time to complete. Secondly, art is a rather personal and subjective thing. Any person, sports fan or not, can look at the scoreboard and see who is winning, yet we still haven’t found a way to quantify the results of an artistic endeavor. There are some Olympic sports like figure skating or floor gymnastics that quantify the results by a panel of judges, but they do have a set amount of time to complete their routine.

If one could quantify the results of art and limit the time for the task, art could have a new role as exciting and competitive entertainment. I’m not quite sure what this might look like. Do we lock poets in cubicles for three hours (three minutes for haikus) and have them read their work aloud when finished? Do we give painters a model and a giant canvas to do speed portraiture? I could easily see ice sculpting becoming a big winter games spectacle. Of course, to set these kinds of limitations and pressures on the artists, I’m sure that we would likely end up with trite, made-to-please-the-crowd efforts devoid of any true artistic merit. Although I doubt this concept would translate well into the grand spectacle of the Olympic tradition, it would make some interesting reality TV along the lines of Iron Chef or Project Runway, where the concept of fine art is considered, yet somehow angled slightly enough to please average at home viewers.

Brandon Long

Brandon Long
Programming Director

This article originally appeared in the Feburary 2014 Artists ONLY! enewsletter. Subscribe now to Artists ONLY! or other enewsletters from the Community Arts Center.