'Sporting Art' An Olympic Event Left By The Wayside

Audie Cornish talks with Olympic historian John MacAloon about the Olympic art competitions which ran from 1912 to 1952. Medals were awarded for sport-themed painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and music.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to a different sort of Olympic opening ceremony.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The other day, her royal highness, the Duchess of Gloucester, performed the opening ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum of the sporting art section of the 14th Olympiad.

CORNISH: The sporting art section?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And this group in plaster from Sweden has won a first prize.

CORNISH: This BBC report comes from 1948, the last year that artists could compete for medals. If you didn't know that the modern Olympics once included architecture, music, painting, sculpture and literature, join the crowd. Between 1912 and 1948, 151 medals were awarded. To learn more about these artists and the fate of these Olympic competitions, we turn to historian John MacAloon of the University of Chicago. Welcome to the program.

JOHN MACALOON: Hi, Audie. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: So, John, who came up with the idea to include arts competitions alongside athletic events in the Olympics?

MACALOON: The same person who was the general founder of the modern Olympic Games, a Frenchman called Pierre de Coubertin, who, from the very beginning, in part because 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.

CORNISH: As we mentioned earlier, there were more than 150 medals that were awarded. So can you describe one or two examples of medal-winning art from that period?

MACALOON: Well, one of the most striking one was the gold medal awarded for literature, the very first time in 1912, awarded to a piece called "Ode to Sport," submitted under what turned out to be a pseudonym, two of them actually, a French one and a German one by no one other than Pierre de Coubertin himself.

CORNISH: Oh, wait a second.

(LAUGHTER)

MACALOON: Yeah. Sounds like the fix was in, wasn't it? No, he submitted it anonymously. The story never came out till after his death. The jury found great merit in his composition. He beat out quite a famous Italian poet. But if you would let me, let me read you a couple of lines.

Oh sport, you are joy. At your call the flesh makes holiday and the eyes smile, the blood flows free and strong in the arteries. Thought's horizons grow lighter and more clear. Oh sport, you are progress. Oh sport, you are peace. You forge happy bonds between the peoples by drawing them together in reverence for strength which is controlled, organized and self-disciplined.

While these are great sentiments, we justify the practice of sport in their name, but I don't think anyone would describe this as great literature.

CORNISH: Yeah. Not subtle maybe, aren't they?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Who are some other big-name artists we might know who won a medal?

MACALOON: Well, there are very few big-name artists who competed, much less won. I think a well-educated undergraduate in art history could through the whole list without recognizing any names.

CORNISH: So why was the idea abandoned in the 1950s?

MACALOON: Well, all of the problems that I've alluded to continued throughout the competitions. So of all people, the leader in putting an end to the competitions was the American Avery Brundage on his way to becoming president of the IOC and who ironically had entered himself and won an honorable mention for an essay in 1932. But he was especially moved by the fact that these darn artists were professionals. And he was the great apostle of amateurism in sports. So he used that as the final club to put an end to the gold medal competitions after 1948.

CORNISH: John MacAloon, thank you so much for talking with us.

MACALOON: My pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: University of Chicago professor John MacAloon talking about the history of Olympic art competitions.

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