This week, Olympic medal hopefuls are making their way to Rio de Janeiro with the necessary equipment: soccer cleats, swim caps, leotards, oars. Charging into the Games dressed in Nike swooshes and elastane, they’ll look like the sports stars of Wheaties boxes past.
Over a century ago, the Olympic scene was a bit different.
In 1912, some aspiring gold medalists trekked to Stockholm, Sweden, with pens, paintbrushes, clay and sheet music. Because, yes, the Summer Olympics that year allowed artists, architects, writers and musicians to compete in events just like the traditional athletes. So while Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was dominating the 100-meter freestyle race, an Italian man named Giovanni Pellegrini was also besting his rivals ― in painting.
The Huffington Post was reminded of this pleasant bit of Olympic trivia this week thanks to a Facebook commenter. “William Butler Yeats’ brother Jack won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics… in painting,” the commenter wrote. And sure enough, a look at Olympics results history shows that Jack B. Yeats placed second in the 1924 painting event for his work “The Liffey Swim.”
The first Olympic Games held under the auspices of the IOC took place in 1896. The first Games to include art events occurred in 1912 and continued until 1948. They included architecture, painting, sculpture, literature and music events, all judged by an international jury. According to The Atlantic, rules dictated that the Olympic artwork should “bear a definite relationship to the Olympic concept,” so all epic poetry, musical compositions and oil paintings were required to reflect some aspect of sports. Songs about sports, sculptures about sports. You get it.
The entire concept was the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, who saw art and sports going hand in hand. “He was raised and educated classically, and he was particularly impressed with the idea of what it meant to be a true Olympian ― someone who was not only athletic, but skilled in music and literature,” Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, told Smithsonian magazine. “He felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete to not include some aspect of the arts.”
So why don’t we talk more about the illustrious art history of the Olympics? Probably because not many artists of note took part. Famous faces like Igor Stravinsky served as judges for the events, but in terms of the competitors, most ― like Luxembourgian painter Jean Jacoby, Polish composer Zbigniew Turski, Swiss artist Alex Diggelmann and Danish writer Josef Petersen ― are less recognized. De Coubertin himself took home a medal when he submitted work under the pseudonyms George Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, and his art is not exactly hanging in the Met.
The reason for the absence of Picassos and Kahlos might have something to do with the fact that while some sports lend themselves to quantitative ― and qualitative ― judgement, many artists have long resisted the parameters of competitive creativity. “The dubiousness of judging aesthetic achievement by committee has been a common subject for complaint ever since awards began proliferating like wildflowers in the last half-century,” Charles Isherwood wrote for The New York Times.
Most likely, the dearth of talent was tied to the fact that “professional” artists were discouraged from competing in the Olympics due to the Games’ amateur status requirement, prohibiting paid artists and athletes from participating.
Olympic art-making ended in 1948. Interest in the events had been dwindling, so organizers opted to replace them with a noncompetitive exhibition that would show concurrently with the Games. Sadly, art medals awarded over the years were deleted from the official Olympic record.
Today, we have only the incredulous comments on Facebook to conjure memories of Olympic artists. Which, for a brief moment, might be enough to distract us from the crisis and doubt plaguing the Rio Olympics right now.