Artistry of the Olympics

Jul 13, 2021

Did you know that medals were awarded for art in the early Modern Olympics? Or that there is an organisation that supports Olympians who are also artists? And what’s the Cultural Olympiad?

We tend to associate the Olympics with sport and athleticism. But there is a strong undercurrent of aesthetics, of artistic skill and flair, and a sense of beauty. At the most obvious level there are the Olympic rings, the logos, emblems, promotional concepts, mascots, the Olympic flame, and awards from olive leaf wreaths to gold medals. Then the magnificent Opening Ceremonies - invariably an amazing display of performing arts on a huge scale!

As we watch Olympians performing, their movements and fluidity bring a balance between athleticism and artistry. In some sports, like figure skating in the Winter Olympics, there are ongoing debates about the value of athleticism versus artistry. If the most difficult athletic rotations are not included the performance seems more like the artistry of dance. Is this a good thing or bad thing? What is the focus for the Olympic Games?

Some thought-provoking ideas and inquiries are scattered through this blog for students. I’ve included links to help them find some information so they can create possible answers or opinions.

From now to then 

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 start in Japan on 23 July 2021 - a year later because of CoVid. These are the Summer Olympics. The Paralympics follow on in Japan starting on 24 August 2021. The Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place in Beijing, China, starting on 4 February 2022.

This website has a list of all the dates and places of the modern Olympics, both summer and winter, starting in Athens, Greece, in 1896. 

Art in, and of, the Ancient Olympic Games 

Artwork depicting the Ancient Olympic Games is one of the key sources of information for historians. In Olympia, Greece, every four years from 776BC to at least 393AD, men came from neighbouring cities or states to compete (naked, as portrayed on ancient vases) and to spectate. So how did a woman claim victory wreaths? And what punishment was given to anyone guilty of a false start on the track? This website has some interesting insights!

The Olympic Games were a time of festivity, a cultural celebration where both the mind and body were fine-tuned to deliver high-standard performances. There were artistic exhibitions alongside athletic competitions. In Ancient Greek society, achieving an harmonious balance between body and mind was an important aspect of an individual’s personal development. Training would take place in the gymnasium which was an open, public place for exercising and education. This was a centre for men to socialise.

There were really only six types of athletic events: running (straight sprints and longer laps), combat (boxing and wrestling), discus, long jump, pentathlon (running, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, and wrestling) and equestrian events (horse racing and chariot racing).

The Khan Academy is an educational site which outlines for students how these Olympic sports were depicted on ancient vases and in statues in Greece. How are the actions, movements and styles shown in these artworks the same or different to techniques used by athletes today? How is a sense of athletic ‘beauty’ depicted in these artefacts? Why would vases be used to illustrate these sporting achievements? 

Art Competitions in the Modern Olympic Games 

At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, American Walter Winans won the first ever Olympic gold medal for sculpture: a 20-inch-tall bronze horse pulling a small chariot. He’d already won two Olympic medals for shooting. From these games until 1948, art competitions were part of the Olympics. Medals were awarded to original artworks, inspired by athletic endeavours. Initially, the art competitions were grouped into five broad categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. However, for some Games, they were split into subcategories. More information can be found here: 'When the Olympics gave out medals for art'.

Over time, organisers and participants alike became disillusioned. Olympians were supposed to be amateurs - so why were artists selling their works? Added to this, categories fluctuated and medals were not always awarded. The Art Competition became controversial and the number of international entries declined. This website may show a medalist in the art competitions, from your country.

Eventually the art competitions would be scrapped. They were replaced by a noncompetitive exhibition to occur during the Games, which eventually became known as the Cultural Olympiad. The Cultural Olympiad is now part of the Official Olympic event, and is a cultural program based on the Olympic values. It encompasses entertainment, festivals, and educational activities.

In an article by Dr Beatrix Garcia, 'The role of art and culture in the Olympic Games', five core objectives that seem to determine the theme of each Cultural Olympiad are outlined: 1) acknowledgement of the city’s artistic and cultural capacities, 2) improvement of the city cultural services or infrastructure, 3) showcase of the country’s folklore cultural diversity, 4) international projection - acknowledgement on the world stage - and 5) change of image - attempts to shift international stereotypes of the city or country.

The NIPPON Festival is Tokyo’s cultural program for these Olympics. 'Tokyo 2020 is not just about sports' is a video clip sharing snippets of Japanese culture - a window into their cultural Olympiad. An animated film has been made for the Tokyo Olympics expressing the values of excellence, friendship and respect. 'Tomorrow’s Leaves' (this is just the trailer) aims to share messages of hope, peace and solidarity, and to leave an artistic legacy for animation fans across the globe. 

Art of the Olympians 

Encouraging the concept of developing both mind and body, this organisation acknowledges the diverse talents of Olympians who are not only athletes but artists. “Art of the Olympians (AOTO) is an organization and program of Olympian and Paralympian artists that promotes the Olympic ideals of values, integrity, character, respect, honor, and work ethic through exhibitions and educational programs.” It was founded in 2006.

In 2018, the World Olympians Association (WOA) announced the formation of a new WOA Arts Committee called "OLY Arts". Roald Bradstock was appointed the Chair of the new Committee. Fellow AOTO artist, Shane Gould, joined Bradstock on the Arts Committee.

Bradstock represented Great Britain in javelin at the Olympics but he is also internationally renowned for his artistic style and the innovative techniques he uses in his drawings, paintings and collages. Gould is a photographer and also a three-time gold medalist representing Australia in swimming. Peggy Fleming is one of over 60 Olympian contributors. Not only is she an Olympic champion figure skater, representing the USA, she is also an accomplished painter. You can follow ‘Art of the Olympians’ on FaceBook. 

More than just sport

The Olympics are a time for athletes to shine but it is also a time to learn more about the host country and their cultural traditions and practices: a veritable smorgasbord of artistic delights to tempt our senses. For artistic ideas for your children or students, try searching Artventure for ‘Olympics’, ‘sport’ and ‘Japan’. We can encourage our young champions to strengthen their bodies and their minds through artistic as well as athletic pursuits.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger