Olympic Gold Once Honored the Arts

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In the early days of modern Olympic competition, victors’ medals not only went for athletics, but the arts also held a place of honor, according to an article in the July issue of Smithsonian magazine.

The awards began with the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where arts medals went to competitors in five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. All works had to be original and inspired by sport. It must have taken a while for the word to get out. Only 35 entries graced that original competition.

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During the decades of Olympic juried arts awards, some discussion ensued about including the categories of dance, film, photography, or theatre. However, none of those ideas crossed the finish line.

By 1928, over 1,100 artworks filled the Amsterdam Olympics exhibit. At the 1932 games in Los Angeles, the arts exhibit garnered 384,000 visitors.

The approach of World War II led to a decline in the number of entered artworks. Then in 1949, a report to the Olympic Committee concluded nearly all art competitors were professional, a no-no for all Olympic categories at that time.

The 1952 Olympics saw the arts competitions replaced by only an art exhibition, a concept which continues. The Olympic Charter requires the Olympic Games to include a cultural-events program to “serve to promote harmonious relations, mutual understanding and friendship among the participants and others attending the Olympic Games.”

Here are the first Olympics Arts Gold Medal winners, honored at the 1912 competitions:

Architecture: Eugène-Edouard Monod and Alphonse Laverrière (SUI): Building plan of a modern stadium.

Literature: Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin[1] (FRA): “Ode to Sport.”

Music: Riccardo Barthelemy (ITA): “Olympic Triumphal March.”

Painting: Giovanni Pellegrini (ITA): Three connected friezes representing “Winter Sports.”

Sculpture: Walter Winans (USA): Bronze statuette “An American trotter.”