Celebrating Mind & Muscle: When the Olympics Awarded Medals for the Arts

The Olympic Rings sculpture on Brazil’s famous Copacabana Beach is made entirely of recycled plastic: uniting athletics, the arts, and environmental awareness. Photo via www.rio2016.com.


Vancouver. London. Sochi. And now, Rio de Janeiro.

Each night, millions have been tuning in to the leading international sporting event featuring the world’s best athletes. However, few are aware that during the first half of the 20th century, the modern Olympics included arts competitions.

According to the New York Times, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC, from which the modern Olympics emerged in 1896, believed that muscle and mind (sports and the arts) were intrinsically connected.

“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, the 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.”

Although, the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896, it was not until the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm that medals were awarded for architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. In conjunction with athletic rules and regulations, amateur status was required of all competing artists. Renowned artists of the time such as Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo were not allowed to compete.

Today, it may seem counterintuitive to win a gold medal for painting; nevertheless Baron Pierre de Coubertin was passionate in his mission to mesh the two worlds. There were several who opposed the baron’s battle. Prior to medals being awarded, the Swedish organizers of the Stockholm Games argued that judging art was a more slippery slope than measuring which disc was thrown the farthest. Many wonders if the same level of betting through sites like ATS.io takes place for these categories. It would be interesting to compare the competitive attitude between the artistic side of the Olympics and the typically athletic side.

Definitely not an unwarranted argument. Athletic achievements can be measured through speed, distance, etc. whereas judging the arts is undoubtedly subjective.

Regardless, the baron had his way. The arts Games continued through 1948, awarding medals to arts highlighting athletics. Arguably so, this could have led to their downfall. The lack of creativity in subject greatly barred artists. (How many sculptures honoring muscle-bound discus throwers can we REALLY enjoy before it becomes monotonous?)The arts were discontinued from the Olympic Games in 1948 due to dwindling interest. Although the cultures competition ended, Baron Pierre de Coubertin would be pleased to know festivals of the arts associated with the Olympics continue to this day.

Fun fact: in 1912, Walter Winans became the only Olympian to win medals in both arts and athletics. He won silver for team USA in the shooting event “Team Running Deer-Single Shot” and gold in sculpture for his work entitled, An American Trotter; the true epitome of Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s beliefs and mission.

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