The Curious History of Olympic Art Competitions

It sounds like a scene from a comedy of manners: On Monday, London's Oxford-educated mayor recited a Pindaric ode in Ancient Greek at an opera house gala to usher in the Olympics, and somehow managed to upstage Plácido Domingo in the process.

Ah yes, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson; the wild-haired Tory often seen by Londoners as a knowing eccentric, ever-poised to put his foot in his mouth. I mean, there's the time he joked that America made a big mistake in 1776, or the time he said that drivers could feel free to stray into the English capital's new cycle lanes.

But while it's tempting to laugh at his latest offering, it seems the mayor is more in touch with Olympic reality than his detractors might know.

Johnson's recital illustrates an often forgotten fact: The arts were central to the Olympics for a very long time. Indeed, it may come as a shock to some to learn that the games once included arts categories. Not as also-ran cultural events, but actual medalled competitions for architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

Known collectively as the "Pentathlon of the Muses," they ran from 1912 to 1948 and saw such names as Finnish poet Aale Tynni, Dutch architect Jan Wils, and Irish painter Jack B. Yeats all compete in various years.

pierre courbertin

The pentathlon was the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, widely recognized as the founder of the modern games. Born to an artist father and a musician mother, he felt that an internationally-focused revival of the ancient Olympics would provide an intellectual and moral compass to citizens of a rapidly industrializing world.

But this could not be achieved through sports alone. De Coubertin proposed that the complete human being needed to excel in both body and mind, in athletics and in arts. And so he shared a plan for renewed games with a committee he had put together in Paris in 1892.

While his idea met with some resistance - and he wasn't the only one to have come up with it, de Coubertin was largely influenced by English surgeon William Penny Brookes's Shropshire-based Wenlock Olympian Games -- he eventually persuaded the delegates from nine countries, and the first modern games went ahead in 1896. He initially kept quiet about including art competitions though, believing his nascent project to be in a fragile state.

But in 1906, the time came. Using his influence, he convened the Consultative Conference on Art, Letters, and Sport (a sort of subset of his newly formed International Olympic Committee) which he tasked with figuring out how to incorporate arts into the games. The eventual outcome? Works of art inspired by sport were to be allowed receive Olympic medals. After a shaky start - the 1908 arts games were cancelled because of an International Olympic Committee planning delay - the first arts games went ahead in 1912.

Touted as representing the five forms of the creative intellect, these new games operated differently from the sports events. Unlike competitions where winners could be judged objectively - a swimmer who finishes first, finishes first - the arts outcomes were decided by a panel, one that needed to come to a majority decision. There were many disagreements between members, with some wondering if competitiveness and artistic endeavor were not mutually exclusive, and still others questioning if the entries needed to focus on sports themes. And yet they carried on awarding medals for poems, stadium designs, and paintings for over thirty years.

Interesting to note is that de Coubertin himself bagged a gold arts medal when he entered an ode under a pseudonym in 1912. And American marksman Walter W. Winans won in both shooting and in sculpture that same year. The games, then, might seem a little frivolous. An afterthought perhaps, or an extended vanity project for arts-obsessed baron. But there was strong precedent in antiquity.

Richard Stanton, author of the comprehensive and encyclopedic "The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions," spent ten years researching the arts games and says that as de Coubertin knew, the arts formed an integral part of the ancient Olympics.

"The only debate is whether or not they were competitioned events," he says. "Historically there were least two of them: trumpetry and heraldry. The artists of the day were definitely a part of every Olympiad. Either presenting or performing or discussing or dialoguing."

So with plenty of historical weight behind them, why did the modern arts games come to an end?

Conventional wisdom tells us they were shuttered after it was argued that artists were by definition professionals, and so were ineligible to compete (the Olympics at that time was solely for amateurs). Stanton adds that committee member and longtime chair Avery Brundage, while a strong supporter of the arts, was an even more vocal proponent of amateurism, and is thought to have been instrumental in their downfall.

It is also said that some judges refused to arbitrate because they felt entries were getting poorer as the years went by. But Stanton further believes that it might simply be down to panel stalemates and in-house bickering.

It's hard to know for sure, because there is so little information available outside of Stanton's book. Indeed, the official medal lists on the Olympic website seem to exclude the arts winners. It almost seems like the present-day committee doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of the Pentathlon of the Muses.

The games do survive today, transformed into the hardly-publicized Cultural Olympiad, where winners get money instead of medals. Out of London in June we learned that the 2012 art winner is sculptor Martin Linson. Good for him. But if the International Olympic Committee ever wants to get de Coubertin-style arts competitions going again, I suggest they allow Boris Johnson participate.

Especially if he submits something like this.