As last night’s closing ceremonies reminded us (again), sports and arts often go hand in hand. But one hundred years ago, artists and athletes were more than one another’s inspiration; they were peers at the Olympics. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, for the first 40 years of the modern games (1912-1952) 151 gold, silver and bronze medals were presented for painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music at the Olympic Games.
According to Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, believed that true Olympians were not only skilled in athletics, but also in the arts and any modern interpretation of the Olympic games must include artists. He declared “There is only one difference between our Olympiads and plain sporting championships, and it is precisely the contests of art as they existed in the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, where sport exhibitions walked in equality with artistic exhibitions.”
The first ever Olympic gold medal for sculpture was awarded to American sculptor Walter Winans in 1912 for his small bronze, An American Trotter. A true Olympian per de Coubertin’s estimation, Winans also took home a gold and silver medal in sharpshooting in the 1908 and 1912 Olympics, respectively.
The art competition, which required entries to be sports themed, was disbanded after a heated debate over whether the artists – who made their living selling their work – “represented an unwelcome incursion of professionalism” in what was then a competition for only amateur athletes.
Fifty years later, the IOC established an official Sport and Art Contest leading up to the 2004 summer Games and each summer Games since. In London, creative works celebrating the theme of “Sport and the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect, were displayed through the city.