The Olympics of Art, 1912-1948

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The Art Olympians Austrian Edwin Grienauer won an Olympic gold at 35 and a bronze at 55. Joseph Petersen of Denmark was awarded his third silver medal at 67. John Copley of Britain won a silver medal just about a month before his 74th birthday. Those are amazing endeavors, yet hardly anybody knows who these Olympic champions are. Indeed, the medals Petersen, Grienauer and Copley won weren’t for anything particularly athletic. Instead, they were awarded for their sport-themed works of art. Divided into five categories -- painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music – the Art Competitions were the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and the modern Games. Between 1912 and 1948, they were an integral part of the Olympics, with artists being awarded gold, silver and bronze medals like athletes. Aimed at reviving the spirit of ancient Olympia, where intellectuals and artists attended the games, “the Pentathlon of the Muses” awarded 151 medals in nearly four decades. At that time, the medalists were recorded in the Olympic winner lists as official Olympic champions.


Ode to Sport The “Olympic Art Competitions” ran for the first time 100 years ago at the Games of the V Olympiad in Stockholm. In that first competition, only five gold medals and one silver (in sculpture) were awarded. De Coubertin himself, disguised under the pseudonyms George Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, won the first gold medal in literature for his "Ode to Sport." It was not until 1919 that de Coubertin was found to have written the poem. The sources of the names chosen by the Baron were discovered only in 1990. They were the names of the two villages in the Munster Valley of Alsace, near the home village of de Coubertin’s wife Marie.

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Artistic Athletes American millionaire horse breeder Walter Winans is one of the two Olympic competitors who succeeded in winning medals both as athletes and artists. Winans became an Olympic champion in shooting in 1908 and won a silver medal for the same event four years later. In Stockholm, he doubled his Olympic success by winning a gold medal for his 20-inch-tall bronze sculpture, "An American Trotter." He died in 1920 while driving his trotting horse in a race.

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Sports and the Arts Born as Arnold Guttmann, Hungarian Alfréd Hajós was the first modern Olympic swimming champion. Along with Winans, he is the only Olympic competitor who won medals both in sports and the arts. Hajós, at that time an architecture student, won two gold medals in freestyle swimming (100 and 1,200 meters) at the 1896 Athens Games. He swam in extremely cold water and against 12-foot waves (the swimming events were held in the Mediterranean Sea). He entered the art competitions at the 1924 Paris Games and won the silver medal for his design of the Budapest Swimming Center. It was the highest honor, since the international jury did not award a gold medal that year.

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Double Gold Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg was the Michael Phelps of the art competitions, being the only artist to have received two gold medals. He won a gold in 1924 in Paris for his painting "Three sport studies" and another in Amsterdam four years later for his drawing of rugby players. His record is contested by another multi–medalist, Swiss graphic artist Alex Werner Diggelmann, the only artist to win gold, silver and bronze medals. Diggelmann won a gold medal in 1936 for his poster "Arosa I Placard," and a bronze and a silver in 1948 for two commercial posters, the "World Championship for Cycling Poster" and the "World Championship for Ice Hockey Poster."

Mormon Connection Paintings and sculptures of wrestling or boxing events abounded in the Olympic art competitions. Indeed, at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, a gold medal was awarded to the dramatic "Knockdown," a boxing sculpture by Mahonri Mackintosh Young. The grandson of Mormon Church leader Brigham Young, Mahonri is best known as the author of the "This is The Place" monument and the "Seagull" monument in Salt Lake City.

Notable Winners This black-and-white picture is all that remains of Lee Blair’s watercolor Rodeo. The Disney animator won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but his colorful portrait of a crowded corral is now lost. Indeed, several medal-winning artworks have fallen into oblivion and are now lost to history. While Blair won the gold medal, the silver that year went to Percy Crosby, the creator of the comic strip Skippy. Blair and Crosby are among the prominent artists who competed at the Olympics. Among the other entrants of note, Jack B. Yeats, the younger brother of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, won the silver medal at the 1924 Paris Games for his painting "Natation,"while Irish author Oliver Gogarty won a bronze in literature at the same venue. Four years later, at the Amsterdam Games, Dutch painter Isaac Israëls won a gold for his artwork "The Red Rider," while a silver medal was awarded in architecture to John Russell Pope at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. The architect of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., won the prize for his design of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Only Woman Champion The Finnish poet Aale Tynni was the only woman to ever win a gold medal in the Olympic art competitions. Tynni won the gold at the 1948 Olympic Games in London for her poem the "Laurel of Hellas."

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Oldest Olympians The 1948 London Games marked the end of the Olympic art competitions. The amateur status -– a mandatory requirement to enter the competition -- strongly undermined the quality of the entries. Moreover, determining whether an artist was an amateur or a professional had become more and more challenging. The Olympic art competitions were then replaced by a parallel art festival and exhibition. One of the last medals, a silver for an etching called Polo Players, was awarded to 73-year-old British graphic artist John Copley. He would be the oldest medalist in Olympic history if the art championships had not been removed from the Games' official record. The oldest medalist, and the oldest athlete ever to compete in the Olympics, is Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn. He won the last of his six Olympic medals, a silver in the double shot running deer contest, at the 1920 Antwerp Games. He was 72 years and 280 days old.