120 years, 120 stories (Part 24) : When an Arts competition featured in the Olympics


The great games were never only meant for sports. Some genius or freakishly stupid minds introduced Arts competition in the Summer Olympics. Yes, you heard it correct. The famous games once had a Arts competition too.

It was London, 1948. The officials decided to include 5 competitions under it. Architecture, Literature, Painting, Sculpture and Music. Few of them also wanted to include dancing, film, photography and theater. But the less freakish minds turned down the idea or it would have been disaster. The games would have become a cultural event and in someways it had become too.

Architecture had been a part of games since 1928 and had a different city to hold this event. Literature was more fun. It had 3 categories until 1928 – dramatic, epic and lyric. But after 1928, it was merged as one event where the author had to submit his work within 20,000 words in any language provided that he submits a English or French transcript.

Music also was a single event till 1936 and was divided into 3 groups after that – vocal, instrumental, orchestral. Painting had many categories and many sub-categories. Oil painting, engraving and the list goes on and on and on.

Arts competition had been a part of Olympics since 1912 and London was the last one to hold it in 1948. In some ways that incident saved the game.

Luxembourg artist, Jean Jacoby has been most successful artist of Olympics winning 2 back to back gold medals in 1924 and 1928 respectively. Danish writer Joseph Peterson could have easily been the best if he had not finished second 3 times – 1924, 1932 and 1948! Some people say that he should have won the gold, but his transcripts were just not good enough as the originals.

There are normal people, then there are gifted ones and after that comes the superhuman. To be precise there only have been two of them. These two won gold in athletics and nailed another medal in art competition too. Crazy right?

One of them is American Walter Winans who won gold in running deer double shooting in 1908 (don’t be surprised as there were no animal rights back then) and got the gold as a sculptor in 1912. He won the running deer competition in 1912 too, but this time it was only a silver.

Another one of them is legendary Alfred Hajos, about whom we have already talked. He won a gold medal in swimming for Hungary in 1896 and won the silver as co-architect too.

British John Copley is still the oldest one to bag one Olympic Medal. In 1948 London games, he bagged a medal in etching and engraving at the age of 73.

The arts competition lost its glory throughout the years. According to the different reports, there were not many people who understood or enjoyed the competition. Only 27 countries took part in that competition and only 25 competed in 1948. The standards dropped through the years. According to some reports, it was so bad that that they could not give gold or silver in vocals and instruments. Architecture and engravings were the most time consuming events. So, obviously people lost interest and the events died away slowly.

But in a report of 1948, it was said that, “35 Music was one of the Olympic Art Competitions. All in all 17 medals (among them five golden) were awarded. The story of the prize-winning Olympic compositions of Stockholm, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Berlin or London (there was no music medal in Paris 1924) is frustrating and fascinating at the same time. The trail will be continued in future editions.” But it never did.

The games never should have allowed arts competition. The games were for athletes, not for the artists. So, no matter how fascinating it was, it would have died out eventually. It actually did and will be remembered as just another crazy event which used to take place in the Olympics.

Photo by Michael Francis McCarthy