CLOSE
Getty Images/IOC (1896)
Getty Images/IOC (1896)

From 1912 to 1948, Art Competitions Were Part of the Olympics

Getty Images/IOC (1896)
Getty Images/IOC (1896)

French aristocrat and educationalist Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (seated, at left) was the man primarily responsible for reviving the ancient Olympic Games. As the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Coubertin spearheaded the planning efforts for the 1896 Athens Games and guided the Olympic movement until he retired as IOC president in 1925.

Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympics was only partly realized with the Athens Games. In the ensuing years, he devoted himself to reestablishing art competitions—a staple of the Games in ancient Greece—as part of the quadrennial Olympiad. Coubertin felt strongly that art was as much a part of the Olympic ideal as athletics. As documented in Richard Stanton’s thoroughly researched book on the subject, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Coubertin once wrote: “Deprived of the aura of the art contests, Olympic games are only world championships.”

Patience is a Virtue

The second and third modern Olympiads were held in Paris and St. Louis, respectively, and neither one featured art competitions. Coubertin wanted the Olympic movement to develop some momentum before he altered the format of the Games. In an effort to appease Greek officials who argued unsuccessfully that Athens should serve as the permanent site of the modern Olympiad, Coubertin and the IOC agreed to let Athens host an interim Games in 1906. Coubertin didn’t attend and instead used the time to organize a conference to advance his idea.

The Paris Conference

Coubertin outlined his plan for the reestablishment of art competitions before an audience of about 60 artists and dignitaries, many of whom had been invited to Paris based on recommendations from his fellow IOC members. “We are to reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple – Muscle and Mind,” said Coubertin, who proposed five competitions in architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. All of the art submitted in this “Pentathlon of the Muses” was to be inspired by sport. Coubertin’s proposal to add art competitions to the program at the 1908 Games was unanimously approved.

Disappointment in London and Swedish Dissent

Rome was awarded the 1908 Games, but Italy’s economic instability, exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, led the IOC to relocate the Games to London 18 months before the opening ceremonies were scheduled to begin. Officials from London’s Royal Academy of the Arts had the unenviable task of organizing the art competitions on an accelerated schedule. Despite their best efforts, which included establishing the first rules for the events, the art competitions were not staged in 1908.

The IOC met in Luxembourg in June of 1910 to discuss plans for inaugurating the art competitions at the 1912 Games, which were to be held in Stockholm. Citing concerns over judging the competitions, Colonel Victor Balck of Sweden announced the Swedish Organizing Committee’s desire to renounce the competitions entirely. Coubertin fired back that the inclusion of art competitions at the Stockholm Games was not up for debate. The art competitions would be added in 1912, whether Sweden’s organizers liked the idea or not.

Final Preparations and Rules

Opening Ceremonies, 1912/Getty Images

Sweden remained uncooperative in the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, so Coubertin took it upon himself to promote the art competitions and invite artists to participate in the Games. The rules for the five events, which were far less restrictive than the original guidelines drafted for the 1908 Games, were published in September 1911. Among them: All works presented were required to be original and directly inspired by the idea of sport. Size didn’t matter, except for sculptors, who were required to submit “small models not larger than eighty centimeters in height, width, and length.” While there were no language restrictions, the jury—a multinational collection of individuals assembled by Coubertin—asked that all manuscripts submitted in a language other than German, English, Spanish, French or Italian be accompanied by a translation to French, English, or German.

Surprise Winner

Coubertin himself submitted an ode in the Literature competition under a pseudonym and won the gold medal, though it’s unclear how his triumph went undetected until years later. Some have suggested that Coubertin awarded the medal to himself, but Stanton found no evidence in his research to support that idea. The judges’ glowing review of Coubertin’s “Ode to Sport” read, in part: “It emanates as directly as is possible from the idea of sport. It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.”

Limited Participation

A mere 33 artists signed the on-site register in Stockholm, but Stanton notes that there were entrants who did not attend the Games. Still, participation in the first modern art competitions was minimal. In fact, the only event in which the judges awarded a medal other than gold was Sculpture. In every other event, the judges decided that the non-winning entries were not deserving of a medal. Alphonse Laverriere and Eugene Monod of Switzerland took top honors in the Architecture event for their design of a modern Olympic stadium. The gold medal in music was awarded to Italy’s Ricardo Barthelemy for his “Triumphal Olympic March.”

In his review of the Games, Coubertin expressed his disappointment that Sweden’s organizers had failed to incorporate Barthelemy’s winning entry in the official ceremonies, but Coubertin was mostly pleased. Muscle and mind were united again.

See Also:

11 Notable Medalists in the Olympic Art Competitions

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
arrow
olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

Getty Images

As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

Getty Images

You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

Getty Images

It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios