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Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924

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Over the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look back at the fine art competitions that originated in ancient Greece and were revived as part of the modern Olympics from 1912 to 1948.

Antwerp Opening Ceremonies, 1920/

As he prepared for the 1916 Olympic Games, International Olympic Committee president Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped to build off the relative success of the art competitions at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Then came World War I.

Even as the situation in Europe worsened, Coubertin remained optimistic that the Games, to be held in Berlin, would proceed as scheduled. The ancient Olympic Games coincided with the “Ekecheiria,” or laying down of arms, and Coubertin wanted to believe that the modern Olympics could have the same peace-making effect. To Coubertin’s dismay, the Triple Entente and Central Powers had no intention of pausing their war to stage an Olympics, even one that was to include art competitions.

On to Antwerp

Antwerp was selected to host the 1920 Games. With the war ending less than two years before the opening ceremonies, the Olympics would once again be planned on a tight schedule. In the invitation he drafted for the Games, Belgian IOC member Henry Baillet Latour called specific attention to the art competitions, perhaps as a favor to Coubertin. “We hope that you will well want to insist to the Olympic Committee of your country that a large advertisement is published regarding the regulations of the various contests in order to obtain, on behalf of your artists, a participation that is brilliant and numerous.”

Let the Games Begin

Coubertin’s five Olympic rings made their debut at the Games on a flag in Antwerp’s unfinished stadium in 1920. Considering that Belgium was in ruins—according to Richard Stanton’s The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, the official program for the Games listed battlefields to visit—the Belgian Olympic Committee did a fine job. In addition to the art competitions, which once again featured five categories, visitors to the Games were treated to a pair of Belgian art exhibitions at the Royal Museum of Antwerp.

Missing History and Medalists

Not much is known about the art competition at the 1920 Games, as the official report was incomplete and published several years after the closing ceremonies. According to Stanton, artists from 18 countries submitted works. The judges were stingy, just as they were in Stockholm, and none of the entries in the Painting and Architecture categories were deemed gold medal-worthy. Of the 11 medals awarded for the art competition, six went to Belgians.

The End of an Era and Plans for Paris

In 1922, Coubertin announced his plan to retire after the 1924 Games, which were to be held in Paris. Members of the French Olympic Committee were determined to honor their countryman’s contributions to the Olympic movement. A five-man committee was formed to focus specifically on the art competitions at the 1924 Games. Committee members solicited advice on ways to improve the competition from arts organizations throughout France, and promoted the events to foreign ambassadors working in Paris.

New Regulations

The guidelines for each of the five events were revised for the 1924 Games based on feedback the committee received. While the new guidelines were more thorough than they were in Antwerp and Stockholm, they weren’t especially restrictive. Some additions were made to protect the IOC, such as this one: “Whatever is the cause or the extent of damage, the Commission of Arts and Foreign Relations of the Olympic Games will not, in any case, be responsible for fires, fights, losses or other accidents to which the exhibited works may be exposed.” Other new regulations made judging the competitions more manageable. For instance, entries in the literature competitions could not exceed 1,000 verses or 20,000 words for prose, while musical performances were limited to one hour.

Impressive Participation and Final Remarks

For the first time in modern Olympic history, the art competition attracted international attention. Artists from 23 countries submitted 283 works, of which 189 were accepted and displayed in four rooms of the Grand Palace. Among the medal winners was the brother of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Jack B. Yeats won the silver medal in the Painting and Graphic Arts competition for his “Natation.”

In his final Olympic address as IOC president, Coubertin reiterated his belief that art and athletics be united. “There is need for something else besides athleticism and sport, we want the presence of national genius, the collaboration of the Muses, the cult of beauty, all the display pertaining to the strong symbolism incarnate in the past by the Olympic Games and which must continue to be represented in our modern times.”

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The New Single-Medal Countries (and Two That Left the List)
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A few weeks ago, we gave you 21 countries that have only won a single Olympic medal. Now that the London Games are through, it's time to update our list with the countries that netted their first-ever medal this summer, and the two countries that have now moved into multiple medal territory.

First-time medals


Bahrain thought it had taken home its first medal in 2008, but runner Rashid Ramzi saw his gold medal in the men's 1,500 stripped a year later because of a doping violation. By taking the bronze in London in the women's 1,500 meter run, Maryam Yusuf Jamal has now finally ended the country's drought. Jamal was born in Ethiopia but fled and sought asylum in several countries before landing in Bahrain. She had also competed in the 2008 Olympics, where she placed fifth in the same event.


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Runner Nijel Amos won silver in the men's 800 meter, with the 18-year-old taking home the country's first medal after eight appearances. Fellow runner Amantle Montsho was also in contention for a medal in the women's 400 meter, but ultimately placed fourth.


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Pavlos Kontides was responsible for Cyprus' first medal when he took the bronze in men's laser sailing. Cyprus has been competing in every Olympics as an independent nation since 1980 and came close to a medal in 2008, when shooter Antonis Nikolaidis just missed the chance at a bronze in a shoot-off. Kontides told reporters that he guessed he "wrote [his] name in Cyprus sport in golden letters" and even got a personal phone call from the country's president after his medal was guaranteed.


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With a silver in taekwando, Anthony Obame became the first Gabonese athlete to medal. And while Obame was pleased with his achievement, he was frustrated about coming so close to gold -- he was leading Italian Carlo Molfetta in the closing minute of the final match, but ended up losing on a judge's decision after Molfetta tied it up.


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Grenada ended its medal drought in impressive fashion, with runner Kirani James taking the gold in the men's 400 meter with a 2012 world-leading record 43.94-second time. James, who in 2011 became the youngest world champion in the 400-meter at age 18, also made headlines in London when he exchanged bibs with Oscar Pistorius after their semifinal heat out of respect for the double-amputee's work.


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Erick Barrondo secured Guatemala's first medal with a silver in the men's 20-kilometer racewalk. Barrondo, who used to be a middle-distance runner before a knee injury directed him to racewalking, said he hoped his medal would inspire the nation's youth to stay away from gang violence and instead pursue athletics. In recognition of his medal, the Guatemalan legislature voted unanimously to make him a Knight of the Order of the Sovereign Congress and award him $64,000.


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Although Montenegrin athletes had won medals before, the country was only allowed to compete on its own starting in 2008, after winning independence from Serbia in 2006. This year, the country's women's handball team rallied the nation by winning a silver medal. The medal match actually marked the end of the career for handball star Bojana Popovic and teammate Maja Savic. And it's a good thing the women buoyed the nation's spirits -- there was widespread disappointment after the country's water polo team was bounced in the semifinals by Croatia.

New Multiple Medal Winners


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Four years after taking home the country's first ever medal, Afghan sports hero Rohullah Nikpai (above) doubled the medal count by winning a bronze in taekwando (he had also won a bronze in 2008). A second taekwando competitor from Afghanistan, Nesar Ahmad Bahawi, placed 5th in a higher weight class, despite competing in his final match with injuries that landed him in the hospital immediately afterwards.


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After some concern that Kuwait wouldn't even be able to send a delegation (the IOC had ruled that any Kuwaiti athlete would have to compete under the Olympic flag because of political interference in Kuwait, but overturned the ruling in July), the country added to its medal count. The victor was the same as in 2000 -- shooter Fehaid Al Deehani, who won the bronze in men's trap shooting. Al Deehani, who also won a bronze in 2000, is identified in his Olympics profile as a public servant, with the appropriate hobby of "hunting."

The rest of the single-medal countries

Barbados * Bermuda * Burundi * Djibouti * Eritrea * Guyana * Iraq * Ivory Coast * Republic of Macedonia * Mauritius * Netherlands Antilles * Niger * Paraguay * Senegal * Sudan * Togo * Tonga * United Arab Emirates * Virgin Islands

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Scenes From the 1908 London Olympic Marathon
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In honor of today's Olympic marathon, here's a look back at the origin of the race, plus an explanation of the whole ".2" business.

Olympic Marathon, 1908 London Games/

In 490 BC, a soldier named Pheidippides supposedly ran from the battlefield at Marathon to the city of Athens to alert the troops of a Greek victory. He then died of exhaustion, becoming the first of the estimated eight-per-1,000,000 marathon-related casualties.

While some scholars argue that the story of Pheidippides is merely historical myth, he does appear in a number of incidents in recorded history. Herodotus mentions a professional running courier named Pheidippides in his account of the Battle of Marathon, but says he ran from Athens to Sparta. Other historical accounts by Plutarch and Lucian in the 1st and 2nd centuries, respectively, tell the story of a runner by a different name who ran from Marathon to Athens.

Olympic Marathon, 1908 London Games/Getty Images

Our modern understanding of the figure comes from the 1878 poem “Pheidippides” by Robert Browning, which was most likely a composite of the runner mentioned by Herodotus and that of the two latter historians.

The modern marathon is entirely a creation of the organizers of the inaugural Athens Olympics in 1896, who used Pheidippides' legend as inspiration for a headline-grabbing gimmick. Runners followed a 24.85-mile (40-km) route beginning in Marathon and ending at the site of a stadium used in ancient times. This course was repeated in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and again in 2010 when 10,000 runners commemorated the 2,500th anniversary of Pheidippides’ trek. Cartographers and historians now theorize that his run was actually closer to 20 miles.

Why Is the Modern Marathon 26.2 Miles?

The 1908 Summer Games were initially awarded to Rome. There was concern that Italy wouldn’t be able to host the Olympics due to economic problems, but when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 1906 and the country needed to rebuild the ravaged area, the Italian government requested that the Games be relocated. London took on the challenge of setting up shop on short notice, and subsequently changed the marathon forever.

The British Royal Family wanted the race to begin beneath the windows of the nursery at Windsor Castle and finish opposite the royal viewing box at the Olympic stadium. A few hundred yards were tacked on to accommodate the request, and the marathon would later be standardized at that distance—26 miles and 385 yards.

More Photos From the 1908 London Olympic Marathon

Doctors examine athletes before the race.

Runners enter Windsor Castle for the start of the 1908 Olympic Marathon. Getty Images

And they're off! Getty Images

Spectators climb trees in Wormwood Scrubs for a better view. Getty Images

Dorando Pietri of Italy is leading as he approaches the end of the race. Getty Images

Dorando Pietri, on the verge of collapse, is helped across the finish line. He was subsequently disqualified. Getty Images

U.S. athlete Johnny Hayes finished second, but was declared the winner. Getty Images

Hayes is carried by teammates after his victory. Getty Images

Pietri of Italy is taken away in a stretcher. Getty Images

Queen Alexandra presents Pietri a special Gold Cup after he was disqualified. Getty Images

Pietri and his Gold Cup. Getty Images

Johnny Hayes (left) and Dorando Pietri. Getty Images


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