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Olympic Art Competitions: The End

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We're 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.

In 1949, the International Olympic Committee met in Rome to discuss a variety of topics, including the future of the Olympic art competition. The 1952 Summer Games were scheduled for Helsinki and, at the time, there was no reason to doubt the art competition tradition that had been revived in 1912 would continue.

Amateurs vs. Professionals

One of the issues addressed at the 1949 meeting was the participation of professional artists in Olympic art competitions.

Countries were required to certify that their Olympic athletes were amateurs; should artists at the Games be held to the same standards? Several prominent members of the IOC believed so, arguing that artists who profited from winning a medal—an award increased the value of the art to would-be buyers—didn’t fit with the Olympic ideal. A measure was approved that banned the awarding of medals in the art competition, thereby rendering it no more than a glorified art exhibition.

Avery Brundage

In his book, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Richard Stanton suggests that the decision to eliminate the art competition came from the IOC’s Executive Committee, which counted among its ranks one particularly staunch supporter of the amateur ideal. American Avery Brundage, the committee’s vice president, won an honorable mention in the Literature category at the 1932 Games for his piece titled, “The Significance of Amateur Sport.” It was evident that Brundage thought there was some significance of amateur art, too.

Compromises Proposed

IOC members who weren’t present at the 1949 meeting, as well as artists, expressed their displeasure with the decision to turn the art competition into an exhibition by writing to IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer. Many argued that the art exhibitions would be a failure without professionals, a point with which Mayer did not disagree. Swiss artist A.W. Diggelmann proposed enacting a rule that artists could not sell medal-winning works on the open market, and instead had to donate them to their country’s Olympic committee. While he stopped short of overturning the 1949 decision, IOC President J. Sigfrid Edstrom agreed to appoint a special committee to revisit the issue.

Out of Time

After much debate and several more meetings, a vote was taken on the matter at a meeting in Vienna in May 1951. While the IOC members present voted unanimously to reinstate the art competitions for the 1952 Games, Von Frenckell, an IOC representative from Finland who did not attend the meeting, would soon rain on the parade. With only one year before the start of the Helsinki Games, Frenckell said Finland wouldn’t have enough time to prepare for a competition. “Since we are optimists,” Frenckell wrote, “we hope that the ones that wanted to take part in the competition will send their works to the exhibition, for which we will gladly give ‘honorable mention’ diplomas.” For the first time since 1908, there was no art competition at the Olympic Games.

The Aftermath

Brundage succeeded Edstrom as IOC President in late 1952. At an IOC meeting in Athens in 1954, Brundage, who remained opposed to reviving the art competition, proposed that host cities plan exhibitions that showcased the finest art of their country. “If we should return to Vienna, for example, we would hear the best music in the world,” Brundage said. “If one day we go to Russia, we would see the best ballets in the world.” Brundage’s proposal was adopted and adding art competitions to the Olympic program has not been seriously considered since.

Cultural Olympiad

For the 1992 Games, Barcelona’s organizing committee spent $50 million on a Cultural Olympiad, a four-year celebration of art and culture that began after the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Games. While small art exhibitions and cultural events had remained a part of the Olympic festivities since 1952, Barcelona’s efforts would raise the bar. The 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta featured 190 ticketed events and 23 exhibitions. As the New York Times noted, “visitors will be able to buy a package that might include the javelin throw, women’s basketball, the Atlanta Symphony and the Dallas Black Dance Theater.” As for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, London’s organizing committee boasts that more than 16 million people across the UK have taken part in or attended performances.
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On Monday, we’ll profile a few of the more interesting participants and medal winners in the Olympic art competitions from 1912-1948.

See Also: Olympic Art Competitions: 1916-1924, 1928-1932, 1936-1948

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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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