When There Were Arts Olympians





Probably few of the millions slumping in front of the flat-screen this week, skipping the gym to watch their bodily betters perform hair-raising feats of athletic prowess in the Vancouver slush, are aware that in the first half of the 20th century, the modern Olympics also included arts competitions.

The dream of uniting sport and art, as they were once paired in the original Greek Olympiads, was in fact central to the mission of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the godfather of the Games. The goal was “to reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple — Muscle and Mind,” the baron loftily announced to an organizing committee in an early attempt to get the idea off the ground. But while the first athletic competitions got under way in Athens in 1896, it was not until the Stockholm Games in 1912 that medals would be given for architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature....

In his appositely titled book “The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions,” Richard Stanton relates the details of this obscure byway of cultural history in enthusiastic prose. Who knew that Walter Winans, a Russian-born aristocrat who maintained United States citizenship despite living mostly abroad, was the only Olympian to win medals in both sporting and cultural competition in the same Olympiad? In the 1912 games he took home the silver for the United States in “Team Running Deer — Single Shot” (since eliminated, we believe) and the gold medal for sculpture for “An American Trotter.”...

The dubiousness of judging aesthetic achievement by committee has been a common subject for complaint ever since awards began proliferating like wildflowers in the last half-century. The highly politicized nature of international competition only added to the problem, as becomes blindingly clear when you scan the list of arts winners from the infamous 1936 Games in Berlin....


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