30th June 2012 - David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton
How to Watch the Olympics is David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton's indespensible guide to the Games, taking you through all you need to know about unfamiliar sports like archery, slalom canoeing and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as popular favourites like athletics, tennis and cycling.
In the second of a weekly series of blogs, David and Johnny look at how well the vision of the Games' founder, Baron de Coubertin, of sport as another branch of culture has been fuliflled through the Cultural Olympiad.
The last week has seen the launch of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. For all the grandeur of the name it is, in essence, a couple of months of festivals, odd arts events and concerts, all very, very loosely themed on the games. If you think it all slightly bizarre then consider the 1948 London games when a papier-mache model of a planned ski jumping centre in Norway could win a gold medal. This was the truly bizarre - the predecessor of the Cultural Olympiad known as the Olympic Artistic Competitions.
Baron de Coubertin, the impresario that conjured the modern Olympics into being, had always insisted that sport was part of a wider culture not something that stood alone. Sport was entwined with the arts rather that its opposite. He had, therefore, always imagined that the sporting competition at the games would be complemented by artistic competitions.
In 1912 in Stockholm he got what he wanted with medals being awarded for architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture all with a sporting theme. In fact the Baron was so enthusiastic about this side of the Olympics that under his well-known pseudonym - Georges Hohrod and M Eschbach - he entered the poetry competition and won the gold medal what his very own 'Ode to Sport'. Originally written in French, the translation opens:
O Sport, pleasure of the Gods,
essence of life, you appeared suddenly
in the midst of the grey clearing
which writhes with the drudgery of
modern existence, like the radiant
messenger of a past age, when
mankind still smiled.
If you insist, the other nine stanzas or so can be read here. It makes one shudder to think what the bronze medal poem sounded like.
Over the next forty years the competitions proved to be a very mixed bag. In Paris in 1924 they attracted thousands of entries, in other years so few and of such poor quality that the judges felt the best entrants merited no more than a bronze and left the gold and silver medals unclaimed. By 1954 it was apparent to all and sundry that the competitors were, exclusively professionals and given that professionals were still excluded from the sporting part of the show it seemed odd that they should be allowed into artistic competitions, Looking for a chance to kill the whole thing off the International Olympic Committee made Helsinki 1952 the last medal event for the arts - and in 1956 the whole show was replaced by a non-competitive cultural programme.
Read David and Johnny's blog from last week on Olympic opening ceremonies
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