It was once possible to get an Olympic medal for art, according to an article in The Atlantic this week. From 1912 -1948, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded in five categories of art: architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music.
Actually, these modern Olympic competitions were surely inspired by the original Olympiads of ancient Greece. In addition to exercies like running, leaping, wrestling, boxing, and throwing the javelin, the games also included contests in “music, poetry, and eloquence,” according to my old friend, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Chapter XX, “Olympic and Other Games”).
The arts were, in fact, so esteemed in ancient Greece that poets were privileged to reside alongside gods, warriors, and holy priests in the Elysian Fields, that most upscale of all neighborhoods in Hades. (You can tell a lot about a culture’s values by how their afterlife is depicted.)
So why were the Olympic arts competitions done away with? The Atlantic article cites the clash between the Olympics’ amateurs-only participation requirement and the fact that practically all of the arts entrants were professionals. Beginning with the 1956 Games, the arts have instead been showcased in a Cultural Olympiad that runs roughly at the same time as the Olympic Games.
The London 2012 Festival began June 21st and extends through September 9th.