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Art as a legacy of the Olympic Games


The first ancient Games were the Pythian Games held at Delphi to honour Apollo. They consisted only of competitions in music, dance, drama and poetry.

It wasn’t until 776 BC that King Pelops (who gave his name to the Peloponnese region) consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told to move the Games to Olympia. This was to stop the warring factions in the various Greek city states.

Here in Olympia, a short foot race was introduced. Years later other disciplines were added.

The Games were a very serious religious and cultural celebration to honour and appease the god Zeus. They were a great mix of ceremony sport philosophy poetry and art.

Throughout the centuries, great art was created at Olympia. Everything from painted amphora (vases) to the monumental statues in marble, bronze, ivory and gold. These were created by such sculptors as Phidias, Praxiteles, Myron and the painter Nicias.

The statue of Zeus by Phydias was nine metres high and made of marble, ivory and gold. It was placed in the temple which bore his name. Unfortunately, nothing has survived except for the description by Pausanias, recorder of the Games around 430BC.

The greatest example of Hellenistic sculpture to have survived is the beautiful sculpture of Hermes, “messenger of the gods” by Praxiteles which dates back to 330 BC.

This was excavated by German archaeologists in 1877 and caused a sensation. It had an immediate influence on late nineteenth century art inspiring a neo classical trend worldwide.

Some three centuries earlier in 1506, the group statue of Lacoon and his sons and the torso belvedere were both discovered in Rome. Both were from the Hellenistic period, and gave Michelangelo the inspiration to create some of the greatest works of the renaissance, which are known today throughout the world.

When Pierre de Coubertin was formulating his ideas for the revival of the Olympic Games, he insisted on a cultural programme to run alongside the sporting events. By so doing he made the Olympic Games a unique creation, distinct from any other major event.

Coubertin fought for the inclusion of contests for artistic endeavour and these were eventually introduced at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Coubertin himself won a medal for poetry, written under a pseudonym.

Musical composition, drawing and painting, sculpture, and even architectural design formed part of the contests but they were discontinued after the 1948 Olympics. This was partly because artists were considered “professional”, because they sold their work. Nowadays art is still part of the cultural programme but medals are no longer awarded.

The portrayal of the Olympics on film is another aspect of the artistic legacy.

In 1936, the German film maker Leni Riefenstahl made a black and white film of the Berlin Olympic Games. She was commissioned by Hitler because she was an artist and a woman. The Nazis planned to use the film as a propaganda tool which would emphasise the superiority of the Aryan race but Ms Riefenstahl had other ideas. She created a work of great beauty which transcended any political message. Many people still consider her film “Olympia” the definitive Olympic film. The finest ever made.

This was a ground breaking work. It was the first film to use 16 different cameras instead of one which was the norm even in Hollywood. All of the cameras were specially built to accommodate her vision, in particular those used for the underwater sequences. This had never been done before. Riefenstahl’s influence changed the entire future of cinematic art with this one movie.

Art remains important to the Olympic Movement. In 1982, I had an idea following the Falklands Conflict. Accompanying the forces was an official war artist. To send an artist to glorify death and destruction in a war zone was a concept I could not understand.

At the Olympic Games, I thought that an artist could glorify life and beauty at its utmost. This after all was what had been done by the Ancient Greeks.

I approached the British Olympic Association with the idea and after a few months, the late Don Anthony MBE called me to say that HRH The Princess Royal (BOA President) had agreed that I should become the first Olympic artist for Great Britain. It was the first such appointment anywhere in the world. As such, I visited the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, returned to the Olympic arena in Barcelona (1992) and have also been to Beijing and London. I would like to show you a brief audio presentation from the Olympics in Barcelona. My associates will agree with me, that once you are involved with the Olympic Movement, you cannot and do not want to leave.

APPENDIX 1: Dates for the introduction of events:

1st Olympiad - 776 BC Stade Race (Short foot-race)

14th » 724 BC Diaulos (Double length foot race)

15th » 720 BC Dolichos (Long distance foot race)

18th » 708 BC Pentathlon and Wrestling

23rd » 688 BC Boxing

25th » 680 BC Tethrippon (Four horse chariot race)

33rd » 648 BC Pankration (Type of all in wrestling) and horse race

37th » 632 BC Foot-race and wrestling for boys

38th » 628 BC Pentathlon for boys (Immediately discontinued)

41st » 616 BC Boxing for Boys

65th » 520 BC Race in armour

70th » 500 BC Apene (Mule cart race)

71st » 496 BC Calpe and Anabates (Race for mares)

84th Olympiad - 444 BC Apene and Calpe discontinued

93rd » 408 BC Synoris (Two horse chariot race)

96th » 396 BC Competitors for heralds and trumpeters

99th » 384 BC Chariot racing for teams of four colts

128th » 268 BC Chariot racing for teams of two colts

131st » 256 BC Race for colts

200th » 200 BC Pankration

APPENDIX 2: The programme of the ancient Games

Day One:

Morning: Swearing in ceremony for competitors and judges at the Bouleuterion (council house) before the altar and statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus of the oaths)

Contest for heralds and trumpeters held near the stadium entrance Boys running wrestling and boxing contest

Public and private prayers and sacrifices in the Altis

Consultation of Oracles

Afternoon: Orations by well known philosophers and recitals by poets and histo- rians

Day Two:

Morning: Procession into the hippodrome of all those competing there Chariot and Horse races

Afternoon: Pentathlon, discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling

Evening: Funeral rites in honour of the hero

Pelops Parade of victors round the altis. Communal feasting and singing of victory hymn

Day Three:

Morning: Procession of the judges (Hellanodikas) envoys from the Greek states, competitors in all events. Sacrifices were made around the altis and at the great altar in front of the temple of Zeus

Followed by the sacrifice of 100 oxen

Afternoon: Foot races

Evening: Public banquet in the Prytaneion

Day Four:

Morning: Wrestling

Midday: Boxing and the Pankration

Afternoon: Race in Armour

Day Five:

Procession of Victors to the temple of Hera where they are crowned with wreaths of wild olive by the Hellanodikai.

Followed by the phyllobolia when the victors are showered with leaves and flowers.

Feasting and celebrations.

Bibliography and references

Steven Bach, Life and Works of Leni Riefenstahl.

Kenneth Clark, The Nude.

C.M. Bowra, Classical Greece.

Yalouris A. & N., Olympia.

Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games.

WHITNEY Kevin, "Art as a legacy of the Olympic Games", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC ACADEMY, 53th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 11-25/6/2013), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2014, pp.145-149.

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Art as a legacy of the Olympic Games
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