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Cultural Olympiads: 100 years of cultural legacy within the Olympic Games
This paper provides an overview of the historical evolution and legacy of the official Olympic cultural programme, now termed Cultural Olympiad, since its original inception by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and its first implementation in 1912, up to the latest editions of the Olympic Summer Games in London 2012.
A History of the Olympic Cultural Programme
Origins: The Ideal Role of Cultural Programming in the Olympic Games
The principle of holding an arts festival in parallel with the celebration of sporting competitions is embedded in the foundations of the Olympic Movement. In his ambition to establish a Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin sought to revive the ancient Greek tradition of quadrennial celebrations of athletics and the arts that had been held in Olympia from 776 BC to 395 AC. In the Ancient Games, athletes, philosophers, scholars, poets, musicians, sculptors and high-profile leaders displayed their talents, in what Coubertin called the spirit of Olympism. Olympism was often defined by Coubertin as the simultaneous training of the human body and the cultivation of the intellect and spirit, together viewed as manifestations of the harmoniously educated man. On this basis, Coubertin’s ambition was to create an environment in modern society where artists and athletes could, again, be mutually inspired. From this, it can be concluded that Coubertin brought the Olympic Games back to life hoping to develop an internationally recognised relationship between art and sport. In support of this ambition, the Olympic Charter establishes that “blending sport with culture and education” is a fundamental principle of Olympism (IOC 2011:10).
Coubertin’s ability to coordinate and attract the attention of critical decision makers around the world led to the re-birth of the Games in 1896 – Athens – and to their continuation in 1900 – Paris – and 1904 – St Louis1. Nevertheless, none of these Games incorporated arts activities alongside the sporting events. To change these circumstances, Coubertin convened a “Consultative conference on Art, Letters and Sport” at the Comedie Française in Paris, 1906. He invited artists, writers and sports experts to discuss how the arts could be integrated into the Modern Olympic Games. The invitation stated that the purpose of the meeting was to study “to what extent and in what form the arts and letters could take part in the celebration of modern Olympic Games and become associated, in general, with the practice of sports, in order to profit from them and ennoble them” (Carl Diem Institute 1966:16). As a result of the conference and in order to ensure a clear association of the arts with sports, Coubertin established an arts competition, which became part of every Olympic Games celebration (Coubertin, cited in IOC 1997a:92). This competition was called the “Pentathlon of Muses” and would involve the awarding of medals in the categories of sculpture, painting, music, literature and architecture.
The organisation of the first “Pentathlon of Muses” was designated to a special commission set up by the Olympic Organising Committee of the host-city staging the first Games after the Conference, London 1908. Nevertheless, time constraints and disagreement over the programme contents led to its cancellation at the last minute (Burnosky 1994:21-22, Petersen 1989). Consequently, the idea of an Olympic arts competition was not implemented until the Stockholm Games in 1912.
From Competitions to Exhibitions in the Summer Games
Stockholm 1912 to London 1948: Olympic Arts Competitions
From 1912 in Stockholm until 1948 in London, arts competitions were organised in parallel to the sporting competitions and artists, like athletes, competed and won gold, silver and bronze medals (Good 1999, Stanton 2000). However, regulations and contest parameters changed considerably due to difficulties in defining the different competition sections and disagreement in defining the most appropriate subject for the works presented. Over the years, the competition’s sections changed from the five areas composing the “Pentathlon of Muses” to a long list of sub-categories. Moreover, the appropriate theme for Olympic artworks was also controversial, as it was discussed whether or not to restrict the entries to works inspired in or portraying sports activities. Initially, it was compulsory to present a sporting theme, but this proved difficult and limiting in areas other than architecture or design for sports buildings (Burnosky 1994:23). Also problematic was the non-universal or localised nature of the arts competitions, as most judges and competitors were European and it was very rare that non-western artists were awarded a medal (Burnosky 1994, Hanna 1999, Good 1999). Other problems were related to transport difficulties, inconsistent support from respective OCOGs and many limitations resulting from the regulation of amateurism in the Olympic Movement2. The latter implied that, as in the case of athletes at the time, the participation of professional artists could not be accepted. In an arts context this was particularly problematic because all artists were considered professional in their devotion to their vocation (Hanna 1999: 108, referring to an IOC document from the 44th IOC Session in Rome, 1949).
Hanna adds that perhaps most disappointing was the poor audience participation attracted by the arts competitions, “Cultural celebrations based on sport were increasingly irrelevant; people watch[ed] sport in real competitions, but their interest did not extend to sport in art” (ibid: 108). This was a remarkable set-back to the promotion of Coubertin’s ideals, as a major reason for holding cultural events alongside the sports competitions was to inspire discussion and the promotion of ideas among all Olympic participants and spectators.
In this context, it is interesting to see that, in contrast with other host cities where Olympic arts manifestations had played a minor role, the so-called “Nazi Games” of Berlin 1936 included a cultural festival of unprecedented dimensions for which an ambitious publicity campaign was created to ensure maximum recognition and participation.
The Berlin Games in 1936 offer one of the most ambitious examples of an Olympic art programme in this first period, which have been seen by many as evidence of culture and the arts being used for propaganda purposes – indeed, the Berlin Arts Committee programme was chaired by a representative of the Reich Ministry of Propaganda. The Games had been identified by the local host as an opportunity to promote the ideals of Nazi Germany and cultural activity was seen as a good vehicle to represent the supremacy of the Arian race and Western civilisation. Cultural innovations brought in at the Berlin Games included the first Olympic torch relay, travelling from Olympia Greece to the Berlin stadium, and the first artist-led Olympic film, Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”. These cultural manifestations became as central to the Olympic experience as the sport competitions, both during Games time in their symbolic reconstruction for decades to come. From a cultural programming point of view, the most interesting aspect of this particular experience is the evidence that the Games were used as a mechanism to make Germany’s national cultural policy discourse more visible internationally, and the use of artistic expression as a platform to contextualise the Games and use them for propaganda purposes, far beyond simple sport representation.
The 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games and related arts competitions were not held because of World War II. When the Games were re-established in London 1948, the organising committee succeeded in paralleling the sports with arts competitions. Remarkably, after the cultural programme ended, the British Fine Arts Committee that had been set up on occasion of the Games compiled a “report of juror’s suggestions for future arts contests” (Good 1998:33). This was intended for use as a guide to organising future arts competitions. Good (1998) explains that “the recommendations included reducing the number of arts categories” and concluded that the “interest in the exhibitions would be greater if they were more closely linked up with the Games themselves and if a more intensive press campaign had been organised” (p. 22). By 1950, however, the problems and difficulties noted above were perceived to be far greater than the benefits and achievements brought by the Olympic art competitions. To review the situation, an extended discussion process took place within the IOC from 1949 in Rome to 1952 in Helsinki. As a result of this controversial process, which involved a detailed assessment of the “amateur” nature of Olympic contributions, it was decided that from 1952 on, the presence of the arts in the Olympics would take the form of cultural exhibitions and festivals instead of competitions.
Melbourne 1956 to Seoul 1988: Olympic Arts Exhibitions and Festivals
The first official Olympic arts festival was held at the Melbourne 1956 Games. The festival had two major components: one of visual arts and literature, and another one of music and drama. Hanna (1999: 76) describes that “exhibitions and festivals were staged simultaneously in the weeks leading up to and during the Games and featured local, national and international artists and performers”. A special book on Australian arts was published after the Games, entitled “The Arts Festival: a Guide to the Exhibition with Introductory Commentaries on the Arts in Australia”. The Official Report of the Melbourne Games concluded that “the change from a competition to a Festival was widely welcomed, since the Festival provided a significant commentary on Australia’s contribution to the Arts” (cited in Good 1998: 29).
This new stage in the Olympic cultural programme tradition brought opportunities as well as challenges for the development of local, national and international cultural policy. On the one hand, Games organisers had greater freedoms to define the purpose of such programmes and determine who should be presenting what type of work. On the other, eliminating its competitive nature led to divorcing the programme from strong national delegation following (and related patriotic sentiments), and this situation often resulted in lesser Olympic participants and audience engagement and lesser international focus. The programme was now mainly a platform for local cultural representation directed according to the specific interests of the host authorities, with much less of a direct involvement and regulations from the top Olympic structures.
Some Olympic host countries saw the programme as an important opportunity to make a statement about a point in their history, and as an opportunity to pro- file the host nation, far and beyond what was possible within the sporting arenas and the highly regulated Olympic ceremonies and protocol. Host cities became increasingly ambitious in their treatment of the arts festivals, progressively aligning them with the “growing arts agenda” that developed after the Second World War including an aspiration to address “audience development, access, and inclusion” (Gold and Revill 2007:73).
Mexico in 1968 provided one of the most ambitious festivals, spanning throughout one year and acting as a showcase, not only of the best international art at the time, but also the best of Mexican contemporary art as well as folklore and heritage. For many, the ambition and quality of the programme proved that Mexico may have been considered a country that was part of the developing world from an economic point of view, but was certainly at the avant-garde of the first world in terms of art and culture. Interestingly, Mexico viewed the cultural programme in a more holistic fashion than other Games hosts and, beyond the arts, incorporated discussions about education, science as well as advertising, design and communications. Montreal in 1976 also presented an innovative cultural programme, making a clear emphasis in the connections between art and sport and exploring the presentation of arts activity within sporting venues, in particular the main Olympic Park avenue and the areas surrounding the stadium.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, other areas where artists and related creative practitioners made major contributions were the design of banners and logos – what is now termed “the look of the Games”. The imagery for Mexico 1968, Tokyo 1964 and Munich 1972 are all exemplars of avant-garde visual design rather than simple marketing and branding exercises, which can be viewed as a foremost example of powerful cultural policy innovation emerging out of the Games. These elements of the Games were however, often not treated as part of the official cultural programme (Mexico 1968 was a notable exception), and subsequent editions of the Games (excepting Barcelona 1992 and Torino 2006) have failed to use these environments as an expression of advanced place-sensitive creative practice.
Barcelona 1992 to London 2012: Cultural Olympiads
Another stage in Olympic cultural programming was initiated with the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Bid, which proposed that the implementation of a Cultural Olympiad (a term already used in Mexico 1968 amongst others) should in fact take place during the four years of the Olympiad – from the end of one Games edition to the start of the next. Barcelona’s Cultural Olympiad thus started in 1988, at the end of the Seoul Games, and evolved up to 1992 with a different thematic emphasis for each year. This ambitious decision can be explained by considering the organisers’ strategic intention to use the Games to improve the city’s urban landscape and assist in its international projection far beyond the Games staging period. Indeed, Barcelona 1992 has come to be remembered and portrayed by the international media as the Games that placed the city at the heart of the Olympic experience. The festive use of public space was key to its success, while it is less clear whether the official cultural programme, restricted as it was to traditional arts venues rather than establishing direct synergies with other Games activities, played a role within the Olympic city’s narrative (see Moragas 2001).
Regardless of the actual effectiveness of specific activities within the Cultural Olympiad, the four-year format has been maintained in subsequent summer Games editions. This has been on the initiative of respective host cities rather than an IOC directive, as there is no formal requirement to create a four year cultural programme. As noted later, the Winter Games have also grown their ambitions for the Cultural Olympiad and have presented the first full four-year Olympiad programme in the lead to Vancouver 2010. This last stage in Olympic cultural programme development has been characterised by two main phenomena. On the one hand, there has been a clearer alignment of the programme with local and national cultural policy ambitions than ever before, and set objectives have been in line with standard cultural event objectives across cultural, social and economic agendas. The most common cultural agenda involves using the Games period not only to expand sport audiences but also cultural and arts audiences, and using the event to advance local creative development aspirations. Social agendas involve using the event to improve community inclusion, expand access to marginal or deprived communities, strengthen local or national identity; and economic agendas involve advancing urban regeneration, repositioning cities, or growing cultural tourism (Garcia 2004a, 2004b, 2012). The kinds of political agendas that were common in previous periods have also been maintained, particularly for countries aspiring to overcome negative stereotypes related to their military past or human right issues, or for countries aspiring to present a more complex picture of their local identity, beyond fixed monocultural nation-state perceptions.
On the other hand, the branding tension in relation to the main Olympic programme of sporting activity has become increasingly apparent, and there have been varied attempts at establishing separate Cultural Olympiad or Olympic Arts Festival brands, with various degrees of success (Garcia 2001, 2012). The Cultural Olympiad of Athens 2004 provides an example of the extremes organisers have been ready to go to in order to establish a strong Olympic cultural programme identity and brand. The programme was given a prime position within the event hosting process, as the city celebrated the contribution of Greece and Greek heritage as the cradle of European civilization and the birthplace of the Olympic Games. The Cultural Olympiad was thus utilised as a platform to convey ancient Olympic values and claim ownership of the Games in ways not accessible to other Olympic hosts. This involved the promotion of the Olympic Truce3 as a particularly important component of the Olympiad and the establishment of a Cultural Olympiad Foundation in 1998 with backing from UNESCO, with the aim of becoming a permanent institution to coordinate Olympic cultural programming in the same way that the IOC coordinates the sporting programme.4 The programme was also framed by one of the most ambitious contemporary arts programme in Athens to that date, thus ensuring the projection of the city not just as heritage centre but also a hub for ongoing creativity and cultural innovation.
The Olympic programmes for Beijing 2008 and London 2012 also incorporated an ambitious Cultural Olympiad. In Beijing, this took the form of “Olympic Cultural Festivals” taking place over a month each year from 2003 to 2008 – so, over a six year period, and combining an elite arts programme in the capital with a community choral singing programme involving the whole of China5. In London, the Cultural Olympiad started at the end of September 2008 and involved a nation-wide programme of activities up to 2012, coordinated by thirteen specially appointed creative programmers operating in every UK nation and region, plus a high profile London 2012 Festival to take place over 12 weeks in the Olympic year.
Cultural programming at the Winter Games and Paralympic Games
The artistic programme of the Winter Games was not formally established until Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956 and was a minor affair. However, more ambitious cultural programmes comparable to the Summer Games began with Grenoble 1968, the same year that Mexico hosted the Summer Games and presented the most extensive cultural programme to date. In the three most recent Winter Games –Salt Lake City 2002, Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010– it is evident that the ambition of host cities to attract attention building on a cultural discourse has grown year upon year (see also Müller, Messing and Preuss 2006).
Given the smaller scale of operations at the Winter Games, there are interesting nuances that allow for different kinds of programming and growing differentiation from Summer Games protocols. This differentiation has evolved since Nagano 1998. A particularly relevant phenomenon from a cultural point of view is the emergence of the “medals plaza” as a distinct mixed-venue within the host city centre. This is a space where medals are awarded to athletes, thus extending and changing the ceremony that would normally take place within sport venues exclusively. The justification for this extension has been that winter sports take place mainly within mountains resorts away from any urban conurbation and thus limited people critical mass and festival atmosphere. The staging of a medals plaza as an additional Olympic venue allows organisers to re-constitute the city space each evening around a hallmark event. Integral to this ceremony each night is the programming of a range of other cultural activities. For instance, in Torino and Salt Lake City, it was typical for medals ceremonies to be followed by feature performances by international singers and musicians. This is one clear example in which the Winter Games has affected the Olympic protocol in a way that is conducive to more effective festival programming. Also in Torino 2006, there were clear connections made between the OCOG and the host city, particularly through the Look of the Games programme, where it was evident around the city that common ground had been found for collaborative programming (see Garcia and Miah 2007).
Innovation continues to occur at the Winter Games. For instance, the Cultural Olympiad of Vancouver 2010 lasted four years, a first for any Olympic Winter Games, and it became a visible element within the city’s dressing strategy, with dedicated flagpoles in the years leading to the Games and during the Games fort- night in 2010. Further, the launch of a Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition (CODE) ensured engagement with new technologies that resulted in new creative art form interventions as well as innovative ways to engage disperse communities through- out Canada, which were invited to reflect on their sense of identity via social media environments and share them within a dedicated online platform, Canada CODE. This expansion of the cultural dimensions of Olympic programming reinforces the view that it is becoming more and more central to local host ambitions and their projections to ensure a Games legacy.
With regard to the Paralympic Games, its cultural programme has evolved slowly over the years and has received even less attention than the Olympic cultural programme. However, this trend has changed since Sydney 2000, which was the first Games to provide the same team to manage the official Olympic and Paralympic cultural programme. Further, in the wake of Sydney 2000, a series of agreements between the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have resulted in ever closer synergies between the two Games, including the decision to establish a single organising committee for both Games (Brittain 2010:2930) which effectively means that all key programmes are organised under the same operational framework. In the context of London 2012, the team responsible for the cultural programme have committed to expanding such organisational synergies into an all-encompassing Games cultural policy narrative, where there is no distinction between Olympic and Paralympic cultural activity. Indeed, the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad incorporates a celebration of long established UK dis- ability arts organisations as part of its four year national programme and a range of regional cultural programmes have placed an emphasis on presenting activity that questions the notion of “normality” as a way of bridging the gap between perceptions of “abled” or “disabled” bodies and the work they can engage with, be it in the realm of sports or arts6 . Further, the Games-time cultural programme, named London 2012 Festival, spans over both Olympic and Paralympic fort- nights without interruption, thus acting as one of the key symbolic bridges between both events. The sharing of a common team and a single programme of activity is critical since most other Games programmes, from the sport competitions to symbolic events such as the torch relay or the ceremonies, follow a very different planning and delivery cycle. Indeed, this places the official cultural programme in a very central and significant position to create additional synergies between the two Games, an aspiration that is becoming increasingly important to the Olympic Movement7.
Conclusion: The ongoing cultural legacies of the Olympic Games
After more than 100 years of cultural programming at the Olympic Games, it is apparent that the Cultural Olympiad, in its many shapes and forms, has made a major contribution to the Games experience which has resulted in important legacies for the arts and culture world, respective host cities as well as the Olympic Movement at large.
For the arts world, two examples of unquestionable legacies are the defining influence on approaches to film making (e.g. the film Olympia, in Berlin 1936), or graphic design (the original look of the Games in Mexico 1968). For respective host cities, important legacies have been the contribution to positioning places that were previously seen as secondary from a cultural tourism point of view into leading cultural and creative centres. This has been the case in Barcelona 1992, Sydney 2000 or Torino 2006, which benefited from ambitious public art programmes and innovative –or in the case of Sydney, unprecedented– showcases of their local and indigenous artists in the context of their Games. In other cases, the Cultural Olympiad has helped expand the positioning of cities, not just for their heritage or natural beauty, but also as centres of innovation in the contemporary arts scene and creative industries (e.g. Athens 2004, Vancouver 2010). Further, the Cultural Olympiad has pushed already widely recognised world cultural centres to become more inclusive and diverse in their approach to programming and, in some cases, to explore new ways to better connect with the rest of their respective countries (e.g. Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2012 and, particularly, London 2012).
Finally, for the Olympic Movement, an important contribution and ongoing legacy is the demonstration that sporting competitions need to operate within a meaningful context that reflects local identities and gives a voice to host communities, as well as open the doors for international exchange. The flexibility of the Cultural Olympiad in terms of programming content as well as geographical location and time spread is an important complement to the tightly framed fortnight of elite sport competitions so that as broad a range of people have the chance to engage in the Games experience as direct participants in events, rather than just spectators. Further, the Cultural Olympiad offers one of the best platforms to explore the ideals of the Olympic Movement from a grassroots level. Despite the fact that Ceremonies and Torch Relay attract greater media attention and are clearly the most iconic cultural dimensions of the Games, the Cultural Olympiad provides an additional platform for the exploration of key concepts and, in part thanks to it being under less pressure by the media and commercial interests (see Garcia 2012), it can bring greater opportunities for risk taking and avant-garde thinking for some of the more complex areas of aspiration of the Movement, such as the Olympic Truce. With the establishment of the Youth Olympic Games, an opportunity has emerged to re-think ways of fully integrating the ideal of blending sport with culture and education, and the Cultural Olympiad is being used as a more central and defining part of the Games experience than has been possible for the other Games. This opens the door to make the next 100 years a platform for even greater Games cultural legacies.
* Dr Beatriz Garcia is Head of Research at the Institute of Cultural Capital, a strategic collaboration between Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores University. She is a Senior Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. See www.beatrizgarcia.net; www.iccliverpool.ac.uk; www. culturalolympics.org.uk
1. Yet, Coubertin was not the first to attempt a revival of the Olympics in the 19th Century. For further details and suggestions for why other attempts did not flourish see Georgiadis (1998).
2. In the original conception of the Olympic Games, a key criteria for inclusion as an Olympic competitor was the need to be an amateur athlete, that is, not to be a full time professional and compete in sport for financial or commercial gain. This rule was also applied to the arts competition, and caused controversy as it became a challenge to attract artworks of the right quality if contributors could not be professional artists. Avery Brundage, was elected as IOC president in 1952 and was strongly opposed to any form of professionalism in the Olympic Games. His views prevailed during the lengthy revision of Olympic Arts Competitions formats and priorities that took place between 1949 and 1952 and led to their replacement by Arts Exhibitions.
3. The “Olympic Truce” is the principle of stopping all wars for the duration of the Olympic Games, a notion that was originally implemented during the Ancient Olympic Games to ensure the safe passage of all athletes. See: http://www.olympictruce.org/
4. See: http://www.cultural-olympiad.org.gr/
5. See: http://en.beijing2008.cn/culture/festivals/ and Garcia 2008.
6. At a national level, London 2012 has established the Unlimited programme, dedicated to celebrating disability arts throughout the Olympiad (see: http://tinyurl.com/3pcg5xo ).
7. In Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010, certain aspects of the sports programme were co-programmed as well between the Olympic and Paralympic organising committees, perhaps indicating some additional advancement towards merging activities and modus operandi.
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