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The Cultural Olympiad as a platform for Cultural Diplomacy and Representation

Sport Diplomacy

The Cultural Olympiad as a platform for Cultural Diplomacy and Representation


Cultural diplomacy as discourse and practice looms large today in both cultural policy studies and international relations. In effect, the term cultural diplomacy is very widely used, so much so that it has become a floating signifier, commonly deployed by foreign policy establishments and the arts and culture sector alike. Many of the ways in which the term itself is used go well beyond its original meaning, namely the processes that occur when formal diplomats, operating at the service and in the name of their governments, use cultural resources to help advance national interests. Earlier, analysts made a distinction between such governmentally driven cultural practice and the far less instrumental processes of international cultural relations, which are still based on flows of cultural exchange that take place naturally and organically, without government intervention.
While ever increasing numbers of political scientists and cultural analysts are researching cultural diplomacy, their attention is directed mainly at phenomena and processes taking place at the governmental level, between and among nation-states. However, special events such as the Olympic Games offer another significant platform for debating what we mean by cultural diplomacy.
This paper offers a reflection on the importance of artistic expression to advance cultural diplomacy, and the way this manifests in the context of the Olympic Games, in parallel to educational and sporting activities. Its main focus is a reflection on the value of the Cultural Olympiad for diplomacy and representation.

Background: Global aspirations and apolitical discourse

The Olympic Games are in an unrivalled position to promote particular images and narratives and make them recognisable worldwide. Projecting a global narrative about universal values was part of the Games mission for the founder, Pierre de Coubertin, but this mission has been appropriated by local hosts from the early days and extended in turn to showcase the place-specific values of cities and nations at a particular point in time (see the example of Berlin 1936, below). The Games thus tend to act not as much as a platform for universal representation but, rather, as culturally-specific representations aimed at a global audience. In the latter role it has become apparent that the contribution of politicians, advertisers and media editors towards official narratives need to be complemented by a critically-informed lens capable of bringing to the fore the concerns of local populations, while fitting in with the event’s festive framework. Kurin (2004) refers to “cultural scholars” but, in the context of the mega-event, I would also add artists as another important voice for cultural mediation and interpretation which can balance the needs to remain critical while engaging in the festive context. The section below discusses the role of the official cultural programme as an avenue to bring in scholars and artists to shape Olympic narratives.

The Olympic cultural programme as a platform for cultural diplomacy

The hosting of the Olympic Games incorporates well-known and extensively mediated cultural manifestations, namely the opening and closing ceremonies and the torch relay, all of which are heavily codified and regulated within IOC manuals as defining embodiments of Olympic ritual and protocol. In addition, the IOC also requires host cities to host a separate cultural programme, most often termed a Cultural Olympiad, which does not come with an associated manual and offers, instead, an opportunity for full appropriation and definition by respective hosts. In this paper, the reference to cultural programme relates to this later instance.
Certainly, an entry point to discussions about cultural representation at the Games is provided by examining the content of Olympic opening ceremonies, considered to be the single media event gathering the largest simultaneous global audience of them all (Tomlinson 1996, Hogan 2003). The opening ceremony
acts as a platform to abridge the cultural narratives of host nation and host city, allowing the global media to digest and interpret them in what is considered
to be a once in a lifetime chance for global projection. These ceremonies thus become iconic moments that can define the international perception of the
Games host nation. For instance, in Beijing 2008, the 2008 military drummers became synonymous with China’s power and efficiency at a time when the country was emerging as a global super power (Chen et al. 2012).
However, the approach to staging these ceremonies does not allow for an in-depth negotiation with local or national cultural stakeholders, nor marked integration with established cultural policies (see Forsyth 2002). Instead, they are often driven by a high-profile artistic director or team who will bring a singular vision to the content. Furthermore, they have become one of the most secretive elements of the Games hosting process, the currency of which is partly defined by their surprise value. They are also almost exclusively conceived to operate as a broadcast spectacle, thus dictated by the needs of global television1. In contrast, the official Olympic cultural programme, which has rarely achieved widespread media attention, becomes a platform for day-to-day negotiations and one of the few opportunities for some openness and inclusion leading to alternative narrative projections within the Games hosting process.

Key moments

Over the years, there have been some key moments of cultural representation within the Olympic Games that have emerged out of the cultural programme. What makes these moments distinct is the direct involvement of artists and cultural scholars who bring a historically informed and creative interpretation of the Games experience. This provides a marked contrast with the kind of representation statements emerging out of the sporting actions themselves –which tend to be interpreted exclusively by sport journalists; the commercial narrative produced by the Games corporate sponsors, and the narrative of local organisers and funders. While the latter commonly leads to standardised messages emphasising the popular jargon of the day, the intervention of artists and scholars provides an opportunity to depart from generalist and formulaic narratives to instead discover or shape future trends.
The range of moments selected here includes historically controversial and logistically unsuccessful examples as well as cases broadly viewed as a full achievement. They include top-down government-led commissions as well as community-led interventions aimed at achieving social change. They range from overtly political to subtle socio-cultural statements involving a wide array of artistic practice, from film, to graphic design, public art, theatre, open air performance or digital media. They all share a capacity to give rise to iconic statements, recognisable by large sections of the local and national population and, in some cases, reaching out as international exemplars. They can all be considered defining examples of cultural representation at Games time.

Berlin 1936: Culture and art as propaganda

One of the earliest –and most dramatic– examples of an artist’s contribution to iconic cultural representation during the Olympic Games emerges out of the controversial Berlin 1936 Games. Labelled as the Nazi Olympics due to them being hosted under Adolf Hitler’s chancellorship and presenting clear marks of Nazi propaganda in their staging, these were the first Games to fully realise the potential of the Olympic cultural programme as a platform for cultural representation (Heinze 2005, 32). From an emphasis on spectacular architecture, to the first extensive programme for dressing of the city with a unified visual identity, and the creation of new Olympic rituals (the torch relay), this edition of the Games is full of iconic moments. Such moments were created in order to highlight Germany’s cultural supremacy2, but the techniques involved in their staging have been re-appropriated in subsequent Games in order to advance the internationalist agenda of the Olympic Movement.
The most iconic cultural product emerging out of this edition of the Games was the film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was commissioned by the Third Reich to produce the definitive film of the Berlin Games. The end result is a film that made an unprecedented use of technology to showcase aesthetics and meaning. Zisimopoulou and Fragkiadakis (2011) note that, Olympia reconstructs Nazi space in time and forms a paragon of Nazi international propaganda in an impeccable aesthetic and style that originates from ancient Greek surviving predominating ideals.
… Leni Riefenstahl creates an idealized architectural propaganda space of persuasion, filming events and bodies as architectural phenomena in a neo-classical stone background. The film of the 1936 Olympics is indeed the outcome of the interaction of power, architecture, media, beauty and aesthetics in … western culture. (p. 169)
Despite heavy criticisms about its propaganda motivations, the film is praised as a piece of art that has influenced approaches to film making for generations to come and defined modern sport photography. The involvement of an artist in the production of the ultimate cultural product of these Games thus offers a dual platform for representation: on the one hand, its implicit political message, which has informed debate on the Nazi ideology; on the other, its aesthetics and supporting technological advancements, which have redefined photography and filmmaking and also shaped perceptions of Germany’s cultural and artistic standing at the time.

Mexico 1968: Ahead of global artistic trends

Mexico in 1968 provides perhaps the best example of a cultural programme aimed at challenging pre-conceptions of the host nation and giving added credibility to an Olympic project which was otherwise doubted on by local and international commentators. Thus, rather than a marginal add-on as had been the case for most of the preceding editions (excepting Berlin), the programme was central to the Games narrative. The organising committee embarked on the most ambitious cultural programme to that date, lasting a whole year and documented extensively through their official final Games reports3. The Cultural Olympiad emphasised international connections and youth, it broke with traditional artistic boundaries by incorporating programmes on design, advertising, television and science (from genetics and biology, to nuclear energy and outer space). Overall, the programme was a clear attempt at projecting Mexico as a sophisticated, outward looking cultural and creative centre. It also showcased its folklore and traditions but ensuring that such local roots were viewed through a contemporary lens and connected with broader international trends, so as to place Mexico on the global stage. It was also essential to present Mexico as a bridge-building nation, as discussed in more detail later. As remarked by Zolov (2004), the programme presented a … vision of Mexico in which… international traditions demonstrated profound tolerance of political difference while … indigenous cultural traditions were framed by and interfaced seamlessly with a forward-looking embrace of modern values. (p. 170)
The Cultural Olympiad was seen as a mark of maturity for Mexico. Zolov quotes the work of Rodriguez Kuri who notes that “[w]ith the Cultural Olympiad there is no promotional or celebratory trip, nor is this a manifestation of the desire – always hysterical, Freud dixit – to convince the others”. In other words, Zolov (2004) adds,
the aesthetic and discursive aspects of preparation for the Olympics suggested a mature modernity, one no longer driven by the exigency of convincing the “other” … of Mexican capabilities…. [T]he celebration of the Olympics reflected a fundamental confidence in the nation’s material accomplishments and sense of cosmopolitan belonging. (p. 162)
An important cultural legacy from the programme was the advancement made in terms of graphic design. It is within the 1968 visual identity programme that we can appreciate the perfect fusion of local folklore and international avantgarde, and Mexico’s confidence capturing mainstream media attention while remaining ahead of the trends. The comprehensive graphic design campaign ranged from the Games logo to the most extensive city dressing programme since Berlin 1936, and also involved a distinctive approach to staff uniform design which, Zolov argues, contributed to another core narrative for Mexico 1968: the “liberated” Mexican woman (2004, 177-8). The most remarkable attribute of the city look, not attempted since, was the decision to highlight a universal symbol, the dove of peace, rather than any local icon. Zolov remarks that the Mexico dove has become iconic in its own right, adding up to the other two most famous representations, by Picasso or as depiction of the “Holy Spirit” (2004, 171). It is quite telling that Mexico’s dove of peace is also considered the first Games ‘mascot’, as it clearly represents a sophisticated, while popular, icon, in stark contrast with the bland and infantilised look of most mascots since. The appropriation of the notion of ‘peace’ as a visual identity icon can also be considered a particularly subtle opportunity for political positioning – in this case, representing Mexico as a bridge-building nation. The message was prominent throughout the Games lead up, supported by the pervasive slogan “Everything is Possible in Peace” (Organising Committee of the Games of the XIX Olympiad 1969, 732).
The cultural Olympiad captured the imagination of the media as well as the local community and intellectual elites. It was hailed a great success and the best platform to overcome any concerns about Mexico’s capacity to host the Games. However, youth unrest was on the rise and culminated on the eve of the Games with the massacre of unarmed protesters at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, which, from an international point of view, has become the most dominant part of this Games political narrative. In this context, a very telling factor, which epitomises the dual role played by the cultural programme as both officially sanctioned and fringe Olympic narrative is that the ‘Cultural Olympiad directly incorporated many of the same intellectuals, artists, and even students who would later join the protest movement in denouncing the government’ (Zolov 2004, 187). This is thus indicative of the programme’s capacity to retain credibility amongst the intellectual classes and involve critical voices while trying to shape and inform the Games central narrative. It is when managing to play this dual role – a platform for informed criticism while attempting to influence and, at times, change official narratives – that the cultural programme has provided its most valuable contribution to advance political cultural representation during Games time.

Barcelona 1992: The city at the heart of the Games

For Barcelona, the Games were an important opportunity to showcase contemporary and democratic Spain. In particular, local hosts aspired to present Catalonia as a distinct nation and Barcelona as an open and cosmopolitan city.
This was to move beyond the classic Spain stereotypes promoted by the Franco regime, with its emphasis on Southern folklore such as flamenco and bullfighting.
This commitment was made apparent in the choice of a local cartoonist (Javier Mariscal) to design the Games Olympic and Paralympic mascot which, diverting from the previous editions of the Games (Moscow, Los Angeles and Seoul, all promoting cuddly animals) projected a daring, quasi-abstract version of a pet that managed to fully encapsulate the distinct charisma of Barcelona.
The organisers committed to presenting the largest cultural event to date, this time making it last the four years of the Olympiad. The Cultural Olympiad had great ambition, but was overshadowed by the success of the city itself, with its public spaces becoming the most celebrated embodiment of the open and dynamic Barcelona narrative (Monclus 2003). In this sense, perhaps one of the most relevant dimensions of the Cultural Olympiad as a contributor to the city’s cultural representation was its public art programme, including what have become iconic pieces around the city’s newly revitalised seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta. The underlying message for most key cultural artifacts presented in this Olympiad was that of a modern, European, urban hub – as opposed to the traditional, Iberian and often rural countryside representations of Spain.

Sydney 2000: Aboriginal reconciliation

The bidding process for Sydney 2000 represents one of the clearest recent examples of a covert political campaign via its cultural proposition. Like Barcelona, Sydney proposed a four-year Cultural Olympiad and prepared a separate cultural bid book to present its story. The city was competing with the then favourite, Beijing, in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre which highlighted ongoing human right abuses in China and put public opinion on edge. For Sydney and Australia, it was thus imperative to work on their own human right perception issues. The key issue to advance on was the treatment of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, followed by better recognition of its many ethnic communities. The cultural programme was the main vehicle to express Sydney’s commitment towards a more progressive agenda, and the key terms promoted at the heart of its bid cultural section were reconciliation and multiculturalism (Garcia 2012).
Meekison (2000) and Heinz Housel (2007) note how mainstream aspects of the 2000 Games narrative fell short of delivering a credible platform for Aboriginal representation, from the choice of logo (a stylised version of an Aboriginal boomerang) to the choice of opening ceremony narrative (seen through the eyes of a white little girl, embodying a young Australia for whom its Aboriginal communities are a remote source of fascination). Scholars have highlighted how these items were still presented through a white sense of aesthetics (ibid.), with little direct ownership from aboriginal groups. In contrast, the cultural programme provided an unprecedented platform for Aboriginal expression and occupation of the mainstream narrative in their own terms.
This was the major achievement of “The Festival of The Dreaming”, the first large-scale festival directed by and fully dedicated to contemporary aboriginal artists in Australia.
Meekison notes how,
The Festival of the Dreaming stands in contrast to other representations of Indigenous culture within [the organising committee for the Games]. First, it was under the direction of an Indigenous person. … [D]espite the awesome bureaucracy of SOCOG [the organising committee], Indigenous voices were able to come to the fore. And, in addition to the performances themselves, these voices were heard in newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, television interviews, and Festival specials on [national TV channels] SBS and ABC. (2000, 125)
National media reporting on the significance of this festival to place contemporary aboriginal culture at the very centre of Australia’s national and international arts agenda was extensive throughout 1996 and during the Olympic year in 2000. This stands in contrast to other Games related narratives and is again a clear example of the differences between the Cultural Olympiad and other iconic Olympic programmes in their capacity to protect local sensitivities and allow direct ownership by diverse communities. While Sydney’s cultural programme broke with many tokenistic conventions, the opening ceremony and Games merchandise failed to overcome established stereotypes. Given the lack of international media attention for this cultural programme, however, achievements in this area did not immediately reach out to international audiences. Australia’s cultural representation advancements have, instead, developed slowly over subsequent years, thanks to changes introduced within the country’s approach to cultural policy, which affords greater visibility and international touring support towards contemporary aboriginal and other ethnically diverse artistic groups.

Vancouver: Social media art + activism

By the time of Vancouver 2010, opportunities for cultural representation via a mega-event have been revolutionised. The advent of new technologies, the web 2.0 and social media generation has opened wide the channels for narrative construction and placed upside down the carefully developed framework for national and international Games broadcast intermediation. Although it is not possible to dismiss the importance of mainstream and official media narratives, many of the issues raised by Klausen and Moragas in the 1990s are being challenged and, in some cases, have been overcome.
As discussed by Miah & Garcia (2008) the rise of the ‘citizen journalist’ provides an important way forward for diverse and community-led cultural representation and opens up many avenues to document and share aspects of the Games, such as the cultural programme, that had struggled to be part of the global media narrative. For Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad, the online digital dimension was considered essential, not only for the sharing of messages but for their creation. This was the basis for CODE (Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition), which included a central programme of renowned artists experimenting with technology, a web-based national programme to capture people’s views of themselves as Canadians, and the route into a wide range of partnerships with small media art groups4. The latter tested the limits of what could be considered official or fringe activity at the Games.
Grassroots organisations such as W2 in Vancouver, which were officially included in the Cultural Olympiad programme as a public art site, developed a parallel programme of meetings and community sessions highlighting the most controversial aspects of the Games hosting process: from the treatment of homeless people (a homeless camp was established just outside their venue and was the first thing any W2 international guests would notice) to the response by police to wider local demonstrations5. Throughout, the Vancouver Games were framed by extensive cultural, social and political activism with many notable contributors having links to the official cultural programme in their roles as artists and public intellectuals. Although the most politicised cultural activities taking place over this time have not become part of the official package collected and kept by the IOC as a record of the Cultural Olympiad, they are all easily found online and difficult to distinguish from officially branded Olympic culture. This is a clear case of the fringe infiltrating mainstream cultural narratives, and of the Olympic cultural programme opening the door to such growing linkages and synergies.

London: Culture as motor of economic growth… while changing the world?

London launched its Cultural Olympiad in 2008 and completed it with the London 2012 Festival, which has its own distinct look and feel. Since the bid stage, London’s narrative for the Games built extensively on the rhetoric of it being a world-class city, a hub for world leading creative industries and a gateway into the rest of the UK’s distinct cultural offer. This narrative brought strong economic undertones, presenting culture as the UK’s most desirable economic asset and the way forward at a time of global financial crisis. However, there were two other core underlying narratives: one around the ambition to drive social change by transforming perceptions of disability and providing greater opportunities for direct contributions from and access to activity by disabled communities; the other around investment in and celebration of youth, by focusing on the display of emerging talent and on presenting work that engages the new generation. The main London 2012 tagline, profiled throughout Olympic venues and Games promotional literature was “Inspire a generation”.
London 2012 four year Cultural Olympiad involved dedicated teams in every UK nation and region, thus creating an additional layer to the narrative: a commitment to nation-wide representation, in particular, giving a voice to each nation – England as well as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and providing opportunities for the iconic representation of each area in a way that contributes to the Games final imagery. The development of an extensive outdoor cultural programme profiling distinct natural and urban landscapes has been an important vehicle to achieve this ambition.
By the end of the Games, the Cultural Olympiad had helped advance a narrative of nation-wide collaboration, credible amongst its producers and associated policy makers though not widely visible to the average citizen due to limited media coverage. In addition, the London 2012 Festival contributed to projecting the country’s creative industries with its emphasis on film, comedy, music, design and fashion, highlighting aspects of the city and country’s cultural production that had not been as prominent within any given Games since Mexico 1968. National media acknowledged the programme’s emphasis on youth, and the dedication to bringing the disability arts movement to the mainstream. Finally, social media platforms played an important role to generate excitement and a close follow-up by communities of interest, as well as facilitate contestation.
Overall, an important step forward by London which shaped these Games’ global representation was a more holistic approach to its constructed narrative, one where the vision for the Cultural Olympiad –as well as every other London 2012 programme in education, volunteering etc– was supported by the Games wider visual identity. This is a return to some of the trends advanced in the 1960s and 1970s, where pictograms, colour patterns and slogans corresponded with the main principles behind the cultural programme. Further, for the first time, its opening ceremony departed from all its predecessors by incorporating humour and an explicit celebration of activism and radical youth culture in its staging, rather than relying solely on the display of traditional and contemporary mainstream culture. Combined, this brought an important opportunity for London to transmit an overarching message (youth culture, commitment to social change) that was supported by every aspect of the Games staging process, and where the opportunities for inclusion and diversity afforded by a flexible four-year nation-wide programme, linked up with (rather than contradict) the message emerging out of the Games most media-oriented, London-centric and globalised statements.


The Games offer an important platform for representation and cultural diplomacy due to their status as a world stage with simultaneous global outreach and the
capacity to generate iconic moments that become embedded in the collective memories of whole generations. However, many of the most well recognised or iconic dimensions of the Games –from the sport competitions to the ceremonies and torch relay– limit the opportunities for true representation due to excessive regulation, commercialism and the pressures to be outward facing and broadcast-friendly. The latter tends to involve an emphasis on capturing the interest of a loosely defined global audience often at the expense of stronger connections with the event’s immediate local communities of interest.
The Olympic cultural programme or Cultural Olympiad remains the least regulated aspect of the Games hosting process as it has, so far, not become a high value media asset compared with the sports. This brings some challenges for visibility and acknowledgement of worth, but also opportunities for more diverse and meaningful representation. The programme allows more flexible venues for community inclusion, including a larger period of time to conceive, develop and showcase activity; far wider opportunities for geographical outreach; and virtually no limits in terms of thematic focus.
The involvement of artists and creative entrepreneurs also bring additional opportunities for more precise and accurate, sensitive, innovative or even challenging forms of representation. This is an important complement to the mainstream Olympic discourse which, in its search for efficiency and easy international appreciation, involves a heavily standardised look and narrative, resulting in what could be considered as a “non-place” (Augé 1995) Olympic city feel. Thus, despite many limitations, some of the best examples of meaningful and sustainable cultural representation at the Games emerge out of the Cultural Olympiad and Olympic Arts Festivals rather than their more widely recognised counterparts.
In this paper, I have focused on cultural programme moments that have contributed in some way to defining a part of the Games’ collective narrative over time. Many more examples exist, but a large majority have remained locked within their immediate communities of interest, are poorly documented and often not directly associated with the Olympic Games experience. This makes them very difficult to track down, particularly in the pre-digital era.
They constitute a considerable part of the untold story of the Olympics and an essential dimension to revisit if we are to fully understand the event’s explicit
and (most importantly) implicit political significance. This is clearly an area that needs to be further researched.
In an extremely competitive media-event environment, the future of the Games as the largest of them all relies in great part in the event’s ability to keep connecting with new generations and renewing the credibility of its status as more than just a sporting event. The Olympic Movement has tried to maintain the illusion that this is an event deeply rooted in universal values developed over more than a century, but such message is only likely to remain credible if new generations feel in some way represented by the event and its projected narrative and believe it is more than a clever marketing campaign.
The cultural programme, independent artists and creators have made important contributions to tell, contextualise, contest or challenge the stories of those directly involved or touched by the experience, be it as athletes, spectators, organisers, funders or media. However, the programme can only continue to play a significant role offering opportunities for meaningful representation if it retains the kinds of freedoms, flexibility in implementation and opportunity to challenge mainstream narratives that have been common during its decades of development at the fringes of the Games global media story. In an environment where global success requires an avoidance of overt political claims, cultural programming can play an essential role to put forward important, politically informed messages that are at the same time palatable to audiences worldwide and thus capable of infiltrating the mainstream Games narrative.
1. The ongoing trend to appoint film directors as the main creative force behind opening ceremonies (Zhang Yimou and Steven Spielberg for Beijing 2008, Danny Boyle for London 2012) attests to the importance of broadcast capture in the inception and development of the ceremonies narrative.
2. The ideology of Arian supremacy was constantly challenged in the sporting arenas, notably through the outstanding performance of Black American athlete Jesse Owens. This presents, indeed, the ultimate paradox of the Games: no matter how sophisticated the techniques by organisers to control the Games narrative, the actual enactment of the event, from the sporting competitions to the uses of the street by diverse communities of interest has always provided opportunities to divert from or subvert the official narrative (see: Lenskyj 2006).
3. The two volumes of the Cultural Olympiad final report are available online: Volume IV part I ( and Volume IV part II (
4. See and (last accessed July 2012).
5. See W2 vision for the Olympics at: (last accessed June 2012).


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