It’s not 2020 anymore, but the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are coming up in a few weeks. Medals will be handed out in fan favorites like gymnastics and swimming and newly-introduced sports like skateboarding. The idea of what qualifies as an Olympic sport has swayed as the years have gone by and times have changed, which has led to some interesting activities making their way into the Games. If you were not an athlete between 1912 and 1949, no worries! You could still earn an Olympic medal for art.

Jean Jacoby

Yes, for four decades of Olympic competition, medals were awarded for artistic achievements. Competitors submitted pieces to be judged in five categories: painting, music, literature, sculpture, and architecture. 151 medals were awarded in total, with juries selecting what they believed to be the best works.

To fit the sporting theme of the Olympics, the art submitted in the Games was supposed to be focused on athletics. Paintings and sculptures depicted athletes during competition. Architecture submissions were often of places like stadiums. 

Even with this emphasis on sports, though, the Olympic art competition failed to connect with anyone at a meaningful level. Top artists often refused to enter their work into the Olympics because they didn’t think their art should be in a competition. In a classic example of artistic gatekeeping, they also worried about an art contest being organized by people without a background in art. For Olympic audiences, even though the art focused on sports, those who cared about boxing did not necessarily care about sculptures of boxing. Because of the apathy from artists and Olympics enthusiasts alike, much of the art from the Olympics has been lost.

Humorously, the art competitions sometimes didn’t even have a winner. The judges weren’t required to give out gold, silver, and bronze medals for each category, so if they weren’t pleased with the submissions, they could just say that no one won. Or if they thought that the top piece was good but not great, they could give it a silver medal instead of a gold. Ouch. 

The demise of Olympic art was not for the reason one might assume. Art was removed from the Olympics not because it wasn’t a sport but because artists were professionals. The Olympics were intended for amateur competitors, and artists who submitted works for the Games were certainly not amateurs. This was seen as dangerous to the sanctity of the Olympics, so the art competition was no more. 

Art may have been removed from the Olympic Games, but it has remained intertwined with the Olympic universe. Starting in 2000, the International Olympic Committee has awarded prizes for art in the Sport and Art contest. This is a separate event from the Olympic Games, and medals are not involved, but it continues the bizarre tradition of art in the world of athletics. 

Plus, art still sort of exists in the Olympics if you count Simone Biles’ flawless gymnastics routines …

… which are basically gold medal-tier art.

Top Image: Jean Jacoby

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