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Culture @ the Olympics

issues, trends and perspectives

Sydney Olympic Arts Festivals

and the visual artsi
Beatriz García

In many countries the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin

reaction of the visual arts in 1894. De Coubertin was
sector to the arrival of the inspired by the Greek ideal of
Olympism, which sought a forum
Olympic Games has
for the demonstration of the
traditionally been a most excellence of both mind and
reserved one. Arts body. He brought the Olympic
communities in general Games back to life hoping to
have often seen the Games create an internationally
as a threat for funding and recognised marriage of arts and
public attendance. sport and persistently promoted
the necessary integration of the
Learning that the Olympic host arts within all Olympic sport
city contract includes a clause for practices "in order to benefit from
the production of an Olympic them and ennoble them”.
Cultural Program has not always
brought complete reassurance. The current Olympic Charter
The following article has been acknowledges this aspiration by
written with reference to the establishing that the host city
work I am doing as a doctoral must develop a cultural program
student at the Centre for Olympic alongside the sporting events.
Studies, Autonomous University
of Barcelona. My topic is the The visual arts have played a
analysis of the opportunities and significant role in the
constraints to adequately presentation of Olympic cultural
promote and integrate a cultural programs since 1912, when the
and arts program alongside the first Olympic Arts competition
celebration of the Olympic Games was organised. They were part of
sports competitions. the so-called “Pentathlon of
Muses”, composed of contests in
For many, a question to start with music, literature, architecture,
could be, why arts in the painting and sculpture. Despite
Olympics? The question leads the devotion of de Coubertin to
back to the foundation of the encourage and protect them,
modern Olympic Games by since the very beginning the

Culture @ the Olympics, 2000: vol.2, issue 1. pp. 1-4

preparation of these arts contests much recognition either by the

have proved very difficult for the media, the artists or the general
Games organisers. In the case of public. In some cases, such as
the visual arts, a critical limitation Mexico in 1968 or Munich in
lay in the obligation to restrict all 1972, the celebration of the
entries to sport related themes. Olympics Games was
accompanied by arts programs
As commented by Robyn that were integrated within the
Burnosky and Debra Good in rest of Olympic events.
their respective thesis (1994 and
1998, see references below) the In others, such as Los Angeles in
sports topic was often irrelevant 1984, the festival achieved
to the avant-garde artists international resonance and
dominating the arts scene at the survived in the form of an annual
time. Especially in areas such as arts event long after the Games
minimalism or abstraction where had faded away. But these
movements and subjective forms achievements seem to have been
would not in essence use sport or the result of specific conditions in
the body as a point of reference. the host city or country, where
governments or cultural
As a result, a majority of these institutions made special
artists would tend not to contributions which guaranteed
participate. Other controversies the presence of arts activities
such as the lack of “universality” during the Olympics.
of the judging processes, which
were biased towards western For many, a question to
European standards, or the very
debated quality of the works
start with could be, why
presented, led to the suppression arts in the Olympics?
of Olympic arts contests in 1952.
They were then replaced by arts The Barcelona ´92 Games
exhibitions and festivals. introduced the tradition of four-
year long cultural programs or
The first official Olympic Arts “Cultural Olympiads”, aimed at
Festival was held in Melbourne in tying the end of the previous
1956 and the tradition has been Games with the beginning of the
followed ever since. However, as new ones.
Debra Good points out, while the
Olympic Games have expanded In Barcelona, architectural
to become the greatest peace-time exhibits, music, dance and theatre
event in the world, its cultural predominated over the visual arts
component has remained in the component. But the promotion of
shadow of the sports cultural venues such as the
competitions, without achieving Picasso Museum, Miro Museum

García (2000) Olympics and visual arts 2

and Modernist Museum was work presented and hoped for a

assisted by the Olympics which follow-up of such a festival
gave them extra promotion at an initiative. Contrasting with the
international level. In Atlanta ’96, previous one, both 1998 and 1999
the most renowned component of arts festivals were lacking in
the four-year Olympic Arts thematic consistency and
Festival was an international visibility. The enormous contrast
painting and sculpture exhibition between the festivals’ rationale (a
especially commissioned for the year-long national festival in 1998
Games called “Rings: five -“A Sea Change”- and a year long
passions in the World Art”. international festival in 1999 -
“Reaching the World”) and the
extremely limited budget (no
more than A$1,5m each) led to a
program almost exclusively
composed of works and events
that were going to happen
anyway either in Australia or
overseas. The placement of a
sometimes difficult to identify
Olympic Arts logo did not assist
in the task to create a sense of
consistency and even less to
promote the idea that they were
Sydney has joined the Cultural part of an Olympic cultural
Olympiad tradition and program.
presented its first Olympic arts
festival in 1997 under the title This last point has in fact been a
“Festival of the Dreaming”. The constant since 1997, as not even
festival achieved great success in the highly successful “Festival of
its celebration of Indigenous the Dreaming” succeeded at
cultures, with special attention to promoting its association with
Australian Aborigines and Torres the Games. As a whole, both the
Strait Islanders. time distance and the reluctance
by both media and cultural
The festival presented thirty venues to emphasise the
visual arts exhibitions, including “Olympic factor” has prevented
both traditional and the development of a real
contemporary Aboriginal art, and Cultural Olympiad identity in the
was held throughout a number of lead up to the sporting
Sydney public and private competitions.
galleries and museums. Arts
critics and journalists As a whole, the Olympic Games
acknowledged the quality of the seem to be both a great

García (2000) Olympics and visual arts 3

opportunity and a great threat for requires organising committees,

the development and exposure of sponsors and governments to be
visual arts exhibits and cultural committed to secure funds,
performances in general. The quality standards and promotion
obligation to produce a cultural of the festivals, to ensure that
program at the same time as the world wide audiences will travel
sporting events could be seen as to the host city and plan to attend
an opportunity for the arts. But it arts events and exhibits.


Burnovsky, R.L. (1994) The history

of arts in the Olympic Games (MA
Thesis) The American University,
Washington DC.

Good, D. (1998) The Olympic

Games’ Cultural Olympiad: Identity
and management (MA Thesis), The
American University,
Washington DC.

iThis paper was originally

published in the National Association
of the Visual Arts Newsletter, Sept 200,
pp.4-5 Sydney, Australia.

García (2000) Olympics and visual arts 4