Miles Osgood is a PhD student in English at Harvard University.
The International Olympic Committee has finally officially announced the sites for both the 2024 and the 2028 Summer Games, with Paris hosting seven years from now, followed by Los Angeles.
Both cities will get to boast of their legacies as third-time Olympic hosts. But what you probably won’t hear is that Paris and Los Angeles also have a special place in Olympic cultural history as the two most successful organizers of the long-lost Olympic art competitions.
Paris and Los Angeles have an opportunity to bring back the art competitions that were once fundamental to the Games. From 1912 to 1948, sculptors, writers, painters, architects and composers could win Olympic medals. Each Olympic summer, host cities displayed sport-themed submissions from around the world in public galleries, as international juries awarded gold, silver and bronze in five major categories.
The latest Olympiads, from Beijing to Rio, have produced spectacular contributions to the “Cultural Program” (the artistic tradition that replaced the contests), but such celebrations miss what the Olympics can be at their best: not a showcase of regional culture but an encounter of international cultures.
The 2024 and 2028 Games should welcome new artistic Dream Teams. Acclaimed contemporary sports novels such as C.E. Morgan’s “The Sport of Kings” and Aravind Adiga’s “Selection Day” could go head-to-head. Or we could see what an updated music competition inspires from such noted sports fans as Jay-Z, Elton John and Shakira. And although the Olympics originally excluded entries in dance, photography and film, new competitions could expand to include films that are already contenders at the Oscars or Sundance, or to competitors in brand-new categories, such as sports journalism or half-time choreography.
It’s easy to make sport (so to speak) of this idea; the Olympics seem to have survived just fine without the arts competitions. But Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, considered this “Pentathlon of the Muses” so integral to his Olympic revival movement that he claimed on multiple occasions that it marked the only difference between Olympiads and regular sports championships. In other words, the Olympic art competitions once made the Olympics the Olympics.
Commentators have often portrayed the old competitions as a failure or farce: Winning entries were either forgettable (such as the overblown “Ode to Sport” by Coubertin himself) or political (such as the suspicious selections for Berlin 1936). This dismissive sentiment has a long history. English poet Robert Graves called the contests a “bad joke” in private correspondence after his poem lost in 1924. But Graves also fibbed, awarding himself a bronze he never won.
However comical the contests were, Graves was hung up on them; he wanted to be in on the joke. There is something undeniably alluring about the prospect of an Olympic medal — even a bronze in literature. And in 1924, Paris lent distinction to the Olympic arts as no city had done before, advertising a list of 150 celebrity judges, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel for music and Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Valéry and Edith Wharton for literature.
Never mind that many of these invited judges probably declined; the mere possibility that they would be evaluating the entries was enough to persuade Graves to compete, along with other rising stars such as Henry de Montherlant, Jack B. Yeats and Paul Landowski. As the summer progressed, the Parisian avant-garde got in on the action: Cocteau, Picasso and Chanel presented a sports ballet for the Olympic theatrical season, and Russian expats threw an “Olympic Ball” with performances by Tristan Tzara and Foujita.
After Paris elevated the Olympic arts, Los Angeles made them global. The 1932 Games in Los Angeles featured more than 1,100 artworks from more than 30 national teams — including, for the first time, Japan, Turkey and half a dozen Latin American countries. The exhibition, which attracted nearly 400,000 visitors, was the biggest and most international that the artistic “Pentathlon” would ever have. It was so big, in fact, that the competition’s most famous artist, the German architect Walter Gropius, was largely lost and forgotten in the mix.
Paris and Los Angeles proved that the Olympic art competitions had promise, and they can do it again. We might mark the words of Thornton Wilder, who served as literary judge for the Los Angeles Games in 1932. He saw, then, that the Olympic arts still had a ways to go. “But,” he wrote, “if we continue encouraging them . . . we may be able to build up a tradition that will call forth some splendid work.” That deserves another shot.
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