By Robert Sheppard, Editor-in-Chief, World Literature Forum

World Literature.02

It is a largely forgotten fact that the founding of the Modern Olympics by Pierre de Coubertin included gold, silver and bronze medal competition in the arts as well as in sports. With the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, and the celebration of the first modern Olympic Games, French Baron Pierre de Coubertin saw the fulfillment of his ideals — men being educated in both mind and body, and competing in sport rather than war. One of his other desires was to combine both art and sport, and he thus originally included artistic competition in the Olympic Games.

In May 1906, Baron de Coubertin organized a meeting in Paris for both IOC members and representatives of artists’ organizations. The meeting ended with a proposal to the IOC to organize artistic competitions at the Olympic Games in five areas: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. From then on World Literature and the Arts became a regular part of the Olympics until 1954, when the program was discontinued on the grounds that most of the Olympic artists were in fact professionals rather than amateurs, as the Olympic rules of the time mandated.
However today, the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have long abolished the requirement of amatuerism. Beginning in 1988 professional athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympic games, until today, with the exception of professional boxing and wrestling, professionals are found in all Olympic sports. The ideals of the Classical world revered by Baron de Coubertin celebrated and required “mens sana in corpore sano” or a sound mind in a sound body, encompassing both physical culture and imaginative culture, and the celebration of the whole human personality, both sport and in World Literature and the Arts.

I would thus strongly urge the IOC and the nations of the world to revive the cultural half of the Olympics, sometimes referred to as the “Delphic Games,” for the narrow reason that the distinction of amateurism in both sports and arts is no longer maintainable, but more importantly for the much broader and wider reason that the restoration of the Arts and World Literature competition would make the Olympic gathering much more attractive to the broader base of the peoples of the world, would add to the financial soundness of the games with arts events, would draw “star quality” music, film, literature and visual arts superstars to the Olympic venue, would contribute to the mission of the Olympics to fight against war and international conflict through mutual understanding derived from both friendly sport and World Literature and the Arts, and would greatly promote an advance the development of the careers and talents of the writers and artists of the world. In this regard let us imagine a combined global megaevent of an Olympics integrated and perhaps co-branded with the Oscars, Emmys, Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, the award of Nobel Prizes, the Booker and Pulitzer prizes, the Venice Bienniale, the Grammys, American (World) Idol and similar programs for each of the arts. Global television and Internet rights for the film, art and music competitions would undoubtedly bring in a staggering amount of both viewership and moneys, as well as furthering the more important goal of promoting the in-depth nurturing and development of the arts in every country, attracting young artists and writers to develop their talents.

Furthermore, the re-inclusion of World Literature and the Arts in the Olympic Games would encourage the Arts to become more global and international. Most arts awards today are narrowly nationally based and fixate on national tastes. The Oscars purport to be the ultimate world film award, but in reality are only American, with a small category for international films. Emmys, Grammys, Bookers, Pulitzers, etc are similarly too parochial and nation-state based. Even our “World Series” of baseball is nothing but an American Series and does not include teams from the rest of the “World” at all. Olympic awards will legitimatize and globalize the arts beyond the limitations of the present systems. In our globalized world and culture artists and writers should be encouraged to create for the seven billion citizens of the planet not just for the home audience. This will strengthen the industries themselves, as for instance most films now earn more money abroad than in their home markets, and Olympic recognition will encourage an international outlook in the performing arts as well as in World Literature, with the art of translation being greatly encouraged.
How then did the Cultural Olympics, or Delphic Olympics work when de Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee originally included them in the early Modern Olympics?
From 1912 to 1948 rules of the art competition evolved and varied, but the core of the rules remained the same. All of the entered works had to be original (that is, not be published before the competition). Like in the athletic events at the Olympics, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded to the highest ranked artists, although not all medals were awarded in each competition. On a few occasions, in fact, no medals were presented at all, as sometimes occurs with the Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes. A revival of the Arts half of the Olympics could be modernized, including allowance of both sports-related and non-sports related art, national team and individual entry, professionals and amateurs, and entry of works recently published or released in the past year, (or past four years).

Generally, it was permitted for artists to enter multiple works, although a maximum number was sometimes established. This made it possible for an artist to win multiple prizes in a single Olympic competition, like Michael Phelps! At one time or another, there were suggestions in the past Olympics to also include dancing, film, photography, or theatre, and although none of these art forms was ever included in the Olympic Games as a medal event in the past they could certainly be included in future Olympics.

Coordination with UNESCO and United Nations cultural organs could also encourage development of the arts in each country and early professional development amoung the youth of each country; teams from each nation in the arts could be selected by competitions similar to those in the sports half of the Olympics or otherwise as deemed desirable. Appreciation for the arts across the broader populations of the competing nations and for works of lesser known nations across the world would be fostered. Participation of women, the elderly and intellectuals not so generally attracted to pure sport would thus democratize and universalize the Olympics. A “Gold” in the Olympic Arts could do much to make an artist’s career and promote the recognition of new and innovative artists, making it possible for artists to support themselves and develop their talents from their creative activity.
When the first post-war Olympic Games were held in WWI-ravaged Belgium, Art contests were again on the program, although they were little more than a sideshow. This was different for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. There the contests were taken seriously for the first time, and 193 artists submitted works. Remarkably, this figure also includes three Soviet artists, even though the Soviet Union officially did not take part in the Olympic Games, which they considered to be a “bourgeois” festival.

The growth continued at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where over 1,100 works of art were exhibited in the Municipal Museum, not including the submissions in World Literature, music and architecture. Artists were allowed to sell their works at the close of the exhibition, which was rather controversial given the IOC’s amateurism policy, which required all competitors to be amateurs. In Amsterdam, the number of events was also increased, as four of the five fields of art were subdivided, creating more events.

Because of the economy and the remote location of Los Angeles, participation in the athletic events of the 1932 Games was lower than that of 1928. The Arts competition did not suffer from this problem, and the number of art works entered remained stable. Their exhibition drew 384,000 visitors to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. Art contests were also held in Berlin (1936) and London (1948), with reasonable success, although the number of entered works had significantly dropped by 1948.

Olympic World Literature

The literature competitions were divided into a varied number of categories. Until 1924 and again in 1932, there was only a single literature category. In 1928, separate categories were introduced for drama, epic and lyric literature. Awards in these categories were also presented in 1948, while the drama category was dropped in 1936.

Entered works in some years were limited in length (20,000 words) and could be submitted in any language, provided they were accompanied by English and/or French translations or summaries (rules varied over the years). A modern revival could considerably enlarge the categories, including novels, short stories, e-Books, Blogs and Flash Fiction of any length as well as popular genres such as Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Historical Novels, Romance, etc. It is of course critical that the subject matter not be limited to writing about sports, as had been the case in some past Cultural Olympics, but that the categories for all the arts be completely open to include both non-sports related works and a special category for sports related works. Categories would include special awards for Best Contribution to World Literature. Awards could be coordinated with the Bookers, Pulitzers, Nobels etc. with a view to transcend the national bias of those narrowly national awards and reformulate them on a the global basis of World Literature.

In Ancient Greece it was also the tradition for Poets such as Pindar to extemporize and write poems and songs to celebrate the winners in the sports events, a practice that could also be revived for the Modern Olympics.

Olympic World Music

A single event for music was held until 1936, when three categories were introduced: one for orchestral music, one for instrumental music, and one for both solo and choral music. In 1948, these categories were slightly modified into choral/orchestral, instrumental/chamber, and vocal music.
The juries often had trouble judging the pieces, which were entered on paper. Possibly related to the problematic judging, juries frequently decided to award only a few prizes. On two occasions, no award was given out at all (in the 1924 music category and in the 1936 instrumental music category). 1936 marked the only occasion when the winning musical works were actually played before an audience. Josef Suk was the only well-known musician to have competed, winning a silver medal in 1932.
In a revival of the Olympic Music event the scope could be much widened to emulate the Grammy’s and other awards for Rock, Pop, Jazz, Blues, Music Videos, Techno, Rap, Hip-Hop, etc. and open the event to all of the professional stars and non-professionals as well.
Olympic World Architecture

The 1928 Olympic Stadium, designed by Jan Wils, won the gold medal in architecture at the 1928 Olympics.

Until the Amsterdam Games in 1928, the architectural competition was not divided into categories. The 1928 games introduced a town planning category. However, the division was not always clear, and some designs were awarded prizes in both categories.
Entries in this category were allowed to have been “published” or built before the Olympics. A notable example of this is the 1928 gold medal for architecture awarded to Jan Wils for his design of the Olympic Stadium used in the same Olympics.
The revival of the Architecture Award could be coordinated with the Pritzkers, and include designs for both the Olympic venues and recent World Fairs.

Olympic World Painting

Jean Jacoby is the only artist to win two gold medals. He won his second with the above drawing, titled Rugby.

As with the other art forms, a single painting category was on the program until 1928, when it was split out into three sub-categories: drawings, graphic arts and paintings. The categories then changed at each of the following Olympic Games. In 1932, the three categories were: paintings, prints , and watercolors/drawings. Four years later, the prints category had disappeared, and had been replaced by graphic arts and commercial graphic art. At the final Olympic art competition, the three categories were applied arts and crafts, engravings/etchings and oils/water colors. A re-included Arts Olympics could include new technologies such as Computer Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Laser and Holographic Art, Murals and Graffiti-Art.
Olympic World Sculpture

The sculpture class had only a single category until 1928, when two separate competitions were designated; one for statues and one for reliefs and medals. In 1936, this was split up further, separating reliefs and medals into their own categories.

Olympic Arts Competitors

While several of the Olympic Art medalists have achieved at least national fame, few of them can be considered well-known artists globally. In fact, the 1924 Games featured better known jury members than artists, with artists like Igor Stravinsky judging the entered works. By eliminating the limitation that the works be sports-related as well as opening the Olympic Arts competition to all stars and professional artists as has already been done for athletes, the greatest world artists, writers, film directors and stars will surely make the Olympic Arts events as prestigious as the sports events.

Judging by the medals won, Luxembourg painter Jean Jacoby was the most successful Olympic Artist, winning the Gold medal for his 1924 painting Étude de Sport, and for his drawing Rugby in 1928 Swiss Artist Alex Diggleman won three medals, a Gold one in 1936 (for his poster Arosa I Placard), and a Silver and a Bronze in the 1948 applied arts & crafts class, both with commercial posters. Danish writer Josef Petersen won a Silver medal on three occasions: in 1924, 1932, and 1948.

Alfréd Hajós is one of only two Olympians to have won medals in both Sport and Art competitions
Only two persons have won Olympic medals in both Olympic Sport and Olympic Art competitions. Walter Williams, an American who lived in England, won a gold medal as a marksman at the 1908 Summer Olympicss in the running deer (double shot) competition. In 1912, he won another shooting medal — Silver this time — in the running deer team competition. By then, he had already won a Gold medal for his sculpture An American trotter. The other Olympian with successes in both fields was Alfred Hajos As a swimmer. He won two Gold medals at the 1896 Athens Olympics.Twenty-eight years later, he was awarded a Silver medal in architecture for his stadium design, co-designed with Deszo Lauber.
Two Presidents of the International Olympic Committee have also been among the entrants in the Olympic Art competitions. In 1912 Pierre de Coubertin himself under the pseudonym “Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach”, entered Ode to Sport, which won the Gold medal. Avery Brundage, who competed as an athlete at the 1912 Games, entered literary works at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, earning an honorary mention in 1932. He would serve as the IOC’s president from 1952 to 1971.

Britain’s John Copely winner of a Silver medal in the 1948 engravings and etchings competition, was 73 years of age, making him the oldest Olympic medalist in history. The oldest Olympic medalist outside the art competitions Swedish shooter Swahn who won his last medal at age 72. Indeed, in a modern world in which lifespans have doubled and the elderly composing up to a third of the population of some countries,it is critical to the Olympic Movement that Senior Citizens be included in the competitions, for which Art and Writing, talents that may mature with years instead of declining, may make a meaningful contribution, a change as important in equality of opportunity as the broadening of the Olympics to include women and the handicapped via the Paralympics.
All of this is a good reminder to us all that the Olympic Movement was from its very origin involved with the Arts and World Literature as well as sport. Both halves of the Olympic Movement contribute to the overall goals of overcoming conflict and war between nations, building global understanding and appreciation, and supplanting a Clash of Civilizations with a Clasp of Civilizations. It also from the start encouraged the development of the whole persons of the athletes, including both mind and body. This was a goal of the Ancient Olympics as well as the Modern Olympics.


Of course it may be objected, as some nations indeed did object in the first half of the 20th Century, that art and literature are not competitive sports and the whole idea of reducing a work of art to the “Top Ten” or the “Top Three” could be regarded as an absurdity. I for one would partially agree that to some degree such ranking and awarding is not only vulgar but in some cases idiotic, with each great work being unique unto itself and making its own unique contribution to the body of art and literature from which it evolves. Yet such an “Olympian” view of art from the ivory tower ignores both the ways of the modern world and its addiction to awards, rankings and popular honors. Without the Olympics we already have the Nobels, Pulitzers, Man-Bookers, Pritzkers, Oscars, Grammys and a host of honors which though fundamentally flawed, perform some value in identifying deserving artists and writers (alongside some undeserving of course.) Moreover, the existence of such awards, though flawed, may well serve to launch, nurture and sustain the careers of new Titans of the Arts. On balance the awards may well do more good than harm.


Why were the Olympics held every four years, defining the Olympiad period?
In the ancient Olympics this was the case because they were part of a series of Four Panhellenic Games and festivals held each year. In addition to the “Olympics” dedicated to Zeus, in off years there occurred the Pythian or Delphic “Olympics” or Games, the Nemean Games and the Isthenian Games. The Delphic Games in particular emphasized the cultural half of the Olympics with concurrent festivals and awards for music, dance, drama comedy and tragedy. Remember Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes competed for festival prizes every year in the Golden Age of Ancient Greece. We may recall also that education in Ancient Greece included not only academics and philosophy but also music, gymnastics and martial arts, in all cases emphasizing the well-rounded cultivation of the whole person. There have been parallel efforts to revive the Delphic Games or Cultural Olympics in modern times, reflected in the work of the International Delphic Council. But it is obvious that the Delphic Olympic spirit can only be fully revived by the re-inclusion of the Arts and World Literature in the Summer and Winter Olympics with their global prestige, cultural influence and visibilty. Their re-inclusion will make the Olympics a much more spectacular and richer experience in the future. The goal of the Olympic Movement beyond mere sport has always been to make a meaningful contribution to the development of our Universal Civilization, World Culture and World Peace. It is only through re-inclusion of the Lost Cultural Half of the Modern Olympics that the Modern Olympic Movement can attain the original ends so sagely envisiged by Baron de Coubertin for our Globalized World.

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: rsheppard99_2000@yahoo.com Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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  1. Agent Orange says:

    Sounds like a good idea; however, this will have to be a SEPARATE event from the better-known Sports Olympics.

    • Actually they don’t have to be separate as before 1950 the cultural and arts medals were awarded along with the sports medals. This isn’t a new proposal it is already written into the Olympic Charter and the Olympics awarded Literature and Arts Gold-Silver-Bronze Medals at the same time as the Sports medals. All we need to do is have the Olympic Committee vote to go back to De Coubertin’s original plan.

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