Winter 2014-2015

Muscle and Mind

The bygone culture of the Olympics

Jeffrey Kastner

Near the end of the official report on the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, after listing the winners of the various individual and team competitions, the organizers included an early iteration of the now-familiar table ranking the participating nations by the number of medals each had won. That year, the host nation took first place, with the US, Great Britain, Finland, and Germany rounding out the top five. But it is a second, smaller table below it that draws the reader’s attention. In this tally, it was not Sweden that carried the day, but Italy, which came in twelfth in the sporting portion of the games but won that year’s Olympic Concours d’Art, the inaugural installment of the international cultural competition that was an integral part of the games between 1912 and 1948.

Though they represent a largely forgotten episode in Olympic history, the cultural competitions were crucial in the original conception of the games articulated by their founder, Pierre de Coubertin. In 1891, three years before he convened the Congress for the Reestablishment of the Olympic Games in Paris, Coubertin proposed a “competition in literature among athletes.” Announcing a series of prizes designed to be given out by his sporting publication, the Revue Athlétique, to “mark [the] intimate relation that we want to better maintain between muscle and mind,” Coubertin imagined a day of “glory” when “a winner of a race of 14 kilometers and a literary contest” might both be crowned.[1] In 1896, Coubertin became president of the newly formed International Olympic Committee (IOC), but was unable to insinuate the arts into the games during their tentative early manifestations, many of which were relatively modest affairs, or functioned as adjuncts to other events like World’s Fairs. In 1906, however, Coubertin finally saw his chance: during an off-cycle Olympic Games held in Athens, the IOC president convened an official Olympic congress that included literary figures, painters, sculptors, architects, and the director of the French national museums. Gathered at the Comédie Française in Paris, the congress declared that it would award medals in architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and literature starting in Stockholm in 1912.[2]

The hosts in Sweden balked at the plan after negative response from the nation’s artistic community, prompting a scathing response from Coubertin:

It will therefore be war. … Your obstinate opposition to something so simple is a real challenge that you have thrown to us. … No, Sirs, you must not think that we will give up … Deprived of the aura of the art contests, Olympic Games are only world championships.[3]

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