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Olympic throwback: the history of art medals at the Games

Categories: Art & Design

John WeinzweigCanadian composer John Weinzweig, seen during his Royal Canadian Air Force days during the Second World War, won an Olympic art medal in 1948. (Courtesy Daniel Weinzweig)

Brace yourselves, Olympics-watchers: put aside snowboarding, hockey and skiing for a minute. Did you know that beyond handing out awards for, say, ice skating or curling, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) once handed out prizes for art?

Between 1912 and 1948, artists received Olympic medals for sports-related creations, in categories such as architecture and design, painting, music, literature and sculpture.

IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin 'had a great interest in extending the festival beyond simply athletic competitions'

-- Professor Bob Barney

"They arose really out of the will power and the effort of Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement," Bob Barney tells me.

"He had a great interest in extending the festival beyond simply athletic competitions."

Barney is professor emeritus of Western University's school of kinesiology. He's attended eight Olympics and definitely knows his Olympic trivia.

"The only instruction to the artists themselves was that their work — whatever it be — had to be stimulated, motivated, or inspired by sport...How they arrived at the conclusion of sport in some of the entries over the years, I don't know," he said, adding that judging for the art competitions fell to experts in the respective fields.

In 1948, it all ended: a victim to the debate about amateur versus professional that continues to this day.

Unlike the athletic Olympians of that era, the artists being considered in the Olympic competitions weren't amateurs. They were often professionals who made money selling their artistic creations — this was their livelihood. This was ultimately deemed against the Olympic spirit.

Nevertheless, there's evidence that link between art and sport goes all the way back to ancient times, when the Greeks held contests for art as well, including competitions for philosophers and heralds, Barney said.

Athletic vasesAncient Greek pottery in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum depicts various Olympic sports scenes: from discus-throwing to running. (Courtesy ROM)

Athletic vases, ancient pottery in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, depict various Olympic sports scenes: from the discus throw to running. These vases weren't only decorative, they were also functional and served to hold oil and grains.

These treasures are some of the only pieces of evidence we have of the ancient Greek Olympiad, Barney says.

"We don't have the big body of artistic evidence that gives us more the intricacies of the various events that went on in antiquity. So [the vases are] a very important segment of evidence."

A Canadian Connection

During the IOC's Olympic art competitions, two Canadians snagged medals. Robert Tait McKenzie won bronze for sculpture in 1932, while noted classical music composer John Jacob Weinzweig won silver for his composition Divertiment No. 1 in 1948.

Weinzweig discussed his win in a CBC News interview decades later.

"The artists knew very little about the arts division of the Olympics. And the public, as a matter of fact, knew even less," the late composer, who died in 2006, told CBC back in 1974.

"That perhaps is one of the problems of why eventually in 1948 they stopped awarding prizes."

composer John Weinzweig"Artists knew very little about the arts division of the Olympics. And the public, as a matter of fact, knew even less," Weinzweig recalled in a 1974 CBC interview. (Courtesy Daniel Weinzweig)

Daniel Weinzweig, the composer's son, now keeps his father's medal at his Toronto home. As a child, he had almost lost the rare prize. He re called that at the age of eight or nine, he brought the medal to school and, not knowing its worth or importance, tried to trade it for a bag of marbles.

"Fortunately for me and my parents, I didn't succeed in making a successful negotiation, so I came home with the medal," he recalled.

He believes the competitions are an important footnote in the overall story of the Games.

"It's a piece of history and it's a piece of Canadian history," he said.

"When one talks about the Olympics, they should remember that there were arts events...and that my father was the recipient of a silver medal."

Since 1948, the IOC has occasionally held art exhibitions or contests alongside the Olympics. Professor Barney recalled, for instance, exhibitions in Barcelona and Beijing and a Sport & Art competition in 2012.

But there have never again been medals awarded and there's currently no intention to reinstate the original contests, according to an IOC representative.

What do you think? Is there a place for art at the Olympics? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

-- by Russell Sabio

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