Painting for Gold Medals: When Art Was an Olympic Discipline

Painters, sculptors, and poets competed alongside athletes.

Between 1912 and 1948 the arts were part of the Olympic Games. Photo: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images.

The Venice Biennale is colloquially known as “the Olympics of art,” but did you know that between 1912 and 1948, painters, sculptors, architects, writers, and musicians participated at the real Olympic Games?

According to the New York Times, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC, from which the modern Olympics emerged in 1896, believed that sports and the arts were inextricably linked.

Jean Jacoby's <em>Corner</em>, left, and <em>Rugby</em>. At the 1928 Olympic Art Competitions in Amsterdam, Jacoby won a gold medal for <em>Rugby</em>. Courtesy of the Olympic Museum Lausanne.

Jean Jacoby’s Corner, left, and Rugby. At the 1928 Olympic Art Competitions in Amsterdam, Jacoby won a gold medal for Rugby. Courtesy of the Olympic Museum Lausanne.

“He was raised and educated classically, and he was particularly impressed with the idea of what it meant to be a true Olympian—someone who was not only athletic, but skilled in music and literature,” Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, told Smithsonian Magazine. “He felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete to not include some aspect of the arts.”

However, the idea faced opposition from the get-go, and it wasn’t until the Stockholm games in 1912 that medals were awarded in artistic disciplines.

The resistance was understandable, as sporting achievements can be measured in easily-understood metrics such as time and distance, but judging the arts is undeniably subjective.

The arts competition also suffered from the guiding parameter that the works created had to be associated with sport, limiting the entries to tiresome imagery of athletes and odes to sporting achievement.

In 1912 Walter Winans became the only Olympian to win medals in both arts and sport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1912 Walter Winans became the only Olympian to win medals in both arts and sport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, the requirement of amateur status in the early iterations of the games barred professional artists from entering the competition. Consequently, the artistic greats such as Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo couldn’t compete. The resulting works were inevitably, well, amateurish.

According to the Huffington Post, the Olympic art events were finally struck from the competition in 1948 amid dwindling interest. Arts medals were removed from the official Olympic records and the events were demoted to a non-competitive exhibition running for the duration of the games.

Walter Winans's <em>An American Trotter</em> won a gold medal for sculpture at the first Olympic Art Competitions, held in Stockholm in 1912. Courtesy of the Idrottmuseet i Malmö.

Walter Winans’s An American Trotter won a gold medal for sculpture at the first Olympic Art Competitions, held in Stockholm in 1912. Courtesy of the Idrottmuseet i Malmö.

If nothing else, the art Olympics makes for some fascinating trivia. Did you know, for instance, that Walter Winans, a Russian aristocrat with American citizenship, was the only Olympian to win medals in both the sporting and arts competition? In 1912, he won silver for team USA in the shooting event “Team Running Deer—Single Shot” and gold in sculpture for his work An American Trotter.

At least we still have the Venice Biannale.


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