- Arts & Literature
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By Elizabeth Culliford
Did you know that the oldest Olympian in history is Britain’s John Copley, who won his silver medal at 73 years old? With more years than Muhammed Ali, Sir Steve Redgrave and Usain Bolt had between them on winning their first medals, Copley went home with a weighty souvenir of the 1948 Games only two years before the end of his life. It was one of last times that the Olympics awarded medals for the arts.
Copley was an Olympic engraver. Nowadays that might mean someone who scratches ‘London 2K12’ into a bench in Stratford or who has been working for the Royal Mint to make the commemorative coins, but in the first four decades of the competition, it meant an actual Olympian. The arts section was inspired by the original Games in Greece where the athletic was married to the aesthetic through competitions in sculpture and poetry and Pierre de Coubertin fought to imitate that diversity. If the father of the modern Games had his way now then Muse might have been fighting to get onto the podium this year and Danny Boyle’s Oscar might have had to be moved up the mantelpiece to make way for a medal in artistic direction.
The Olympics no longer formally recognise Copley as an Olympian; nor Jean Jacoby, the two-time gold winner and artist of a drawing of a rugby tackle, nor Sir Theodore Cook, the author of the imaginatively titled ‘Olympic Games of Antwerp’. Walter Winans gets to keep his two medals for sharpshooting from the 1908 London Games but his gold for a 20-inch-tall cast of a horse pulling a chariot has been discounted from history.
The arts competition was riddled with problems; the amateurism dilemma that brought about a full overhaul of the sporting divisions managed to kill its artistic counterpart dead. Creating art for sport’s sake was a difficult task and prohibiting professionals’ rights to give it a go severely limited the quality of the entrant pools. As the Olympic juries had the right to withhold all prizes if works failed to meet the standard, these rules made mockeries of the competition, which was ended by Avery Brundage. Brundage was on the way to becoming President of the IOC and had, ironically, had entered an essay of his own in the Games in 1932.
There have been more ridiculous disciplines in which to take home a gold. Live pigeon shooting made its debut in 1908 but made a hasty exit in the same year after it turned out to be quite messy. Horse long jump ended after the distances continued to be decidedly mediocre. Solo synchronised swimming hung on in there for four whole Games before the IOC came to their senses. And an artistic element to the Olympic Games has remained, though now it is more abstract than pretty watercolours of rowers sculling at dawn.
Turner prize winning Martin Creed created public collective art through the ringing of bells up and down the country on the morning of the opening ceremony and Monica Bonvicini’s nine-metre tall word ‘RUN’ made of glass and stainless steel stands outside the Copper Box. In the final leg of Sir Steve Redgrave’s carrying the torch he ran through the construction workers of the Olympic Stadium, bringing the artisans back into the centre of the Games.
Still, it may be that combining art and sport is just not meant to be– as the outfits of teams in the opening ceremony prove (see the fake braces from Dominica and the Burger King style hats from Kyrgzstan). The simple idea that the fastest man is the one who crosses the line before the slower men is not the same judging ethos needed for art, and when you add the government into the mix it may be too much to ask. Art has always had a more difficult relationship with the state than sport; dissident artist Ai Weiwei , who helped design the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing, boycotted the opening ceremony in protest against the government’s handling of the Games and London’s threat to wash away street art as they cleaned up the Hackney area for the Games caused outrage amongst Banksy fans.
It might all be too much to ask. But the fusing of petals of fire to make the Olympic Flame at last night’s opening ceremony say differently. We still call football the beautiful game, we say there is a real art to sport and it seems that there will be aesthetic pleasure in London 2012 aside from the women’s beach volleyball.