The 2016 Rio Olympics are in their final weekend, another slate of medalists goes into the record books, and Michael Phelps returns to his tank at SeaWorld, cups and all. Truthfully, though, I can’t say I’m much of an Olympics fan (although I do like the Winter Games marginally more), but I probably would be more of one if they reintroduced graphic arts as an Olympic event.
That’s not a joke; printmaking actually was, at one time, part of the Olympics.
As we all know, the Olympic games date back to ancient Greece, although no one is certain exactly when the first games were held. Legend has it that the Games were founded by Heracles (aka Hercules, his better-known Roman name), but since he was a mythological figure, one questions the veracity of that claim. The first Olympic Games for which there is any record were held in 776 B.C., and the first recorded Olympic champion was a cook named Coroebus of Elis, who won the sprint competition. He was quite the standout athlete, largely because, at the time, there really was only one Olympic event: a footrace known as a stade (from which the word stadium). Over the ensuing decades, new events were added to the games, such as longer footraces, wrestling, boxing, pentathlon, chariot racing, and an event called pancratium, which was a fairly brutal combination of wrestling, boxing, and general fisticuffs.
The competitors were athletes from Greece’s various city-states, as well as from Greek colonies in what is now Italy, Africa, and Asia Minor. They didn’t have to worry about designing special uniforms because, as was the custom back in ancient Greece, most athletes competed nude. (Etymologically, the word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek gymnos, or “naked”—ergo, a gymnasium is a “naked place,” which is pretty disturbing if you think about your local gym.) This may seem strange to us latter-day Victorians, but nudity was no big deal to the ancient Greeks (a bigger issue for the athletes, you would think, would be aerodynamics….). And, alas, Olympic competition was males-only, although there are records of women and girls competing in small, local Olympic-type games.
Initially, the ancient Olympics were held on a single day, but over the centuries expanded to four days of competition, with a fifth day for a closing ceremony and awarding prizes. The original Olympics were also highly religious events.
By the 2nd century B.C., Greece had been conquered by Rome, and the Romans were not too keen on the Olympic Games; they much preferred chariot races and bloody gladiatorial combat to athletic prowess. The Olympic Games petered out over the years and were officially abolished somewhere around 400 A.D. by the Roman emperor Theodosius I. Shortly thereafter, his son ordered the destruction of Greek temples. So that was that.
Fast forward a millennium and a half or so to 1821. Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and interest in reviving the old games started to percolate. In 1833, poet and newspaper editor Panagiotis Soutsos published a poem called “Dialogue of the Dead” in which he officially floated the idea of bringing the Games back. For a while, an idea was all it was, until 1856 when a wealthy Greek-Romanian named Evangelos Zappas offered to fund a revival of the Olympics. Greece’s King Otto took him up on it and in 1859, the first Olympic Games in almost two millennia were held in Athens. For the next couple of decades, the Games were held in Athens every four or five years, and it’s been somewhat reliably estimated that the 1870 Games drew a crowd of more than 70,000. It seems they were on to something.
Enter Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), a French aristocrat turned educator and historian. He became infatuated with ancient Greece, especially the Hellenic idea of the combination of physical and intellectual fitness. He was also stung by France’s humiliating defeat in the recent Franco-Prussian War, and felt that physical fitness was the route to developing better soldiers. One of his missions was to incorporate physical fitness into French schools, but to no avail. C’est dommage.
Anyway, long story short: Coubertin was inspired by the revival of the Greek Olympic Games and, in 1890, he took the mantle from Zappas and other Olympic organizers and created the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which today remains the governing body of the Games, for better or worse. The nascent IOC’s plan was to create the Olympics as an international “moveable feast,” held in a different city every four years. The 1896 Olympics were the first to take place under the new organization, and the Games were afoot! In 1900, Paris became the first host city outside Athens. The Winter Games were added in 1908 (for obvious reasons, there were no Winter Olympics in ancient Greece) and in 1912 another component was added to the Games….
Remember how Coubertin was devoted to the idea of developing both body and mind? In 1908, Coubertin floated the idea of adding artistic competitions to the Olympic Games. The IOC identified five areas of artistic competition: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture, and the rub was that the works of art created in these competitions had to be inspired by sport. The plan was to launch the “Concours d’Art” at the 1908 Olympics, but for various reasons it was delayed until the 1912 Summer Games, held in Stockholm.
Honestly, though, not everyone was on board with the idea of Olympic art competitions, and they drew few entrants. Few of these competitions were held live; for example, at the 1928 Games, Jan Wils won the gold medal in architecture for designing the stadium in which the 1928 Games were actually being held. Talk about a home-field advantage!
Meanwhile, the categories kept changing from Olympic year to Olympic year, and it’s hard to imagine that town planning (introduced as an Olympic event in 1928) would have merited much TV coverage.
Other artistic competitions included literature (dramatic, epic, and lyric), music (the judging was based on written sheet music not performance, which also would not have made for good TV), sculpture, and painting.
(If you’re like me, the idea of an Olympic literature competition reminds you of Monty Python’s “Wide World of Novel Writing” sketch in which Thomas Hardy writes Return of the Native live.)
Anyway, the “painting” category was in constant flux. Until 1928, there was only a single painting category, but was divided into three smaller sub-categories: drawings, graphic arts, and painting. Four years later, the categories were changed to paintings, prints, and watercolors/drawings, and four years later still, “prints” had been replaced by “graphic arts and commercial graphic arts.” The first gold medalist in the graphic arts was American painter (and later Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy) Joseph Webster Golinkin, who won in the “prints” category in 1932 for a work called “Leg Scissors.”
The artistic competitions were ultimately dropped after the 1948 Games, largely because it was difficult to gauge the amateur status of the competitors.
Maybe we should bring back the graphic arts to the Olympics. After all, some wide-format output is actually a significant physical challenge to move around. Let’s also not forget the various vehicle wrapping “Olympics.”
And many printers today have been known to jump through hoops for clients—which certainly qualifies as a sub-category of gymnastics.
Olympic Museum, Art Competition 1912–1948, http://olympic-museum.de/art/artcompetition.htm.
Harold Maurice Abrahams, “Olympic Games, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/sports/Olympic-Games.
“Art competitions at the Summer Olympics,” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, last modified on January 1, 2016, retrieved August 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_competitions_at_the_Summer_Olympics.
“Art competitions at the 1932 Summer Olympics,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 1, 2016, retrieved August 11, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_competitions_at_the_1932_Summer_Olympics.
“Olympic Games,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 9, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_Games.
“Pierre de Coubertin,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 10, 2016, retrieved August 10, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_de_Coubertin.