At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, American Walter Winans took the podium and waved proudly to the crowd. He had already won two Olympic medals—a gold for sharpshooting at the 1908 London Games, as well as a silver for the same event in 1912—but the gold he won at Stockholm wasn’t for shooting, or running, or anything particularly athletic at all. It was instead awarded for a small piece of bronze he had cast earlier that year: a 20-inch-tall horse pulling a small chariot. For his work, An American Trotter, Winans won the first ever Olympic gold medal for sculpture.
For the first four decades of competition, the Olympics awarded official medals for painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music, alongside those for the athletic competitions. From 1912 to 1952, juries awarded a total of 151 medals to original works in the fine arts inspired by athletic endeavors. Now, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first artistic competition, even Olympics fanatics are unaware that arts, along with athletics, were a part of the modern Games nearly from the start.
“Everyone that I’ve ever spoken to about it has been surprised,” says Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions. “I first found out about it reading a history book, when I came across a little comment about Olympic art competitions, and I just said, ‘what competitions?’” Propelled by curiosity, he wrote the first—and still the only—English-language book ever published on the subject.
To learn about the overlooked topic, Stanton had to dig through crumbling boxes of often-illegible files from the International Olympic Committee archives in Switzerland—many of which hadn’t seen the light of day since they were packed away decades ago. He discovered that the story went all the way back to the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and the modern Games, who saw art competitions as integral to his vision of the Olympics. “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,” Stanton says. “He felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete to not include some aspect of the arts.”
At the turn of the century, as the baron struggled to build the modern Olympics from scratch, he was unable to convince overextended local organizers of the first few Games in Athens, St. Louis and Paris that arts competitions were necessary. But he remained adamant. “There is only one difference between our Olympiads and plain sporting championships, and it is precisely the contests of art as they existed in the Olympiads of Ancient Greece, where sport exhibitions walked in equality with artistic exhibitions,” he declared.