Finally, in time for the 1912 Stockholm Games, he was able to secure a place for the arts. Submissions were solicited in the categories of architecture, music, painting, sculpture and literature, with a caveat—every work had to be somehow inspired by the concept of sport. Some 33 (mostly European) artists submitted works, and a gold medal was awarded in each category. In addition to Winans’ chariot, other winners included a modern stadium building plan (architecture), an “Olympic Triumphal March” (music), friezes depicting winter sports (painting) and Ode to Sport (literature). The baron himself was among the winners. Fearing that the competitions wouldn’t draw enough entrants, he penned the winning ode under the pseudonyms George Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, leaving the medal jury unaware of the true author.
Over the next few decades, as the Olympics exploded into a premier international event, the fine arts competitions remained an overlooked sideshow. To satisfy the sport-inspired requirement, many paintings and sculptures were dramatic depictions of wrestling or boxing matches; the majority of the architecture plans were for stadiums and arenas. The format of the competitions was inconsistent and occasionally chaotic: a category might garner a silver medal, but no gold, or the jury might be so disappointed in the submissions that it awarded no medals at all. At the 1928 Amsterdam Games, the literature category was split into lyric, dramatic and epic subcategories, then reunited as one for 1932, and then split again in 1936.
Many art world insiders viewed the competitions with distrust. “Some people were enthusiastic about it, but quite a few were standoffish,” Stanton says. “They didn't want to have to compete, because it might damage their own reputations.” The fact that the events had been initiated by art outsiders, rather than artists, musicians or writers—and the fact that all entries had to be sport-themed—also led many of the most prominent potential entrants to decide the competitions were not worth their time
Still, local audiences enjoyed the artworks—during the 1932 Games, nearly 400,000 people visited the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art to see the works entered—and some big names did enter the competitions. John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, won a silver at the 1932 Los Angeles Games for his design of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, constructed at Yale University. Italian sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, American illustrator Percy Crosby, Irish author Oliver St. John Gogarty and Dutch painter Isaac Israëls were other prominent entrants.
In 1940 and 1944, the Olympics were put on hold as nearly all participating countries became embroiled in the violence and destruction of World War II. When they returned, the art competitions faced a bigger problem: the new IOC president’s obsession with absolute amateurism. “American Avery Brundage became the president of the IOC, and he was a rigid supporter of amateur athletics,” Stanton says. “He wanted the Olympics to be completely pure, not to be swayed by the weight of money.” Because artists inherently rely on selling their work for their livelihood—and because winning an Olympic medal could theoretically serve as a sort of advertisement for the quality of an artist’s work—Brundage took aim at the art competitions, insisting they represented an unwelcome incursion of professionalism. Although Brundage himself had once entered a piece of literature in the 1932 Games’ competitions and earned an honorable mention, he stridently led a campaign against the arts following the 1948 Games.