How corruption and nepotism brought down Olympic artistic games

For more than three decades the Olympics ran artistic competitions in tandem with the games, with several familiar Irish winners. But the competition was derailed by accusations of corruption, nepotism and an apathetic organising committee

The athletes arch their limbs as they propel themselves through the murky channel. The tumult and excitement of the crowd is visible on the scant few faces seen head on, pensive thousands jostling, craning their bodies toward the water for a closer view of the race’s final stretch.

This may seem reminiscent of the O'Donovan's heroics at the rowing in Rio last week week, but I am in fact describing Ireland's route to a podium finish at the Paris Olympics of 1924. Only this silver medal wasn't in rowing, nor swimming, nor any other athletic discipline. The scene described wasn't even in Paris. It is, in fact, The Liffey Swim, an oil on canvas by Jack B Yeats that won the silver for painting at that year's summer games.

From 1912 until 1948, the world’s cultural elite were encouraged to chase medals alongside the great and the good of the sporting world. In categories as diverse as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and the cultural apex that is town planning, the awards were part and parcel of the modern Olympic games.

At the time, Ireland’s main contribution to the Olympics had been the weight-throwers known as “the Irish whales”, a cabal of large, Irish-born giants who scored more than 20 medals for Great Britain, the US and Canada.


For the arts, Yeats wasn't Ireland's only podium finish. Oliver St John Gogarty took bronze for poetry in 1924, as did Letitia Hamilton in painting, at the 1948 games.

The Olympic art competitions were encouraged by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement. The sort of mustachioed aristocrat that looked like he travelled exclusively by hot air balloon, de Coubertin wanted the Olympics to include not just athletics but cultural and artistic exertions, to “represent the reunion of the muscles and the mind, once divorced”. Despite having lobbied for their inclusion from as early as 1896, it was 1912 before he first convinced the host city to include cultural disciplines, after which they persisted for more than three decades.

The project wasn't initially popular. Medals were only sometimes awarded for certain disciplines, and even then, in a fashion that now seems charmingly erratic. The Czech composer Josef Suk was the sole contestant in music at the 1932 Los Angeles games, yet somehow only garnered a silver for his efforts. Similarly, Gabriele Bianchi of Italy was the only vocalist to podium at the London 48 games, but managed only a bronze.

Many blamed such early oddities on a lack of interest from competitors. In keeping with the amateur spirit of the games, no prize money was offered. Furthermore, the insistence that the themes of sport or athleticism must somehow be captured in the work was a restriction few artists found attractive. This lack of interest was so widespread that de Coubertin awarded himself the Olympic gold in poetry for his work, Ode To Sport. The poem, submitted in the name of a fictional duo, Georges Hohrod and Martin Echsbach, was likely written to disguise the fact that as few as 35 entries had been submitted across all disciplines, and de Coubertin never admitted to its authorship in his lifetime.

The small pool of competitors may also offer a more charitable explanation for the trend toward awarding medals to those gentlemen within the baron’s circle of acquaintances. In one particularly striking case, an engraved medallion designed by Canadian artist and gymnast R Tait McKenzie was displayed in the final awards show, despite not having been given any medal at all.

Some have alleged this was a misunderstanding based on the fact that the small sculpture was itself a medal, whereas de Coubertin attributed McKenzie’s inclusion to “the sculptor’s high social status”. Participants like McKenzie were the prized gem for the Olympiad, a gentleman and doctor, his parallel aptitude for gymnastics made him that much-coveted double threat: the “athlete-artist”.

In 1924, the Hungarian Alfred Hajos, added a silver in architecture to the two swimming golds he'd won 28 years earlier. Perhaps more impressive still was the feat of Russian-born Walter Winans, who won a silver in shooting and gold for sculpture at the Stockholm games of 1912.

Despite some growth, the art competitions were a perennial sideshow to the main event, and often seen as something of a hindrance to everyone outside of the baron’s narrow clique. Stories abound of indifferent hosts who were irked by having to organise everything themselves, and of highly variable levels of interest from the cultural world.

Interest in the competitions from artists did improve, and while never approaching the reputation of a major art prize, more than 1,100 artworks were submitted for the 1928 games. Ironically, it would be their modest success that ultimately spelled the end for the project. In most cases, the artists involved were professional, and the fact that artists were allowed to sell their work after the final exhibition was ultimately judged to be at odds with the games’ amateur ethos.

The committee tasked with staging Helsinki’s games in 1952 declined to pick up the artistic baton, and the hodge-podge cultural fair they staged in its place gave rise to the more narrowly defined “art and culture festivals” still staged alongside each Olympiad today.