When the arts won Olympic medals and why fascists love a sporting image


After the Tokyo Olympics, lockdown boredom is expected to move on a whole new plane. Even without spectators, the Olympics upheld their status as the ultimate global spectacle, with the power to keep millions of people glued to the box day after day. What do we do now that it’s over?

Sport at its highest level commands a large popular audience, but high art is regarded as an elite concern. Sports stadiums have been people’s playgrounds since ancient times, but art museums – a modern phenomenon born out of private collections – are seen as intimidating places. I remember reading a British survey that found that many working class people saw art galleries as ‘not for people like us’.

“The Cardiff Team” by Robert Delaunay (1912-13)
Credit:DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty

There are many obvious reasons for the different reactions to art and sport. No one can roar with approval, sing, eat or drink in an art gallery. It is a reflective experience, closer to a religious service than to a football game. There is also the feeling that understanding art requires a certain degree of specialist knowledge. In sport, success is easily recognized and quantified.

It may be surprising to learn that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, considered sport and the arts to be just as important. The ancient Greeks had incorporated music and poetry competitions into the Games and this is precisely what Coubertin proposed for the modern version. From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded for painting, sculpture, literature, music and architecture. The baron even participated in it, although under a pseudonym, winning a gold medal for a poem, Ode to sport, at the 1912 Games in Stockholm.

    Baron Pierre de Coubertin, 1863-1937, who included artistic activities when he revived the Olympics.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, 1863-1937, who included artistic activities when he revived the Olympics.Credit:archives

The rule decreed by the International Olympic Committee specified that works of art must “have a definite relationship with the Olympic concept”. It might sound pretty vague, but in practice it produced work that now looks slightly embarrassing. A heroic feat in the sports arena becomes purely kitsch when transmuted into painting or sculpture. Poetry and music have become thrilling and anthemic. As artistic achievement is not measurable with a scoreboard or a stopwatch, there have been many arguments regarding the judging process. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for example, German artists dominated the medal count.

Most of the well-known artists refused to participate in the Olympic competitions, which were halted after the 1948 London Games. Since then, there have been many additional exhibitions and events, but no more medals.

It may be that sport and art have lost all chance of equitable coexistence long before Coubertin’s great gesture. In ancient Greece, the two activities were united in the celebration of physical perfection, but since then the gap has widened. The emblematic piece of this first period is that of Myron Discobolus (c.460-450 BC), which we know only from Roman copies of the original. The discus thrower is both a perfect physical specimen and a landmark in classical Greek sculpture. Almost 2,500 years later, it is difficult to think of another work that unites the worlds of sport and art so well.

Before the era of professional sport, the major “sporting” themes of artists were linked to horses and hunting. Rubens’ wildly dramatic hunting images, such as Wolf and fox hunting (1616), are among the supreme examples of the genre.

A reproduction of Myron's “Discobolus”, one of the greatest works of classical sculpture.

A reproduction of Myron’s “Discobolus”, one of the greatest works of classical sculpture. Credit: E. Kaupmany

The 19th century saw the start of many organized sports. The dawn of this century was the height of Romanticism, which placed a new emphasis on the individuality and temperament of the artist. At a time when sport sets rules, forms clubs and competitions, art is increasingly associated with a search for freedom.

In 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, art and sport had lived separately for many years, despite Coubertin’s chimerical attempts to bring them together. The freedoms claimed by the Romantics had become completely non-negotiable for the moderns, who saw themselves as revolutionaries. The “art for the sake of art” doctrine, of which Whistler was the most talkative representative, prevented works of art from serving as celebrations of sporting glory.

There are many boats in Impressionist painting, but they are invariably recreational images – the antithesis of competitive sport. The sport was shunned by the artistic avant-garde but found favor in neoclassical art favored by dictators, who saw the athlete as a model of the strong, disciplined and ideal body. The sportsmen were warriors, and the competition in the arena was a rehearsal for the ultimate competition on the battlefield.

The Nazis preferred paintings such as the pictures of blond gymnasts by Gerhard Keil, or those by Albert Janesch. Nautical sports, hung in the artistic competition of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. It shows a race between four lanes of shirtless rowers, as muscular as any character in a superhero comic book. It has been described by German critic Hubert Wilm as “a representation of the perfect beauty of a race seasoned in battle and sport”.

    Bare discus thrower in classic pose |  scene from Leni Riefenstahl's film 'Olympia', part 1: 'Festival of Peoples', 1936

Bare discus thrower in classic pose | scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s film ‘Olympia’, part 1: ‘Festival of Peoples’, 1936 Credit:Ullstein / Getty

The style seemed to work best in the middle of the film, as evidenced by Leni Riefenstahl Olympia (1938), perhaps the greatest sports documentary ever made, though never tarnished by its association with Nazi ideology. Which makes Olympia so controversial, even today, is not only its alluring beauty, but the suspicion that the nature of competitive sport lends itself to this disciplined and lyrical style of cinema. Susan Sontag recognized Olympia as a masterpiece even though she called Riefenstahl an unreconstructed exponent of “fascist aesthetics”. The alarming idea is that when it comes to sports, the fascist aesthetic is a natural fit.

Italian futurists were rigorously avant-garde, obsessed with speed and war. Their leader, Filippo Marinetti, would become an enthusiastic fascist. When Mussolini, at Hitler’s request, passed laws that discriminated against Jews, Marinetti was quick to assert that there were no Jews in Futurism. At first the fascists sympathized with the movement, but despite Marinetti’s contortions and compromises, this sympathy gradually eroded. Nevertheless, the futurists created memorable sports images. At Umberto Boccioni Dynamism of a footballer (1913) is barely recognizable as a figure, but it is a remarkable feat of abstract planes twisting and turning on themselves.

“Dynamism of a football player” by Umberto Boccioni Credit:Francis G Mayer / Corbis / Getty

Images such as Boccioni’s footballer would never have pleased an Olympic exhibition committee that favored more academic styles. The Olympics echoed the tastes of authoritarians, who believed that art should be primarily festive in nature – a celebration of sport and, by implication, the regime behind the sporting hero. The name we usually give to such art is propaganda.

With a few exceptions, like the dynamic sports imagery from the Grosvenor School of printmakers; Robert Delaunay’s rugby photos, in particular, The Cardiff team (1912-13); from images of skipping rope and runners by Willi Baumeister, or Cubist-influenced paintings of boxers, horse racing and footballers by British artist William Roberts (1895-1980), modern artists have avoided the sport as a theme.

Among the artists working in styles officially approved by the tyrants, the best was probably the Soviet painter Aleksandr Deyneka (1899-1969). During a career that spanned the entire Stalinist era, Deyneka produced new classically styled images of runners, footballers, skiers, divers, high jumpers, baseball, polo and hockey players. The relative flatness of his work and the brilliance of his palette testified to Modernist influences, but Deyneka’s heroic and patriotic subject matter kept him on the good side of acceptability. He has good claims to be considered the leading sports artist of the 20th century.

Deyneka proves that when it comes to sport, an artist is well served by classical restraint. That’s a lesson confirmed by a brief glance at the thousands of gruesome and gruesome examples of modern “sports” art found online. This torrent of kitsch is counterbalanced by the works of contemporary artists who use sport as a vehicle for social criticism or formal experimentation. But by co-opting sport for their own ends, contemporary artists only reaffirm the historical disconnect between sport and art.


Athletes can use their public platform to make political statements, such as “take the knee” before a match, but in the heat of competition the only things that matter are victory, loss and fair play. . The moral code of a sports competition is to respect the rules and observe the “spirit” of the game. This is where sport breaks definitively with the studied provocations of contemporary art, a field where medals of gold are reserved for those who break all the rules of the book.

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