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Noted: When Artists Competed at the Olympics

Aug 2, 2012

by Chappell Ellison handmade and vintage goods

Of all the decorated Olympians, you’ve probably never heard of Aale Maria Tynni or John Copley. A poet and artist respectively, they both won medals in the Olympic art competition, a long-forgotten event created in 1912 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. Slate posted an entertaining article on de Coubertain, explaining how the organizer demanded that the Olympics “embrace the entire known world” by holding art contests along with sporting events.

The idea was not popular with artists, especially because any work they entered had to be sports-themed. The International Olympic Committee barred professional artists from competing, leading many to feel that the competition didn’t accurately represent the discipline in the same serious light as the sporting events. By the 1952 Games in Helsinki, the event was reduced to an art exhibition before it vanished all together.

There were many problems with the original Olympic arts competition, but de Coubertin, who desperately sought to recognize all human achievements, had his heart in the right place. Do fine arts lend themselves to the competitive atmosphere of sports? Most will tell you that art is never a competition but rather a personal exploration in which “winning” is a foreign word. But if gymnasts and ice skaters are judged for the way they flick their wrists and add flourish to their twirls, subjective judging is already in place at the Olympics.

If the Olympic art competition made a comeback, would you enter?

Art Category | Search “Olympics” on Etsy

3 Featured Comments

  • AlannaRK

    Chelsea from AlannaAndCo said 4 years ago Featured

    The problem with fine arts competitions is that fine art is so subjective. One man can look at a piece and declare "genius!" while another cries "fraud!". There are no hard and fast rules. It's not like gymnastics or swimming; you can't deduct 5/10ths of a point for incorrect brush strokes.

  • tigersanddragons

    tigersanddragons from TigersandDragons said 4 years ago Featured

    I had no idea that the Olympics once included art, sports themed art seems kind of limiting. The professional art world really is a competition; applying for shows and grants, trying to find agents and gallery representation.

  • lizhutnick

    Liz Hutnick from LizHutnick said 4 years ago Featured

    "If the Olympic art competition made a comeback, would you enter?" Absolutely!


  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 4 years ago

    Love read ! Thanks !

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 4 years ago

    Awesome article !

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 4 years ago

    Awesome article!!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    That would be awesome! Great post! Thanks!

  • LaurenRoseJewlers

    Lauren Rose from LaurenRoseJewlers said 4 years ago

    I never would have known!that is awesome and so interesting!

  • prettystardesigns

    Pretty Star Designs from prettystardesigns said 4 years ago

    Fab article :)

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    " . . . art is never a competition" 'Nuff said. Fascinating article. Will have to read more.

  • TreadleLady

    Donna Kohler from TreadleLady said 4 years ago

    If there was a treadle sewing machine competition I would be first to apply! I can stitch anything on a foot powered machine, even free motion embroidery. Reminds me, I really have to finish my Van Gogh Starry Night hoop embroidery so watch for it getting listed by the weekend!

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 4 years ago

    Great article!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    I had no idea!

  • AlannaRK

    Chelsea from AlannaAndCo said 4 years ago Featured

    The problem with fine arts competitions is that fine art is so subjective. One man can look at a piece and declare "genius!" while another cries "fraud!". There are no hard and fast rules. It's not like gymnastics or swimming; you can't deduct 5/10ths of a point for incorrect brush strokes.

  • tigersanddragons

    tigersanddragons from TigersandDragons said 4 years ago Featured

    I had no idea that the Olympics once included art, sports themed art seems kind of limiting. The professional art world really is a competition; applying for shows and grants, trying to find agents and gallery representation.

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing the article in this post. I had never heard of the arts being included, long ago, in the Olympic games. It is puzzling to think of visual arts, literature, poetry, music and so forth being judged in the manner of a sport. However there are competitions of all kinds in the arts. Maybe it was the mix of sports and arts that didn't mesh so well. Many sports do have an artistic element that is judged; I don't see the problem with that really. I have attended many ballroom dance (Dancesport) competitions and judging is on technical as well as interpretive aspects of dance. Dancesport is on track to be an Olympic sport in the future as well!

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from FireHorseVintageHQ said 4 years ago

    Goodness! You learn something new every day. I don't think art lends itself to competion of this sort, unless you separate it down into sub categories - of materials/technique used and subjects, perhaps?

  • uswatsons

    Sylvie Liv from SylvieLiv said 4 years ago

    You always share the most interesting tidbits! I can't imagine calling art an Olympic sport! I agree that art shouldn't be a competition. Everyone's art is uniquely their own, and it would be hard to say "That art is way better than the other art." I don't feel like art is something that belongs in the Olympics.

  • lauraprill

    Laura Prill from lauraprill said 4 years ago

    I don't have a problem with seeing art in a competitive light- just enter a juried art competition and see the ins and outs of judging. I think that in our times the Olympic art competitions have been replaced by the corporate sponsor's logos and ads.

  • ErikaPrice

    Erika from ErikaPrice said 4 years ago

    I think it's a great idea - say "yes" to bringing back poetry & art, & introducing all sorts of other crafts too - much more exciting than some of the other Olympic "sports"! Time to get rid of the corporate mania and return to something more akin to the true Olympian ideals. Not sure how the media would respond, though!!!!!

  • RenataandJonathan

    Renata and Jonathan from RenataandJonathan said 4 years ago

    Interesting idea :)

  • silviaberrios1

    Silvia Berrios from DesignsbySilvia said 4 years ago

    As the saying goes: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

  • AMSkrafts

    AMSkrafts from AMSkrafts said 4 years ago

    Great article, I never knew of this art olympics before. It is an interesting idea, but I think art is an expression of the artist and his/her view of the world, not really a competition with other artists.

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 4 years ago

    The thing about judging the artistic aspects of skating or gymnastics is that the athletes are putting on a sort of performance in demonstrating their skills. Most visual arts do not have this performance aspect. Though, there are many art competitions out there, so there are instances where art can 'win'. It makes more sense to involve artists in public art associated with Olympic venues, it seems to me, than with Olympic competition.

  • paintmydog

    Justine Osborne from paintmydog said 4 years ago

    Who would judge!

  • CafePrimrose

    Amanda Gynther from CafePrimrose said 4 years ago

    Good article! Me and my husband were talking about this just last night!

  • wheatleypaperworks

    M Wheatley from wheatleypaperworks said 4 years ago

    Outrageous. And funny. I'd compete in the "Nonsensical Paintings" category but only if I didn't have to wear sweat socks...

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Interesting article. Hope my undergrad all women's art college doesn't find out about this.

  • LiliDMagpieCreations

    Lisa Giddings from LiliDMagpieCreations said 4 years ago

    Fascinating article and question! Personally I think that art is too subjective to be treated the same way as an Olympic sport. In sports the results are generally quantifiable and the "winners" are chosen based on his or her performance. In Art who is to say what is best...we all have our owe preferences, both cultural and personal, to any one piece displayed! Better to celebrate the Olympics with an art exhibition then to make it a battleground of clashing cultures and passionate options. Let Art be Art and Sports be Sports…but it’s just my 2 cents. ;)

  • ValliCraftEmporium

    ValliCraftEmporium from ValliCraftEmporium said 4 years ago

    Competitive art is a hard one to swallow...particularly, fine art. Commercial art might be different. Thanks for the article.

  • KisforCalligraphy

    katy from KisforCalligraphy said 4 years ago

    The question should be why do artists have such an attitude when it comes to sports? There are countless art competitions taking place all over the world all the time. Etsy frequently promotes these types of competitions. The NASA/Etsy art competion, The Valentine's Day card competition, The Etsy Twitter Contest and numerous Art Show competitions come to mind. There are art contests everywhere we look; in our schools and in our local communities. And a lot of these competitions have guidelines from subject matter to age requirements. Artists are in competition all the time and no where is this more evident than on Etsy. The Etsy environment is rampant with competition void of a fair playing field. The rules of the game for the most part do not mimic those in the sporting world. The winners are chosen using favoritism. Rules are broken and not enforced. And the resellers are blatantly violating the "doping" guidelines.

  • auldlangsyne1

    Kirk Kidz from auldlangsyne1 said 4 years ago would be hard, as there are so many tastes and flavors... would be interesting though! ~Krista

  • KisforCalligraphy

    katy from KisforCalligraphy said 4 years ago

    Art is competitive. Maybe not so much a century ago but it is undeniably competitive now. There are art competitions everywhere you look. There are TV shows based solely on artistic competitions: Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, The Voice, etc. Applying to Art School is a competition in itself. And what about the "Juried Art Show"? Juried means it is judged. An Olympic Art Competition would be no different.

  • sandboxcastle

    H Wang from sandboxcastle said 4 years ago

    Although the idea of an art competition sounds great, the barring of "professionals" and the totally subjective nature of art kinda makes it not feasible in my least not if you wanted to take it seriously. Interesting radio piece about the same topic

  • peshka

    Peshka from Peshka said 4 years ago

    Lovely article!

  • floodplainstudio

    Cara from themicromentalist said 4 years ago

    I was thinking the very same thing the other day. Thought it would be cool for artists to transform London. The best artist gets the gold medal.

  • KisforCalligraphy

    katy from KisforCalligraphy said 4 years ago

    There are professional basketball players, tennis players and soccer (football) players participating in the Olympics. What makes anyone think professional artists would be barred?

  • KisforCalligraphy

    katy from KisforCalligraphy said 4 years ago

    You can choose to deny it until you are blue in the face, the FACT is, competition in ART and ART CONTESTS are commonplace. Competition is a fact of life. Sports do not need art. ART needs SPORTS. In my opinion, artists can learn a lot from sport starting with a lesson in the "Art of Competition."

  • TheCottageCheese

    Marsi from TheCottageCheese said 4 years ago

    Really fascinating, I never knew this until now. While I don't really have an opinion as to whether or not fine arts lends themselves to the competitive atmosphere of sports, it is a fact that Leroy Neiman made a fortune in sports-themed art. So obviously sports-themed art is of interest to a lot of people.

  • xZOUix

    Zoui from XZOUIX said 4 years ago

    another nice article, thanks for sharing this w. us. :)

  • headsheartsandhands

    Dee Hall from headsheartsandhands said 4 years ago

    I would love to compete in the Artists' Olympics....especiially since I have no sports talent! There is a wonderful cultural arts festival held in conjunction with the Games. I was fortunate enough to see it in 1984....and London's Festival looks really interesting!

  • LiliDMagpieCreations

    Lisa Giddings from LiliDMagpieCreations said 4 years ago

    LOL....OK maybe I Could see a Textile Olympic Competition! The wool felting could be in 2 divisions (wet vs dry needle felting) with a set time given for a project like, "interpret a penguin"! Btw, before I wrote, "Let Art be Art and Sports be Sports" but the fact is that there are many artist aspects in sports. :)

  • vegasblingrocks

    Judy Murphy from vegasblingrocks said 4 years ago

    I love sports and art, but feel Arts in the Olympics is not the place. As ususal, I will be going to our local First Friday art show tomorrow where I ALWAYS buy "something" as my way of supporting the artists. And even though the temp will be another 100 at midnight! If you are ever in Vegas on a first of the month Friday (all year) don't miss it ........ it is HUGE, 10000000000's of people, MANY streets completely blocked off, located in the "arts district", Charleston/Main St entire area. it's a blast! Very quirky Vegas style .....

  • DansMagic

    DansMagic from DansMagic said 4 years ago

    Never heard about this. I don't see how it even started since it's not a physical endurance activity but that's awesome. Would love to see it come back.

  • quaintcreationsbouti

    Tiffany from OMGthatBOW said 4 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • DarwinsDress

    Deanna Lamour from DarwinsDress said 4 years ago

    They are holding the Art Battles in NYC and other cities, of which a friend Zito is one of the warriors. It's pretty competitive and they make some fabulous art in a short amount of time. The Olympics would be a great place to take the finalists of all the Art Battles. Great idea!

  • lizhutnick

    Liz Hutnick from LizHutnick said 4 years ago Featured

    "If the Olympic art competition made a comeback, would you enter?" Absolutely!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    Funny my mum told me this the other day when I mentioned if there was a gold medal for throwing pots! Last Olympics the UK held team GB won gold for Etching : )

  • FranceGallery

    France Gallery from FranceGallery said 4 years ago

    Interesting unknown information!

  • sandstormcreations

    sandstormcreations from sandstormcreations said 4 years ago

    Very interesting article, thanks for sharing

  • fayegriffiths

    Faye Griffiths said 4 years ago

    Think it would be great to have an Olympic art competition, if nothing else it can get some great sporting art work out there and give the Olympic a different angle than a purely sporting avent, it's so much more about skill and determination with in a person, just like art and poetry.

  • Musclesandcrafts

    Melanie from merVazi said 4 years ago

    Olympics is for sports and physical endurance/readiness, however I agree that there are art competitions everywhere.

  • enrooted

    Lena from enrooted said 4 years ago

    Now that wouldn't make any sense. Interesting read, I didn't know this! But art as an Olympic discipline doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Who and how would they judge that? If they gave a picture as example and then all the artists would have to reproduce it as closely to the original as possible - THAT would work. But that's not art ;) All other disciplines have very strict rules on what the elements have to look like etc - that's impossible for art. So I actually hope art stays out of the Olympics. And if they ever put it back in, I will stay far far away and probably roll my eyes over this event ;)

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 4 years ago

    A town near me has a fundraiser where artists participate in a “Quick Draw” event, completing an original artwork in one hour. The results are then auctioned off. It's not quite art in the Olympics, but it's fun and raises money for a good cause. I agree with all these other posts that the arts are VERY competitive already. Artists not only need to be artistic, but to have entrepreneurial zeal.

  • SamOssie

    Sam Osborne from SamOsborneStore said 4 years ago

    Amazing piece of history! I agree that it would be so hard to judge this and although you draw the comparison between gymnasts and ice skaters they have a set of agreed 'perfect moves' that they are judges against, trying to find that for such a wide range of art would be next to impossible. However I love to see sport and art come together, in fact I do that in my own work, and think that someone clever could come up with a way to combine them more than they do! I'd be interested to see, that's for sure.

  • windycitynovelties

    Windy City Novelties said 4 years ago

    I would most definitely enter the contest! I didn't know they had these competitions either.

  • piecesofelises

    Elise from piecesofelises said 4 years ago

    Interesting. I learned something new. Honestly, I don't like art competitions because as others have pointed out - who can really judge? Unless it was categorized into very specific categories, like most realistic pencil drawing, or most use of color in a landscape painting, I think it is all a matter of personal taste.

  • newhopebeading

    newhopebeading from newhopebeading said 4 years ago

    very cool post!

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 4 years ago


  • Ayshma

    Ayshma from ArtPieces said 4 years ago

    would love to have that, alos to participate in that, it would be really interesting and amazing. On second thought ,Action painters are gonna win :)

  • abdulbaba1

    abdul baba said 4 years ago

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  • abacado

    abacado from Abacado said 4 years ago

    Wow. I imagine that would be pretty ridiculous (not meant in an ignorant way, can imagine it...and all I can say is that I imagine it "ridiculous".) Perhaps not very intelligently put, but also perhaps, intelligible. I can see why artists would feel restricted (well, because they are re: sports-themed art). It would definitely be a wonderful opportunity for exposure for the artist, though. In short: I'd be against art as an Olympic sport for sure. While sports such as gymnastics are judged subjectively, there is at least a standard with rules...for that specific sport. Thank you for sharing this intriguing part of our history! I'm curious as to how you came upon this fun fact. :)

  • KaiceJoy

    Kirsti Joy from KaiceJoy said 4 years ago

    I had no idea!!! I am not sure how you would "judge" art if it were again in the olympics, but I know it would be fun to watch!!

  • AudreyKerchnerPhotog

    Aud Kerchner from AudreyKerchnerstudio said 4 years ago

    I think it's not a good idea. Sports and art are two different things and shouldn't be judged or treated the same way. Should there be a Pulitzer prize created for the best athlete in the world?

  • StoriedVintage2

    StoriedVintage2 from StoriedVintage2 said 4 years ago

    Art only becomes competitive when the artist creates from a desire to compete with another artist for fame or fortune. Do we want to promote that kind of creation? I hope not

  • MegExpressions

    Meg Corbin from MegExpressions said 4 years ago

    yeah, it seems best that art is created from a place of inspiration and desire to communicate than of competition; I'm not sure that I would go for the kind of art entered into an Olympic competition.

  • BluebirdAndRobin

    Flora Pick from MiniKawauso said 4 years ago

    I think art should be an olympic 'sport' if they did ever bring it back I highly doubt they would bann professionals from competing since that rule was dropped in other events a while back. When your saying it isn't a proper sport think- is synchro swimming ( ugh, those outfits, bleeuugh ) or beach vollyball? Those aren't 'proper' sports yet they still have their place in the olympics. I've had enough of sportspeople getting all the glory, if not the olympics there should at least be a big, international art event to give artists a chance to be noticed!


    Catherine Ingleby from ZUCCAZU said 4 years ago

    The desire to be successful has to run closely alongside a competitive nature, otherwise why would any artist put themselves forward to be subjected to ctriticism (or acclaim)? Competition in art is as old as the history of art - competition for commissions, patrons, exhibition space - any artist who believes in themself enough to try and earn a living from it always has to compete against their contemporaries.

  • edmarion

    Ed Marion from edmarion said 4 years ago

    Hell yeah I'd throw my hat in the ring.

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