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Earlier Olympics Had a Very Loose Definition of "Athlete"

Posted By Lisa Regan on 08/10/2012

Now that they're drawing to a close, we’re all feeling like we know pretty much everything there is to know about the Olympics. Who has not by now invested many long minutes in watching typically obscure sports like table tennis, kayaking, or shooting? It’s standard to make jokes about the fact that many modern Olympic sports were unknown in ancient Greece (curling, anyone?), but did you know that at one time, many of the “sports” were not sports at all? In fact, many of the early Olympians were artists.

The modern Olympics only date to the very end of the 19th century, and early on were spectacles associated with World’s Fairs. Early organizers wanted to show the true greatness of human endeavor by merging art and culture with sport; they therefore arranged, beginning in Stockholm in 1912, to begin offering medals in the arts. (Medals in the noble sport of tug-of-war were also added, by the way.) For the next 40 years, Olympic medals were given in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and music. (Sadly, tug of war never reappeared.)

Here is the gold-medal-winning sculpture from 1912, “An American Trotter,” by Walter Winans:

Winans was himself an athlete—he had won a gold in sharpshooting in the 1908 games. To which we can only say, “Go USA!!

So who are your art and literature medalists? We think we know a few contenders:


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