Letter to the Editor – The Sport Journal Pierre de Coubertin, arts administrator

Ed:

During the preparation of this issue of the Sport Journal, we received a piece sent to us by Mr. Raymond Grant, the artistic director of the 2002 Olympic Art Festival, reflecting on the historic and modern cultural aspects of the Olympic Games. Although the article does not fall within the normal editorial plan of the Sports Journal, it is very insightful and we felt, as such, it would be of interest to the readership

With the permission of the author, we are reprinting the piece titled “Contrast, Culture, and Courage: A Cultural Administrator’s Tribute to Pierre de Coubertin” in the form of a letter to the editor. We trust the readership will find as much value in reading the piece as we did.

As Beijing, Vancouver, and London prepare to host future
Olympic Games, it seems fitting to remind readers of The Sport Journal
of the value of cultural programs within the Olympic Movement and the
connection between artists and athletes. That value, and the corresponding
cultural development surrounding the successful hosting of the Olympic
Games, has deep roots within the Olympic Movement thanks to the vision
of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. de Coubertin was both a sports and arts
administrator.

The recently completed Turin Olympic Winter Games and Athens Olympic
Games warrant reflection brought about by the cultural legacy of Pierre
de Coubertin. The very public challenges surrounding the hosting of the
Olympic Games, the reforms of the IOC, and the successful return of the
Summer Games to Athens suggests that this contemporary period in the Olympic
Movement has elements of the historic.

The on-going research of Norbert Muller, Manfred Messing, and Research
Team Olympia of the University of Mainz (Germany) in their new publication
From Chamonix to Turin, holds significant value in the study
of cultural programs within the context of the Olympic Games. In their
research on the meaning of the cultural program for spectators in Salt
Lake in 2002, the authors found that 84% of respondents agreed with the
statement that “The Olympic idea combines sport and art.”
This significantly high response compares with 72% for the Olympic Games
in Sydney 2000, 23% for Atlanta 1996, and 40% for Barcelona 1992. Can
this be a trend in the growth of awareness and significance of Cultural
Olympiads and Olympic Arts Festivals? If so, as the communities of Beijing,
Vancouver, and London prepare to host upcoming Olympic Games, much can
be celebrated and learned by engaging artists and encouraging their role
in community development and the creative economy.

The magic of the Olympic Movement – its power, if you will, is
in how individual communities who are invited to host the Games reinvigorate
the Movement. And, local participation is a defining element of this reinvigoration.
In her article More Than a Game. The Value of Arts Programming to
Increase Local Participation
, author and Olympic researcher Beatriz
Garcia points to “ways in which some of the less known – but
more meaningful – dimensions of the Games could place participation
back at the centre of the [Olympic] celebration.”

The arts were always at the center of Pierre de Coubertin’s vision
for the Olympic Movement. In the years of preparation required to deliver
a credible Olympic Cultural program, I have found that de Coubertin’s
unflagging belief in the power of music, dance, and words was sustaining.

In Dr. Norbert Muller’s opus Olympism, we have the wonderful benefit
of the selected writings of Pierre de Coubertin. To any cultural administrator
of the Games, the historical event of the Olympic Movement in Paris in
May of 1906 is singularly defining. The festivities in the great amphitheater
of the Sorbonne, which ended the 1906 Advisory Conference in Paris (the
Conference itself was held in the historic foyer of the Comedie Francaise)
on the inclusion of the arts and humanities in the modern Olympics, is,
for all intents and purposes, the birth right for those of us who use
the arts to help define the atmosphere of the Modern Games.

In a circular letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dated
April 2, 1906, de Coubertin invites members to an Advisory Conference
to determine “to what extent and in what form the arts and literature
can participate in the celebration of the modern Olympiads.” Thanks
to the vision of de Coubertin, his question is as applicable today for
the organizing committees of Beijing, Vancouver, and London, as it was
for the nascent Olympic Movement of 1906.

The announcement of the 1906 Advisory Conference was attached to the
invitation to IOC members to attend the Games in Athens. As completely
as de Coubertin believed in the merger of sport and art, the summoning
of this “Consultative Conference on Art, Letters, and Sport”
was not completely altruistic. In his Olympic Memoirs, de Coubertin said
“I would be able to use this (the conference) as an excuse for not
going to Athens, a journey I particularly wished to avoid.”

Excuses aside, de Coubertin, I believe, understood that artists provide
communities with a sense of place and the Olympic Movement of 1906 was
missing a vital link to this sense of place. A distinct challenge remains
today as arts and culture programs within the context of host organizing
committees fight for survival, respect, resources, and presence. de Coubertin’s
vision of Olympism – what the Olympic Movement aspires to be –
is inextricably linked to the arts and humanities “harmoniously
joined with sports.”

Celebrating the achievements of athletes alongside the accomplishments
of artists became the vision of the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival.

In an article I wrote for The Olympic Review entitled Contrast, Culture,
and Courage
, I reflected on the cultural legacy of de Coubertin citing
the seminal meetings he convened. In that article, I said ‘I will
leave it to greater minds to decide if the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival,
in any substantive way, realized this broad de Coubertin vision’.

Now, I am especially encouraged by the results of the studies conducted
by Research Team Olympia in 2002 and just released in which the researchers
(Muller, Messing, and Preub) say, “It can be concluded that the
Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Arts Festival was a relatively successful one.
Although not all of the projects could be realized, the understanding
of the inner connection of Olympic sport and art was higher than at three
former (Summer) Olympic Games and the biathlon spectators were more involved
in visits of the Cultural Program. It seems that the Arts Festival in
Salt Lake 2002 has set a benchmark for Winter Games which needs further
study to measure the achievements of cultural programs in the future.”
Hopefully, the sports and arts administrators of the Games of Beijing,
Vancouver, and London, can engage in, commission, and contribute to this
Olympic research area.

Participation is the key to promoting the role culture plays in great
social gatherings. And, the Olympic Movement stands as the great social
gathering of our time.

I posit that the Olympic Movement is furthered, as well, by the perspective
and point of view of artists, for it has been said that “only artists
find the uncommon in the commonplace.” I, for one, look forward
to the role that gifted artists, poets, playwrights, and essayists will
play in future Games. If history is any judge, they will leave a cultural
legacy for the Games and the communities which host them.

Twenty-five years after the 1906 Advisory Conference, de Coubertin reflected:

I have already repeated – so often that I am a trifle ashamed
of doing so once again, but so many people still do not seem to have
understood – that the Olympic Games are not just ordinary world
championships but a four-year festival of universal youth, “the
spring of mankind”, a festival of supreme efforts, multiple ambitions
and all forms of youthful activity celebrated by each succeeding generation
as it arrives on the threshold of life. It was no mere matter of chance
that in ancient times, writers and artists gathered together at Olympia
to celebrate the Games, thus creating the inestimable prestige the Games
have enjoyed for so long.

Today, the Olympic Games have as compelling an obligation and opportunity
to gather writers and artists together as they did in 1906.

If “this was how the reunion of the muscles and the mind, once
divorced, was celebrated in the year of grace 1906,” let us look
toward years of grace in 2008 in Beijing; 2010 in Vancouver; and 2012
in London.