The Use of Sport Art for the Development of Olympic Education: Passing the Visual Torch

> “The Olympic Games are not just ordinary world championships but a four-yearly festival of universal youth, ‘the spring of mankind,’… multiple ambitions in all forms…To the ancient Greeks, the Olympics were as much a matter of art as athleticism.”
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the Modern Olympic Games

Since the beginning of the Olympic Games, sport and art have been partners in communicating Olympic values, and this powerful educational partnership continues today. Defined in the 1800s by its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the purpose of the Modern Olympics is to promote the physical, psychological, and peaceful cultural improvement of man and nations through sport. More effectively than any other vehicle, sport art brings the spirit of the Games to the masses in line with the democratic principles of Olympism. Only a few select athletes can experience the thrill of participating in Olympic sports. However, everyone can enjoy and be inspired by viewing Olympic art.

The Olympic Movement is the greatest sport and social movement in human history. The Modern Olympic Games revived the Ancient Olympic Games. They have survived world wars. They have survived economic collapse. Time and again, in the face of adversity, the Olympic Movement perseveres. Looking ahead to challenges facing National Olympic Committees, art emerges as a powerful tool for the success and education of future generations in Olympism.

The recent IOC publication of the book, Olympic Posters, is a great resource for teaching Olympism. Posters offer a quick history lesson because dates, places, art styles, and often sports stars are clearly shown. Olympic Games promotion is focused on the youth market, and posters are an effective tool because they are within most young people’s budgets and are popular displays in young people’s rooms.

It might seem unlikely that a simple paper item like a poster would be significant in a fast-paced technological age, however, it is because posters are not fleeting that they retain their teaching edge. You cannot turn them off, and their batteries do not run out. A poster on your wall is a message that keeps on educating. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an appealing Olympic poster’s symbolic message in the person of an exciting athlete is worth a thousand lectures about building character. The posters chosen for discussion here have been selected for their ability to communicate specific milestones in Olympic history or shifts in world culture, and these qualities make them particularly useful as educational tools.

The first official Olympic poster was not printed until 1912. Program covers from prior Games were later printed as posters and contain valuable educational information on early Olympic practices. The Official Report cover for the first Olympics of the modern era, the 1896 Athens Games, is a symbolic portrayal of the connection of Ancient Games to Modern. A manifestation of Coubertin’s vision, the Modern Olympic Games were a vehicle for peace and democracy and strictly amateur. Thirteen nations participated in the first games. The athletes were mostly affluent American and Greek college students. During these Games, Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, won the first Olympic marathon in 2 hours, 38 minutes, and 50 seconds.

The image now printed as the official poster for the 1900 Paris Games is a poster originally designed for the Paris World Exhibition. Even though 22 nations participated in those Games, because of the concurrent schedule, some athletes at the time were unaware that they were competing in the Olympics. Swimming events took place in the Seine River. The poster featuring a woman fencer is fitting, as it advertises the first Games in which women athletes were allowed. An American golfer was the first woman to win an Olympic event.

The 1904 Olympic Games became another upstaged, this time by the St. Louis World Fair. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt changed the host city from Chicago to St. Louis to ensure that the Games would be held along with the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. Noting the event’s famously festive mood, one reporter dubbed the event “a fair where there are also sports.” Because many people still thought of St. Louis as the dangerous “Wild West,” attendance from those outside the United States was minimal. Of the 554 athletes, 432 were Americans. At the St. Louis Games, basketball was held as a demonstration sport, while men’s golf was an official event.

The 1908 Games were held in London. Rome had been scheduled to host the fourth Olympic Games, but a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius changed the site to London. Rome would not host the Games until 1960. In 1908, the London Games were attended by 23 nations and 2,000 athletes and were the first Olympic Games in which the top three finishers earned medals. Several other firsts occurred there. The Olympic motto was coined: It’s the participation that counts, not the winning. Figure skating became an Olympic sport. The first medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport in the fields of architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. Depicted on the program cover, Shepherd’s Bush stadium played a part in another first. The official 26-mile, 385-yard marathon length was adopted so that athletes starting at the stadium would finish for easy royal viewing in front of the Royal Box.

The 1912 Stockholm Games produced the first planned and executed official Olympic poster. The main job of early posters was to announce and advertise the Games. The 1912 poster was printed in 16 nations and shipped to 30 different countries for display. The partial nudity of the athlete portrayed, a nod to Ancient Olympic Games, caused international controversy. The flag sequence, representing the march of the nations, was also an issue of dispute. Over 3,800 athletes from 28 nations participated in those Games, including the first entry by Japan. For the first time, competitors came from all five parts of the world later symbolized in the five Olympic Rings first shown at the 1920 Games. When Sweden refused to hold boxing events because the violence of the sport infringed on its neutrality philosophy, the IOC issued a rule to limit powers of local organizing committees and took control of event selections. The 1912 Games also saw breakthroughs in technology and sport, including the public address system and stop watches.

The 1920 Antwerp Games were the first Olympic Games after World War I. Athletes from Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey were excluded. At those Games, the Olympic Oath, a solemn promise made by one athlete who represents all competitors, was reinstated from the Ancient Games. The Olympic Flag was adopted with its five-colored interlocking rings that symbolize fraternity among nations and the five participating continents. At those Games, hockey was first included, paving the way for future Olympic Winter Games. For the Antwerp Games, the IOC began to invite countries rather than individual athletes. Those Games were the largest to date in terms of participating countries.

Paris, home of Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, hosted its second Games in 1924. This was Coubertin’s last Olympics as President of the IOC. A new Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) was used for the first time. In 1928 in Amsterdam, Holland’s Prince Hendrik opened the largest Games to date in a newly-built, 40,000-spectator stadium that established a tradition of a 400-meter running track. Prince Hendrik introduced a giant results board, now standard for all international competitions. The Dutch also introduced the Olympic flame, which now burns throughout each Olympiad. Women were allowed to compete in track and field events for the first time. For the first time since World War I, Germany was allowed back in the Games. The 1928 poster, the rarest of all Olympic posters, sells for approximately 18,000 U.S. Dollars, and is the first to feature the Olympic Rings that have appeared on all following official posters. The streamlined Deco design of the poster marked the shift from ancient to modern styles and reflects a machine age obsession with speed. This poster does not display specific dates for the Games. Posters no longer needed to provide schedules for an isolated public. Telegraph, radio, and then television could relay the news much faster than print.

The 1936 Games, known as “Hitler’s Games,” originally were to be hosted by Barcelona, but the IOC changed this because Spain was on the brink of civil war. In newly selected Berlin, Adolf Hitler opened the Games in a highly politicized atmosphere, a trend that would continue throughout the 20th century. At the 1912 Stockholm Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin had said, “great people have received the Torch… and have thereby undertaken to preserve and… quicken its precious Flame.” The flame symbol was reconfigured as a Torch Relay at the 1936 Berlin Games. The relay has preceded all Olympic Summer Games since. The 1936 opening ceremonies featured a release of pigeons, a symbol of peace, which also has endured as a standard feature at the Games. Closed circuit television, that would eventually transform the Modern Olympic Games, was introduced for the first time. Jesse Owens, a sprinter from Ohio State, won four gold medals, tied the world record in the 100 meters, set world records in the 200 meters and long jump, and anchored the 400-meter relay. Owens, an African American and top athlete, symbolized the spirit of Olympism, upsetting the political myth of Aryan supremacy, and manifesting Coubertin’s vision of equality.

Although Olympic Games, scheduled for Berlin, Tokyo, and Madrid respectively, were not held in 1916, 1940, and 1944 due to World Wars, the Olympic history of those years is preserved in art. Cristóbal Gabarrón’s sculpture, “The Atlanta Star,” 26 pillars of painted Balboa steel, was installed at the centennial 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. It represented the political, social, and athletic aspects of the 100 years of Games, including those cancelled due to war. “The Atlanta Star,” commissioned by the United States Sports Academy, honors the dark war years, as well as the many freer, happier years of the Games.

In 1948, the Olympic Games returned to London. Britain’s King George VI opened the Games with a great ceremony at Wembley Stadium. Athletes from 59 nations were housed in military barracks throughout the country, and food was rationed. China sent a team to the Summer Games for the last time until 1984. However, there would be representation from Taiwan in the interim. Once again, Germany and Japan were required to sit home. In a great media breakthrough, over 250 broadcasters aired the Games in more than 40 languages. Those were the last Games at which medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport. In London, Bob Mathias (USA) won his first of two gold medals in the decathlon at the age of only 17. At the same time, Alice Coachman (USA) set the high jump Olympic record and became the first black woman to win gold. The 1948 London Olympic poster shows the British Museum’s Townley Discobolus statue, and the Big Ben clock set to the Games’ start time of 4 o’clock. Both are icons of the city and cultural references to the Games’ traditions.

In 1952, Helsinki hosted the largest Olympiad to date, with 69 nations and nearly 5,000 athletes participating. A new state-of-the-art facility was constructed, including a beautiful Olympic Village. Germany and Japan again entered the Games. The Soviet Union entered its first Olympics. The poster from the cancelled 1940 Finnish Games featuring Finnish runner, Paavo Nurmi, holder of 33 distance world records, was revised to suit the 1952 Games. In 1952, Czech, Emil Zatopek, the “Iron Locomotive,” won the 5,000; 10,000 meters and marathon.

Melbourne’s 1956 Olympics were the first held in the Southern Hemisphere. However, the Olympic equestrian events were held in Stockholm, because an Australian government regulation banned animals from entering the country. The Stockholm Equestrian Games featured 158 athletes from 29 nations. Two official posters advertising the two segments of the Games display different dates to compensate for the difference in seasons between hemispheres. While in Melbourne, the United States dominated Olympic track and field, sweeping the sprints and hurdles. Charlie Dumas cleared seven feet in the high jump, Harold Connolly won the hammer throw, and Al Oerter won the first of four golds in discus. At the same time, Olympians from the Soviet Union, led by Vladmir Kuts winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, became poised to take over as the leaders in Olympic track and field. In the meantime, Hungarian, Lazlo Papp, won his third straight boxing title.

The 1960 Rome Games integrated historic architecture with modern facilities. The 1960 Games were the largest Olympiad to date, with 83 nations and nearly 5,500 athletes, and featured the first Paralympics. Heralding a new media era, the Games were televised worldwide. Television revenue has escalated at a staggering pace ever since. In 1960, CBS paid USD 394,000 for television rights. NBC is now paying USD 5.7 billion to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S. from 2000 to 2012. In the Rome Games, the first sign of doping was observed when cyclist, Knut Enemark Jenson of Denmark, died from a drug overdose. Politics surfaced when South Africa was expelled from the Olympic Movement until 1992 for its racist apartheid policy. The stylized 1960 Rome poster depicts a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus atop a Classical column, creating a modern Olympic visual tribute to the history, culture, and art of Rome.

In 1964, Tokyo was the world’s largest city and became the first Asian city to host the Games. Tokyo boasted modern hotels and arenas. The Japanese won every architectural award for sport facilities. The Games cost in excess of USD 2 billion to stage. Japan’s national sport, judo, was designated an official Olympic event. The 1964Tokyo poster was the first Olympic photography poster, showcasing Japan’s advances in photography and printing. The models featured were multi-racial members of the U.S. Air Force, reflecting the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the Games’ message. At those Games, Native American, Billy Mills, set an Olympic record in the 10,000 meters, the first U.S. gold in the event.

The 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games were the first to be held in North America outside the United States. These Games were also the first held at high altitude (7,573 feet above sea level) and staged in the gigantic 150,000-seat Aztec Stadium. For the first time, more than 100 nations (112) participated. Bob Beamon (USA) set the long jump record at 29 feet, 2.5 inches, and Al Oerter (USA) won discus for the fourth consecutive time. The 1968 Mexico poster was designed to evoke the fabric patterns of the Huichole Indians, an example of how Olympic posters can educate others about host cultures.

The 1972 Munich Games, “The Happy Olympics,” as they were called, contradicted the nickname when racism, boycotts, and terrorism erupted. The 1972 Munich Games turned tragic when the Black September terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes held captive in the Olympic Village. A funeral ceremony was held at the stadium the following day, but the Games continued. USSR dominated the Games, led by Valery Borzov, who won the 100 and 200 meters. USA swimmer, Mark Spitz, won seven gold medals in seven world record performances. However, overall poor performance by the U.S. at those Games became an impetus for the formation of the United States Sports Academy. The Munich poster shows the Olympiaturm, a communication tower signifying advances in technology and modernization of Olympic images.

Canada was awarded the 1976 Montreal Games in a selection process marked by a bidding war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Those and the following two Games were marked by boycotts, Montreal with 21 African nations protesting New Zealand’s participation in an earlier rugby competition against South Africa. Taiwan was refused entry into the Games under their chosen name, Republic of China. The Montreal Games left Canada with a USD 600 million debt. Still, those Games were not without exceptional performances. Alberto Juantorena (Cuba), “The Horse,” won the 400 and 800 meters, and gymnast, Nadia Comaneci (Romania), scored a perfect 10 seven times. The poster prominently displayed the Olympic Rings only, a simple design indicative of the logo-like corporate designs that would come to dominate contemporary posters.

The Soviet Union was awarded the 1980 Moscow Games; however, the Games were boycotted by the United States and some 62 other nations, including Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany. In spite of these conflicts, the Moscow Games saw 33 world records broken. Aleksandr Dityatin (USSR) won eight medals and received the first perfect 10 for a male gymnast. The poster, which featured a stylized running track in the shape of a building topped by a red star, continued the trend toward simple, stylized design images.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan opened the Los Angeles Games to a record 141 nations and more than 7,000 athletes. The Games were boycotted by The Soviet Union and 16 other countries. The two Irelands competed as one; the two Koreas considered doing the same; and the People’s Republic of China entered the Games for the first time. The winning bid for the Games did not come from a national, state, or local government. It was put together by a free enterprise system headed by Peter Ueberroth, a Los Angeles travel agent, whose business savvy may have single-handedly reversed the backward economic slide of the Modern Olympic Games. Such a process had not been undertaken since 1896. Carl Lewis (USA) won the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 400 meters relay. Joan Benoit (USA) became the winner of the first women’s marathon. The 1984 poster’s five stars symbolizing high goals are cut from photographs of cultural U.S. images and are repeated to indicate multiple competitors and speed.

The year 1988 marked the first Paralympic Games to take place at the same venue as the Olympic Games. The Seoul Olympic facilities were built from scratch, and every competition site boasted an exceptional cleanliness. Nineteen world and seven Olympic records were broken. Despite the success, Seoul will always be remembered as “The Doping Olympics.” Three winners in weight lifting and a Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, were stripped of gold medals for testing positive for steroids. In those Games, tennis returned as an event, this time featuring the world’s professional tennis players. Florence Griffith-Joyner (USA) broke the world record in the 200 meters with a time of 21.34, and also won the 100 meters and 4×100 relay. The groundbreaking 1988 poster signifies the dawning of the computer age, now a major factor in the development of Olympic education. This poster image expresses harmony between tradition and technological advancement.

Barcelona put on a gold medal show in 1992 by recapturing the splendor of the historic maritime city. They removed urban factories to build an Olympic Village with parks and shops, and minimized pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. A record 172 nations participated in the first Games since 1972 without a boycott. Soviet Republics entered the Games as the Unified Team and dominated competitions with 112 medals. South Africa was welcomed back after the 1991 moratorium on apartheid. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA) won her second straight heptathlon and Javier Sotomayor (Cuba) cleared eight feet in the high jump. Sotomayor’s record still stands. The poster image heralds the future of technology in Games media with its brand-like logo. Today the key means of communicating facts about the Games are television and online news.

In 1996, Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympics. As in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad, the Games were won by a bid entered by enterprising businessmen, this time led by Billy Payne. A record 197 nations committed to participate, including North Korea in its first entry. There were 10,788 athletes who vied for gold metals. The entire face of Atlanta was changed by the construction of such venues as the Centennial Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Park. The Olympic Village ultimately became residential housing for Georgia State University and Georgia Tech University. The Centennial Olympic Stadium for track and field events was converted into Turner Field baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves. Centennial Olympic Park is still in use. The Games cost USD 1.8 billion to stage, USD 500 million of which was American taxpayer dollars. The poster of a Greek profile in modern Matisse cut-out style was created by designer, Primo Angelli, who also became responsible for the design of the 2012 London logo.

The 2000 Sydney Games marked the second time the Olympic Summer Games were held in the Southern Hemisphere, the first being Melbourne in 1956. In those Games, Greco-Roman wrestler, Rulon Gardner (USA), defeated Alexandre Karelin (Russia), who had won golds in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta. Before his match with Gardner, Karelin was undefeated for 13 years. The Australian poster shows a shadowy Sydney Opera House topped by leaping Aboriginal symbols indicative of heightened worldwide respect for first nation cultures.

The 2004 Athens Games, the “Internet Olympics,” marked the first time that major broadcasters were allowed to serve video coverage over the worldwide web. IOC President, Dr. Jacques Rogge, described these Games as the “unforgettable, dream Games.” The motto was, Welcome Home, reflecting the first time since 1896 that the Olympic Games were held in Greece. Those Games saw an unprecedented focus on security. Seventy thousand police officers were on hand, costing organizers an estimated USD 1.2 billion. A simple olive branch in blue and white on the poster symbolizes the Greek countryside and the country’s historic involvement with the Games. The olive branch is a symbol of Athens and was the traditional award to Olympic champions during the Ancient Olympic Games.

Also useful for Olympic education, the Olympic Winter Games posters are in many ways just as, if not more visually breathtaking than those of the Summer Games. In 1948, the Winter Games returned to St. Moritz, the site of the 1928 Olympic Winter Games, the first true Winter Games, which replaced the Nordic Games. The 1948 poster shows tanned skiers and a bright, large Alpine sun. The image emphasizes nature’s dominance over man.

The 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo were branded the “Friendly Games,” and did not hint at the fighting that would tear Yugoslavia apart eight years later. The 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games in Norway marked the first and only time to date that the Games were staged two years apart, as the IOC chose to move the Winter and Summer Games to separate four-year schedules. Hometown star speed skater, Johann Olav Koss, won the 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000, setting world records in all of them. His extraordinary gift of all his winnings to Olympic Aid inspired a flood of $18 million in donations over 10 days. Though the Bosnian War raged as the Games took place, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s four-man bobsled team consisted of one Croatian, two Bosnians, and a Serbian—another example of the Olympic code’s contributions to peace.

As the Games evolve, so does the poster art used to promote them. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics poster, with its fresh, vibrant colors and contemporary design, is an example of how Olympic posters are an opportunity for the host culture to influence young people of the world. The Sochi 2014 logo is an even better example. The Sochi logo takes this computerization one step further by being the first logo to feature a Games’ website (Sochi.ru). It aims to advertise the Games and to entice the people of the world to look further for information, thus leading people to a vast online directory of Olympic history and philosophy.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games, 11,028 athletes from 204 nations competed. The Games were a source of national pride for the Chinese, and offered hope for long-term reforms in environmental policy. Those Games cost an estimated USD 15 billion to stage, but produced revenues in excess of USD 16 billion. In Beijing, swimmer Michael Phelps (USA) won eight gold medals, and Usain Bolt (Jamaica) set world records in the 100 and 200 meters sprints. The official poster for Beijing was designed cooperatively by students from about 266 colleges and universities in China. The upcoming 2012 Olympic Games in London have yet to reveal an official poster; but the logo, created by the designer of the 1996 official poster, Primo Angelli, continues in the modern tradition of streamlined corporate design. In the logo, the five boroughs of London are stylized to form the numbers 2012.

Today, the Olympic Movement faces a new challenge: finding relevance in a fast paced, digital age. IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said that, “If we don’t adapt to the changes of our youth, we are lost. We are a movement of young people.” Thus, Rogge proposed a Youth Olympic Games in 2001. The first event is scheduled to take place in August 2010 in Singapore. The poster for the Youth Olympic Games prominently displays the Games’ website.

The power to represent the identity and principles of an event is imparted intentionally by the artists in their choice of symbolic images as well as coincidentally by events when historic milestones happen at specific Games. The three pillars of the Olympic Movement are sport, culture, and the environment. Olympic art educates the viewer in Olympic values by telling the story of its times in artistic shorthand and continuing to echo the concepts shaping the event in the public’s collective mind in the years to come.

### Works Consulted

McGeachy, A. (1996, July 22). “Images that Captivate,” Sports Illustrated, pp. 34-36.

Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. (2008). Retrieved from, http://en.beijing2008.cn/education/curriculum/index.shtml

OlympicMuseum.de (2010). Retrieved from, http://olympicmuseum.de/quickview/all_poster.htm

Olympic Museum. (2007). Olympic Games Posters. Retrieved from, http://www.turin2006.com/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_776.pdf

Rosandich, T. P. (1996). The Atlanta Star. Daphne, AL: United States Sports Academy.