Close-up of a sixth-century B.C. amphora at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich | Credit: ArchaiOptix

When the 2024 Summer Olympics is held in in Paris this month and next, July 26 – Aug. 11, the gold medal in symphonic composition will go to …

Nonsense, you say. There is no such thing. Alas, not in 2024, but Olympic competitions in the arts were real a century ago — at the Paris Olympics of 1924, for example. It was part of the original intention of the modern Olympics’ founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Today, the Cultural Olympiad still exists, just without medals (see more about that below).

“Everyone that I’ve ever spoken to about it has been surprised,” said Richard Stanton, author of The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, in an interview with Smithsonian magazine. “I first found out about it reading a history book, when I came across a little comment about Olympic art competitions, and I just said, ‘What competitions?’” Stanton went on to write the first English-language book on the subject.

Pierre de Coubertin
Pierre de Coubertin established the modern Olympics — and in 1912 won an Olympic gold medal in literature under a pseudonym

In ancient Greece, art and sport were considered complementary practices. Coubertin felt that in the modern Olympics, it would be essential to include the arts. The true Olympian, he believed, was someone not only able to demonstrate athletic prowess but also skills in the arts.

During the years of juried art competitions, 1912 through 1948, a total of 151 medals went to original works of art inspired by sports. There were five main categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

Examples of musical gold medals:

In mixed music, Riccardo Barthelemy’s Triumphal March (at the 1912 games in Stockholm) and Georges Monier’s Olympique (1920, Antwerp)

In orchestral composition, Werner Egk’s Olympic Festive Music (1936, Berlin) and Zbigniew Turski’s Olympic Symphony (1948, London)

In solo and chorus compositions, Paul Höffer’s Olympic Vow (1936, Berlin)

Juried art competitions with medals were abandoned in 1954 because artists were considered to be professionals while Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs — at least on paper. Since 1956, a cultural program has taken the juried competitions’ place.

This year, the Paris Olympics will include a wide-ranging cultural program that combines art and sports. Running through the end of the Paralympic Games that follow the Olympics, the Cultural Olympiad will offer hundreds of free events in all French territories from July to September.

The program encourages participation from artists and organizations working in various disciplines, including architecture, music, dance, cinema, culinary arts, street arts, digital arts, visual arts, comics, multidisciplinary arts, and science.

And in something of a perfect union of art and sports, breaking — the first dance sport in Summer Olympic history — will make its debut at the games this summer.

TV coverage of the Olympics — but not the Cultural Olympiad — will air in the U.S. on NBC — at least nine hours of daytime coverage each day. The network will also deliver an “enhanced three-hour primetime show each night.”

NBC’s Peacock platform promises streaming of “every sport and event live throughout the games, a first for the streaming service when it comes to the Summer Olympics.”