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Why We Need to Bring 'Art' Back to the Olympics

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Fifty billion dollars is a lot of money. That's the estimated cost to stage the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. As Canada approaches the top of the medal table, we can feel rightly proud of our athletes and be in awe of those from competing countries. But with the exception of the 3,000 competing athletes and their families, this all seems a little transient. What is the lasting legacy of an Olympic games?

A surprise to many, the arts were once an integral part of Olympic games programming, creating a rich legacy of cultural achievement. That's right, gold, silver and bronze for painting, sculpture, music and literature. It was said by Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the International Olympic Committee that there were four Olympic principles including the arts, of which he aspired to glorify beauty by the involvement of the arts and the mind in the Games.

Since 1948, however the arts as a central Olympic theme have been relegated and essentially abandoned. In recent games, such as London 2012, the International Olympic Committee hosted a Sports and Art Contest, while worthy in spirit, they had the feel of little more than a photo contest at the local library.

I believe the time is right to bring back the true Olympic arts competition. Medals and all. This was a feature that was central to the modern games and under its original charter, going back to ancient Greece, made clear that sportsmanship sat side by side with the arts. Early activities included musical contests and the high profile contest of the heralds and trumpeters.

Olympism, captures the Olympic credo as a philosophy of life, balancing the qualities of body, will and mind, and melding sport with culture and education. With that, from the first modern games held in Athens in 1896 to the post-war London Olympics of 1948, medals were awarded in recognition of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. While sport was the required theme for all submissions, participation came from both established and new artists across Europe, North America and Asia.

In this field too, Canada can take pride, with a bronze medal awarded to R.Tait Mckenzie for sculpture at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and laying it down - to use a snowboard slope style term, for John Weinzweig to win silver for music at the post-war summer 1948 London Games.
Strangely, the rationale for removing arts from the games was that the artists might profit from their increased profile, which was at odds with the amateur spirit of the games. The notion of amateurism within the Olympic movement is now purely nostalgic, and so should not be an impediment to the return of the arts.

Just imagine. Would we see Lady Gaga win gold for music performance, or Damien Hirst for painting? Probably not, but it might inspire a new generation of artists, supported through prioritized arts education and sponsored by corporations keen to be part of the Olympic spirit.

An argument is often made that investing in sports, leads to healthier Canadians and as a result, reduces the impact on our health system. This is certainly true and meaningful. However, those very same values apply to the arts, where studies confirm that access to art therapy and improved arts education can reduce mental health issues, a chronic healthcare concern that costs Canadians $50 billion a year. This is in addition to untold savings from reduced homelessness, drug addiction and poverty. Clearly the case can be made for including arts competition in the Olympics on cultural, societal and fiscal grounds.

Reinstating arts competition into the Olympic games would mark a significant first step in reasserting the role that creativity plays in a rich, healthy society. It would attract new audiences, increase the Games cultural legacy and add lasting value to the Olympic spirit. Money well spent, at any price.

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