Philip Barker

Forty years ago, war erupted between Argentina and Britain in the Falkland Islands with Argentinian forces occupying the islands and the British Government sending a "Task Force" of Royal Navy ships and military forces to the South Atlantic.

The fleet was accompanied by embedded journalists and television crews.

Also on board was Linda Kitson, the official "war artist".

Her work during those weeks is currently exhibited at the British National Memorial Arboretum at Stafford in the North West of England to mark the 40th anniversary of the conflict.

Kitson’s presence in the Falklands unexpectedly kindled a new chapter in Olympic art.

Watching the departure of the fleet on television from his studio in London, Kevin Whitney, a noted fine arts painter, had mixed feelings about the presence of an artist to chronicle the battle to come.

"Why celebrate death and destruction in a war zone when at the Olympic Games, life and beauty at its ultimate could be celebrated by an artist as it was in ancient Greece?" Whitney asked.

The late artist Kevin Whitney believed in depicting athletes in an unusual way ©ITG
The late artist Kevin Whitney believed in depicting athletes in an unusual way ©ITG

He contacted the British Olympic Association (BOA) to suggest that there should also be an artist to promote peaceful competition through the Olympics.

The idea was taken up by Don Anthony, who had competed in the hammer throw at the 1956 Games, and was now trustee of the BOA's educational foundation.

It was set before new BOA President Princess Anne, who gave her agreement. 

Whitney was duly named "Official Artist" for the 1984 Olympics by the BOA and also worked with journalist Brian Glanville to produce a book entitled "Olympic Challenge".

This included unusual portrayals of champions such as Allan Wells and Daley Thompson.

"The preparation and practice of sport interests me much more than just the moments of triumph," Whitney insisted.

"I have tried to avoid the classic 'shot' of an athlete bursting through the winning tape, as I think that this is generally all that is seen in sport."

Other artists were also inspired by the Olympics including American LeRoy Neiman who first painted at the 1972 Munich Games and later became Official Artist for the 1986 Goodwill Games.

Meanwhile Whitney took Olympic art away from the stadium, by establishing an artistic workshop at the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Ancient Olympia.

"We feel that it would be worthwhile to have it on the programme of future Sessions on a systematic basis," IOA dean Otto Szymiczek wrote after the initial workshop in 1986.

Whitney was now effectively the IOA "Artist inResidence" and led the artistic workshop each summer for over a decade.

IOC President Thomas Bach visited the Olympic Agora in Tokyo ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach visited the Olympic Agora in Tokyo ©Getty Images

The idea of an "Artist in Residence" was later adopted by IOC President Thomas Bach as one of the themes of his Agenda 2020 programme.

Bach’s idea was to choose athletes who had also become artists to produce work.

The first to take part in the programme were seen in 2018, and an Olympic Agora, or meeting place where art could be displayed was planned for Tokyo.

"This would be a vibrant space for the expression of arts, culture, creativity and the values linked to the Olympic Games," the IOC said.

Then came the pandemic which stifled what was to have been an extensive cultural programme.

Although there was a physical space in Tokyo which Bach visited during the Games, many of the set piece events were restricted to online viewing.

The even stricter "closed loop" system employed for Beijing 2022 meant that the Agora was conducted exclusively online.

Seven artists were chosen and reflected different types of media.

"The criteria also included the strength and originality of the artist's proposal in linking the sport with culture, the link to the Olympic spirit and also the artistic experience of those Olympian artists," Frederique Jamolli of the Olympic Cultural Foundation said.

The programme seems certain to develop further in Paris, a city with a renowned artistic quarter and the home city of  Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who inspired the revival of the Olympics for the modern era.

"Now the moment has come when we enter a new phase and intend to re-establish the original beauty of Olympic Games," Coubertin explained in 1904.

"In the heyday of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Olympic Games to create their glory, this is to become reality once again."

Artistic images from the Games of antiquity inspired the 2004 Opening Ceremony in Athens ©Getty Images
Artistic images from the Games of antiquity inspired the 2004 Opening Ceremony in Athens ©Getty Images

In April 1906, he sent a circular letter to fellow IOC members informing them of an "advisory congress" to be held in Paris.

The invitation was "to come and study to what extent and in what way art and literature could be included in the celebration of the modern Olympiads to benefit and ennoble them".

Jules Claretie, director of the Comedie Francaise, was a patron of the congress, so the Opening Ceremony took place in the theatre itself.

Over half the delegates were artists, although most came from within France.

Only a few IOC members attended because it was held around the same time as the "Olympian" Games in Athens to mark the 10th anniversary of the first Modern Olympics.

The Paris congress was spread over three days and included discussions on architecture including the "conditions and characteristics of the modern gymnasium", choreography, music and literature.

The agenda set out the "possibility of establishing an Olympic literary competition" and proposed discussion on how this would be achieved.

Eventually, the Conference agreed on the introduction of fine arts which were to be considered equal to and in the spirit of sport.

These contests were to be in architecture,  sculpture, painting,  literature, and music.

Entries were to be judged by an international jury.

The Closing Ceremony of the Congress was in the auditorium of the Sorbonne and featured music and a fencing display.

Coubertin now sent another circular letter, this time to sporting associations urging them to support the new initiative.

He hoped that the first competitions might be at the 1908 London Games but time was short and it did not prove possible for them to be included. 

The 1912 Stockholm Olympics did include artistic events.

"Homage to Ling" won gold for sculpture in 1948 at the last Olympic art competition and is now displayed in Stockholm ©ITG

Even here, organisers admitted "that the arrangement of the proposed concours would be a matter of the utmost difficulty".

Coubertin himself had "exhorted the Swedish Olympic Committee in the warmest terms to place this competition on the programme". 

The official report states that the cost was 2,390 kronor (£192,$251,€232) and much of the initiative came from the IOC.

"I heard later that Swedish artists and writers had shown violent opposition to the idea," Coubertin admitted but competition still went ahead.

The Olympic "Triumphal March" by Italian composer Ricardo Barthelemy of Italy won the music gold.

The literature prize was awarded to a poem entitled "Ode to Sport", written by Georges Hohrod and M Eschbath of Germany.

The true identity of the writer was later revealed as Coubertin himself.

The competitions continued at every subsequent Olympics, up to and including 1948.

Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg painted his way into the record books as the only artist to win more than one gold medal.

His prize winning painting of "rugby" is held  as part of the collection at the Olympic museum.

American shooter Walter Winans took gold in the running target in 1908 and was also awarded gold for sculpture in 1912.

Swimmer Alfred Hajos won both the 100 metres freestyle and 1200m freestyle in 1896 and was also awarded a silver medal for architectural design in 1924.

Even so, many worried that the best artists did not necessarily enter the Olympic art competitions.

By 1948, organisers even had trouble finding a location for the exhibition and arms were twisted to make sure that the works were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London.

"When one looked around the galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one had to deplore the absence of most of the best-known living artists," Pierre Jeannerat wrote in the official BOA report of the Games.

Avery Brundage, then IOC vice President and also a noted collector of fine art particularly from Asia, was put in charge of assessing the future of the contests.

A commission met in New Orleans in 1949.

They produced a report which ultimately tolled the death knell for Olympic competition in art.

"Since art competitions and contestants are practically all professionals, Olympic  medals should not be awarded," Brundage’s report concluded.

"This event should be in the nature of an exhibition."

Away from the Games, veteran Swiss painter Hans Erni was commissioned to produce artwork which decorated Olympic headquarters.

The Olympic Rings were the inspiration for an artwork at the Olympic Agora in Tokyo last year ©Getty Images.
The Olympic Rings were the inspiration for an artwork at the Olympic Agora in Tokyo last year ©Getty Images.

In the next few days, friends from the Olympic community and the art world will pay tribute to Kevin Whitney, who died last year.

His idea that art should glorify sport and peace will find sympathy amongst Olympians world over and has even greater resonance now.