David Runciman\’s talk on the politics of three London Olympic Games at Queen Mary College last week was amusing and enlightening. In 1908, Anglo-American relations became strained – the English felt the American\’s habit of training was unsporting – and the organisers kept the prices high to deter dangerous crowds of the wrong sort of spectator.
In 1948, the tone was one of austerity (athletes had to hire towels if they didn\’t bring their own) and restraint. The malnourished English took a perverse pride in the fact that the national anthem was only heard five times (opening and closing ceremonies, and three gold medals), compared to Berlin in 1936, where Deutschland Uber Alles and Horst Wessel had rung out continuously.
The 1948 Olympics were also the last Games where medals were awarded for artistic endeavour. The quality of entries was mixed, to put it politely: no medals were awarded for music, and the sculpture that won gold was a heroically anodyne piece by Gustav Nordahl called Homage to Life (photo, right, Bengt Oberger).
Runciman compared this inoffensive couple to the heroically striving ubermenschen whose representations triumphed in Berlin in 1936. A retreat to the bland was understandable if not inevitable given the horrors of the previous 12 years. Together with an irreparable fracturing of consensus on what constitutes \’good\’ art, nervousness about the appropriation of sporting iconography by fascists signalled the end of art as a competitive Olympic activity.
Even today, sport-inspired art tends either to the heroic or the apologetic, to the apotheosis of man and the spirit of \’36, or to mushy statements of universal brotherhood (see Invictus, though I doubt I will). The International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne manages to combine both (photo, above left, IOC/Juillart). Leni Riefenstahl casts a long shadow.