Let’s Bring the Arts Back to the Olympics

This year’s summer Olympics has raised sports to an art form. Gymnast Gabby Douglas might have been a ballerina for all her grace and flexibility. Swimmer Michael Phelps might have been a sculptor for all his power. Glued as I was to the TV, watching what to me, was performance art at its finest, I wondered why we don’t have an Olympics of the Arts. That line of thought led me to bemoan once again the absence of the arts at the “real” Olympics. The Olympics after all elevates the value of sports. It celebrates diversity and it engages everyone…participants and audiences alike throughout the world. That kind of broad, worldwide visibility is just what we need in the arts.

Years ago, (naturally, way before my time) painting, drawing, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture were all a part of the Olympics. The idea was to bind together athletics and aesthetics, body and soul, action and ideas, like in the old days in ancient Greece. A major flaw in the rules was that artists’ work had to be inspired by sports, thus limiting the quality and quantity of participants. Then too, they simply couldn’t figure out how to maintain the Olympics as a competition for amateurs while at the same time extending eligibility to artists who were also professionals. So by the time the fifties rolled around, the arts were out.

It is ironic that post-fifties, arts administrators figured out how to do what the Olympics committee couldn’t. Processes like peer panels became the gold standard for giving grants and commissions to artists. Agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) (begun in 1965) since have routinely selected panels made up of professionals in various arts disciplines to review and allocate grants. It is a system that has served our field well for more than 50 years. Even TV shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “So You Think You Can Dance” have figured out how to select and showcase amateur talent, and by the way, they make money doing it. So here’s the question, challenge, big idea all rolled in one: How can the arts community work together to bring arts and culture back to the Olympics? Comment below with your ideas.


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