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A Larger Design: Ten Step History of Art at the Summer Olympics

Tokyo 2020, The Olympic Fortnight (Series): To notice art one needs to take a step outside the moment. The Olympic podium is always about the moment. So, the medal — a symbol of achievement and glory — and its art, gets obscured amidst chronicles of battles won, records broken and histories rewritten. The art in the medal remains though, as a background score to sporting greatness that we hear, but not feel. It’s history is as fascinating as that of sport...
The evolution of the Olympic medal and its art

The 1972 Olympics were the first in 44 years to allow the host city to change the reverse of the medal and customise it to their liking. Pic inside Text: The 1980 Moscow Olympics gold medal (by Roanna Rehman).


Have you ever looked closely at an Olympic medal? Seen what it looks like? Not just the metal and the weight it carries, but the symbolism and the art it encompasses. Does it affect you, the art on the medal? Do you take a second look, wonder what it is, what it conveys? Or is it — to paraphrase Kabir — a scabbard to cover the sword of stupendous achievement? Mol karo talwar ka, pada rahan do myan. Is the medal not an achievement in itself, of itself? Maybe not. Its duplication also denies it the label of art, but somewhere in that marketing and mass production there is still a rarity that makes it valuable. It is commercial art, of a very limited kind. 

The obverse of an Olympic medal remained unchanged between the years 1928 and 2000. In that period, records, icons, countries, changed names. Somehow, the medal remained the same. The obverse showed Nike, the goddess of victory, holding a wreath, an Olympic flame behind her, with the Colosseum in the background. A third of the obverse, left blank was used for the details of the Olympiad and the venue.


For a minute forget about the art of the medal itself (easy to do, seeing as no one ever considered it). Take a step back and consider this: Between the years 1912-48, art was part of the Olympics. 

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“In the high times of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Olympic Games to create their glory. This is to become reality once again,” said Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in 1906, 10 years after having envisioned and put into place the modern Olympics as we know it. It was Coubertin’s grand plan to include arts at the Olympic Games too. This, he insisted, would complete the event’s experience. 


Coubertin won gold for poetry at the 1912 Stockholm Games. His submission (under the pseudonym Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach) was a delightfully dull poem called Ode to Sport. Don’t believe it? Here, give it a go. Safe to say Coubertin was no JK Rowling, even if like Rowling he capitalised on the novelty of a pseudonym to enrich his own legacy. Two things to consider: Coubertin employed not one pseudonym but two. Because one would have been too normal, too cliche. The second and more devastating. The founder of the IOC won an Olympic gold for poetry. Let that sink in.


If that wasn’t enough. Gold in architecture design at the 1928 Olympics went to Jan Wils, for his design of, wait for it, the 1928 Olympic Stadium. In 1936, Joseph Goebbels hijacked the competition as a propaganda vehicle for the Nazis, slyly dropping in a rule that ensured the art entered in competition was less than four years old. “This,” he said, “enables us to derive from the exhibition an estimate of international conditions.” In other words the Germans won a lot of medals in art that year. Now you see why the IOC shut the doors on art at the Olympics. It's a thin line but somewhere, somehow art at the Olympics became art for the Olympics. Now, of course it is: Art. Olympics.  


None of the medals awarded for the arts are included in the official count for the Games anymore. They do not appear in the IOC’s Olympic medal database either. The logic for removing the arts from the Olympics was simple — it seemed absurd to allow professional artists to compete at the Games, when  amateurs took part in the sports field. The IOC instead decided to host an art exhibition every Olympiad. 

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No one considered a rethink when Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, with their professionally earned millions, hit Barcelona in 1992. The art world had moved on from the world of sport. A dissonance has existed among them since. Jordan can be called an artist, but Damien Hirst is never called an athlete. What’s that about? A Lionel Messi goal is artistic genius, but a Ganesh Pyne is never athletic perfection. Ever


What little art remains at the Olympics exists in the form of artefacts handed to those who ‘win’ them. Artefacts in any case are the most indicative measures of art. On a panel of the doors of Florence Cathedral is a sculpture completely out of place. The entire door is a tribute to the Virgin Mary, but on one panel is the face of a man, eyes open in shock (or pain?) lips pursed, hair all over the place with a snake coiled around his neck. At first glance it could be one of the Beatles at Woodstock in ‘64. A drug too many, an exotic animal on the loose, John picks it up, the polaroid inspires a sculpture on a Cathedral door. Except this sculpture was commissioned in 1888. Everyone in Florence knows who the man in the sculpture is. It is the sculptor himself. He is also the man responsible for the art on an Olympic medal. Who though?


In Siena, there was a young man called Amos. Born to Domenico and Assunta Mazzoni, small cafetieres (the literal translation suggests an object more than a profession), Amos’ childhood could have been devoid of the creative arts, if it wasn’t for an uncle, Ottavio Cassioli, the organist at the cathedral of Arezzo. Ottavio enrolled Amos into the Academy of Fine Arts in Siena. 

Olympic gold medal from the 1980 Moscow Olympics

Creative urges aren’t enough reason for creative pursuits though. Domenico’s early death meant Amos dropped back to support the family, and it was only years later he resumed his studies in the arts. When he did though, he was immediately recognised as a genius and earned him an allowance from the Grand Duke Ferdinand IV of Tuscany to go and study in Rome. His large scale historical paintings and commissions became a regularity of the Florentian art scene over the years. In 1865, Amos and his wife Lucrezia Chiari gave birth to a boy Giuseppe. Giuseppe followed his father in the art tradition, specialising, much like him in commissions, portraits and murals, but deviating by displaying a keen interest in sculpture.


The pained man with a snake around his neck on the door of the Florence Cathedral is Giuseppe Cassioli. The father and son duo won the commission to sculpt the doors of the newly completed Cathedral in 1887. By this time they had worked on a fair few works as a duo, and were respected in the community. Amos’ health was failing him and four years after receiving the commission he died, leaving Cassioli (26 at the time) to carry on alone. 

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Cassioli  wasn’t just an artist. He was an obsessive. His father’s death, combined with mounting debt and an insecurity about his own work meant the door became — quite literally — the only way out of hell. It took him seven years just to complete the model for the door. Five years after that, in 1897, the city, having had enough of his floundering and indecisiveness, decided to terminate the contract. Giuseppe laboured on. He opened his own foundry to cast the door, took on more debt, saw the model and the wax to cast the door confiscated, before eventually negotiating a new agreement to finish the damn thing. In 1899, 12 years from when he began, the door was finally complete. The snake around his neck was immortalised in bronze, and at the same time released from his neck.


Is it surprising then that Cassioli designed something to adorn others necks? Something lasted 72 years before being changed? Cassioli’s medal, designed in 1928, survived a World War, a Cold War, the Vietnam War and modern hockey’s astro turf war. It adorned Jesse Owens, Leslie Claudius, Mark Spitz, Michael Johnson, Vece Paes and Leander Paes alike. The reverse, a victorious athlete (male) hoisted on the shoulders of a crowd, survived till 1968. From 1972, the IOC allowed host cities to customise one side of the medal. The obverse lasted 72 years before someone noticed that Nike was perched in front of the Roman Colosseum, when the birth of the Modern Games, ancient festival as well, was in Greece. They noticed this only because when the Australians decided to repurpose the obverse, they commissioned it to the Polish artist Wojciech Pietranik. Pietranik modernised Cassioli’s design. The problem with modernisation is that it opens up a Pandora’s box for scrutiny. For Athens 2004, the Greeks decided to correct a longstanding wrong. 


The new design still features Nike (because, face it, what would the Olympics be without Nike?) but this time flying into the Panathenaic stadium of the 1896 Games. The reverse of the medal (ever changing since 1972)  has, since, become an exhibition of how to translate graphic design to sculpture. Cassioli died in 1942. He lived five years more than his contribution to the modern Olympics. That thing that goes around the neck.


Maybe it isn’t so separate after all. 

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