Philip Barker

Every day at the College of Physics and Sports in Stockholm, visitors walk past an Olympic gold medal winner with scarcely a second glance.

The medallist in question is from the 1948 Olympics in London which came to an end 75 years ago this week.

It is in fact a statue of a man and a woman called "Homage to Ling" and is the work of sculptor Gustav Nordahl.

It was created in honour of Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish gymnastics pioneer who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Century and founded the college.

It was awarded Olympic gold for sculpture in 1948.

The first Olympic art competitions were held during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

The idea was very keenly supported by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who inspired the revival of the Olympics for the Modern Era in the late 19th century.

Coubertin even won first prize in poetry in 1912 after submitting a work entitled Ode to Sport under the pseudonym “Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach".

“There is need for something else besides athleticism and sport, we want the presence of national genius, the collaboration of the muses, the cult of beauty, all the display pertaining, to the strong symbolism incarnate in the past by the Olympic Games, and which must continue to be represented in our modern times," Coubertin said almost a century ago.

Yet the Olympic art contests in 1948 proved to be the last for which Olympic medals were awarded.

The gold medal winning sculpture from the 1948 Olympics, entitled Homage to Ling is still displayed in Stockholm ITG
The gold medal winning sculpture from the 1948 Olympics, entitled Homage to Ling is still displayed in Stockholm ITG

The Games in Britain's capital themselves were hurriedly organised after the Second World War.

Many of the 1948 Organising Committee had military backgrounds.

General Sir Ronald Adamwas appointed chairman of the Arts Sub-Committee and  Major Alfred Longden was selected as art director. 

They soon discovered that the arts contests were not altogether straightforward to organise.

In June 1947, Olympic organisers made a general progress report to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)

"An exhibition of fine arts was arranged to begin on 15th July but if we are unable to acquire the London gallery we have in mind we shall hold the exhibition in Wembley Town Hall," said the report.

The London gallery they had wished for was nothing less than the Victoria and Albert Museum,

London 1948 President Lord Wyndham Portal sent a letter to Minister of Education George Tomlinson.

"We are experiencing the greatest difficulty in acquiring a centre which will be worthy of such an important exhibition," Portal wrote in his plea.

Tomlinson answered cautiously and wrote, "Space could I think be made available in the Victoria and Albert Museum. There are however practical difficulties, as repairs to the wartime damage are far from complete."

Official poster for the 1948 Olympic Arts contests in London ©Wikipedia
Official poster for the 1948 Olympic Arts contests in London ©Wikipedia

Victoria and Albert Museum director Sir Leigh Ashton recorded,"I have had a visit from the [Organising] Committee and have agreed to give them the lower ground floor set of galleries provided that they decorate  them."

Yet very soon Sir Leigh was writing to inform the Olympic Organisers of "a very large snag" which he warned "would entirely rule out holding the exhibition unless some means can be found of getting rid of it."

The problem was that the rules of competition made provision for the London 1948 Organising Committee to act as a "go between" in arranging the sale of works exhibited.

This contravened Museum regulations and it was only after further assurances were given that no sales would be conducted during the time of the exhibition came that they agreed to go ahead.

Lord Burghley, chairman of London 1948, asked his office to offer a set of Olympic medals to the Museum by way of a thank-you.

"As a permanent record of the London Olympic Games with which your Museum was so closely associated," Burghley wrote to Sir Leigh.

Museum officials still seemed less than enthusiastic about the Olympics and the response was distinctly cool."

"We do not have any important collection of coins or medals at the Museum," Sir Leigh replied to Burghley in rejecting the gift.

He did, however, consent to join the jury which was to judge the entries.

The  entrance hall display at the Victoria and Albert Museum was designed by the architects department of the Ministry of Works.

This incorporated the Olympic Rings and lettering with the words  "XIV  Olympiad" and flags of competing nations. 

Special stands were constructed for the 83 exhibitors in the sculpture.

Tables were installed for entries in the architecture section.  

Three galleries were devoted to oil paintings and another room for water colours.  

In  all, the construction work was carried out at a cost, at 1948 rates of £666 ($2,664)

The entire cost of the exhibition was £3,000 ($12,000)

"Each nation was able to select up to three entries in each category to be sent to London," competition regulations stated.

"The connection between sport and art will be very liberally interpreted to give the artist more liberty in the execution of their work."

Entries were to have been executed after January 1 in 1944.

Regulations also stated that no entry was permitted which had been entered for a previous Olympic competition.

The contests included an competition in architecture

"The  models of the  winning designs are all beautiful examples of craftsmanship especially  that of  the  Swiss  training  centre  awarded the silver medal in the planning section,” said a report in The Times newspaper,

Although categories were wide ranging, many of the biggest names in the art world did not take part and this had been an enduring problem ever since the arts competitions had been introduced.

"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," Daily Mail art critic Pierre Jeanneret wrote in the British Olympic Association Report of the competition.

The United States Olympic Committee had, however, decided against participation because "'of the lack of interest shown by American artists in 1936."

Some 1,000 guests arrived at the Museum for the official grand opening by the Duke of Gloucester.

These included IOC President Sigfrid Edström and Lord Portal,

It proved more difficult to attract visitors to the exhibition of art.

"A number of people with children abandoned the idea of entering on hearing of the charge," it was reported.

The winner of the oil painting section was a work depicting the London Amateur Boxing championships. 

The artist was Alfred Thomson, a painter who was deaf and dumb.

It was perhaps an appropriate choice that an artist with a disability should be successful.

This was the same year that the Games for the Disabled were first established by Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville, an event which later became known as the Paralympic Games.

The following year, the Swiss set up a "Künstlergruppe" - an art collective - for all those who had taken part in the arts competitions.

This had been established by Alex Digglemann, a graphic artist who had won a gold medal at Berlin in 1936 and silver in the London 1948 art contests.

Yet many others had become increasingly dissatisfied with the overall competition.

"I think the simplest and most constructive thing to say is that we considered that the placing of so many different kinds of applied art into one group made judging almost an impossibility," Sir Leigh wrote to the London 1948 Organising Committee.

Many Olympic officials were uneasy because artists sold their works and the following year, it was decided that there would henceforth be an artistic event but that no medals would be awarded.

In all other Olympic event at that time, a strict amateur code was enforced but even so, there were dissenting voices.

"We propose that the Art competitions should be reinstated in the programme and that no consideration should be taken regarding the amateur or professional question as such categories do not exist in the art competition, all participants being Artists," Angelo Bolanaki, the IOC member in Egypt, told his fellow members.

There was further discussion about whether there should be a competition in art at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. 

Eventually an exhibition was held but no competition.

"It fulfilled its mission of bringing sport and art closer together," the 1952 Olympic Report claimed.

At subsequent Olympics Games, art exhibitions have formed an important aspect of the cultural programme.

Even at the last Games in Tokyo, when it proved impossible to have a physical gallery because of COVID-19 precautions, a virtual gallery was created as part of an "Olympic Agora".

At Paris 2024, the Louvre is on the itinerary for the journey of the Olympic Flame.

The cycle races are also set to speed past the gallery,

Many art institutions have declared their intention to mark the Olympics with special exhibitions and displays.

Coubertin would have been delighted.