Philip Barker ©ITG

A fortnight before the first European Games in Baku, a popular event which has become an institution in Europe will be held for the 60th time.

Back in 1955 at a meeting in Monaco, representatives of national television stations on the continent decided to start launch a Eurovision Song Contest. That year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held a contest of its own to find the definitive Olympic music and a man from Monaco, Prince Pierre, was its most enthusiastic supporter.

Despite the best efforts of some distinguished music makers, finding a universal Olympic hymn in the preceding quarter century had proved impossible.

A different tune had been played at every Games since 1932. The acclaimed Olympische Hymne, written for the Berlin 1936 Games by Richard Strauss had been ignored by every city since. This was mainly because many did not want to use a piece of music which had originated in Germany during the Nazi era. The most recent new Olympic composition had been for Helsinki 1952 by the Finnish composer and music teacher Jaako Linjama.

In 1953, a special IOC Commission was set up. Angelo Bolanaki, the member in Greece was joined by Prince Pierre, Egyptian doctor Mohammed Taher, Frenchman Armand Massard and Franco Pietri of Italy.

When they reported to the IOC’s 1954 Session in Athens, British peer Lord Burghley joined in the debate and suggested that as the Games themselves were international, each city should be free to chose its own hymn. Instead the IOC membership voted for a competition open to musicians of all nations. Bolanaki’s Commission now had a new task: to organise of an “Olympic” Song contest!

Prince Pierre of Monaco donated a prize for the winner of 1000 US Dollars. This was to be accompanied by a commemorative medal or work of art.

The “Compositors” - this was how they were described in the regulations - were asked to set their music to lyrics inspired by the ancient poet Pindar.

“Happy the man chosen for fame,
The palm of victory on his brow,
Shows him to the crowd’s acclaim
He shall taste for his reward The divine joys !
Let the Muses set a crown upon his hair!
And let an immortal song
And to the glory of triumph
And to the beauty of youth ,
The victor’s name.”

The entries for the competition piling up at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne ©IOC
Entries for the competition piling up at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne ©IOC

The rules pamphlet specified that the work was to be “a hymn destined to the Olympic ceremonies [notably at the Opening and Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games]. It shall be in the style of a composition which is to be performed by a symphony orchestra and may include a vocal score”.

A work of at least three minutes long but not exceeding four was prescribed. It was also to be “strictly original and must never have been performed before”.

The entrants were asked to send their entries to Lausanne “with the indication of a pseudonym or a motto prefixed to the covering of the score and written on its right hand top corner“.

The true identities of the composers were only to be revealed inside a sealed envelope. This was to include biographical details, a photograph and documents confirming nationality.

A total of 387 entries from 40 different countries flooded in to the IOC headquarters. The Germans, in particular were very enthusiastic. They were responsible for 89 of the compositions.

The judging panel was chaired by Nadia Boulanger, a prominent French teacher of music. To recruit the jury, she consulted Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero and Necil Kazim Akses, a musician who had become Turkish cultural attaché in Switzerland.

The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini agreed to help, but shortly afterwards he pulled out. German musician Wilhelm Furtwangler was also placed on the list but died before the competition began. Even so the panel was impressive. It included the great cellist Pablo Casals and composer Aaron Copeland.

“It was not an easy affair,” admitted Prince Pierre. “We regretted the absence of a Russian musician. An invitation had been sent to Dmitri Shostakovich, but after five months no reply had been received.” Nor did it prove possible to recruit a South American judge .

The IOC President at the time was American Avery Brundage. He discouraged his fellow members from talking to the press, so it was not surprising that judges were not permitted to make any public statements. They also signed an oath.

“I, the undersigned, declare that I have made myself acquainted with the conditions ruling this competition," it read. "I pledge my word to act in conformity with the Rules and I, thereby certify that I am not taking part in the competition in the capacity of a competitor.”

IOC President Avery Brundage, pictured at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, kept the competition a closely guarded secret  ©Getty Images
IOC President Avery Brundage, pictured at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, kept the competition a closely guarded secret ©Getty Images

The jury met for two days at the Hotel De Paris in Monte Carlo. When it came to a vote, it was almost unanimous. Some 11 of the 12 judges chose a rather avant-garde composition by Michel Spisak, a Polish musician who lived in Paris.

The winning entry had its premiere at the Monte Carlo opera. The audience included Prince Rainier, Prince Pierre and a group of IOC members.

“Just as there was a hymn to the warriors of Sparta, There must be a song for the heroes of sport. Every époque has the heroes that it deserves and to celebrate the heroes, it has sublime songs and hymns,” gushed Florent Fels, the enthusiastic artistic director of Radio Monte Carlo.

The music was accompanied by a ballet which was meant to represent the Movement seen in sporting events.

A few weeks later, the full IOC membership gathered at the Sorbonne in Paris for their session. Composer Spisak was present in his adopted city to hear the work which, in the words of the Olympic Review was “magnificently performed “ by the Garde Republicaine and the Chorus of the Paris Opera. Prince Pierre was jubilant:

“It seems to me that it really answers your wish and the expectations of the youth for which it is intended and which it hopes to inspire," he said. "The first part appears a virile and noble and somewhat touching prayer worthy of the solemn moments during which the Olympic colours are raised at the opening of the Games. After this comes a sort of finale very rhythmic until the noble ending.’’

Lord Burghley was equally enthusiastic. “It is really conceived in the Olympic spirit,“ he quipped. He was not quite so convinced about the lyrics. “We are not going to refuse ourselves the opportunity, should the occasion arise of improving changing or modernising the words to some extent.”

Mohammed Taher had been on the original commission and asked the IOC membership “that you vote the official consecration of this hymn as the Olympic hymn”.

This was approved unanimously and President Brundage announced it was to be performed at Cortina d’Ampezzo for the Winter Games in 1956, at the special equestrian competitions to be held in Stockholm that year and also at the Melbourne Olympic Games.

Special permission was also given for it to be played at the Mediterranean Games held at Barcelona’s Montjuic Stadium in the summer of 1955. This was “the first performance at a sports manifestation,” claimed future IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in a special report on the Games held in his home city.

The song featured at the beginning of the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The song featured at the beginning of the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, as well as at the Summer version in Melbourne ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The IOC secretariat breathlessly announced

“On all sides, enquiries reach us as to where the new Olympic hymn can be obtained.”

A special recording was made on disc and it was also available as sheet music in arrangements for various instruments.

The version heard at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was arranged for choir accompanied by a band.

Most Eurovision winners tend to be one hit wonders and Spisak’s Olympic hymn also turned out to have a short shelf life. This was largely because of the composer.

The IOC Session gathered in Melbourne days before the Olympics opened to hear President Brundage inform them that it “had been copy written by the composer and as a result a royalty must be paid each time it is used”.

Spisak’s demands for money saw the IOC perform a complete “U- Turn”. Where once they had been unreservedly enthusiastic, the Executive Board was now “unanimous in its criticism".

He added: "It is unsatisfactory and the majority of members as well as the public in general, admit they are not pleased with it.”

When they met in Sofia in the autumn of 1957, the IOC decided to ask the 1960 Rome Organising Committee to arrange for the composition of an appropriate march.

Organisers were also to be encouraged to set up competitions of their own. “This would prove an encouragement to the composers of countries where the Games are to take place,” it was said.

Yet the following year the solution to the Olympic music puzzle came from an unlikely quarter. As he planned the 1958 IOC Session in Tokyo, organiser Dr Ryotaro Azuma asked for the score of the Olympic Anthem composed by Spiros Samaras of Greece. It had been written for the 1896 revival of the OIympic Games in Athens. The performance in Tokyo was so well received that Prince Axel of Denmark proposed that it become official. It has been played at every Olympic Opening Ceremony since the Winter Games in Squaw Valley 1960, and can be heard below.


This time the IOC did not make the same mistake over copyright. They sought the advice of Swiss lawyer Antoine Hafner and contacted the composer’s widow. She was happy to give permission and the music has been used ever since.

By this time, the Eurovision Song Contest had become a torchbearer for international broadcasting across the continent. In 1974 Greece entered for the first time. For many years, the votes of the Greek jury were announced from the studios of the - now defunct - state television channel ERT by. Alexis Kostalas. Today he is better known internationally as the narrator of the Olympic Flame ceremonies in Greece.