Gold for the Cultural Olympiad?


There remain less than 250 days to the opening of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, however, another type of Olympiad is long underway: the Cultural Olympiad.

What exactly is that, you ask?

Well, the idea behind the Cultural Olympiad is to uphold one of the core tenants of the Olympics: a celebration of the body and the mind. Since its inception in 1912 by Pierre de Coubertin (the founding father of the modern Olympic Games), the Cultural Olympiad has been a requirement of every host country. While this is undoubtedly an opportunity for a country to showcase the best of its arts and culture to the world, the Cultural Olympiad remains a rather nebulous concept providing for both, great flexibility and immense challenges to the organizing committees.

In the early Cultural Olympiads artists, much like athletes, competed for medals of recognition. While this strive for gold is no longer a practice in the modern Cultural Olympics it appears as though the hosting countries are now the ones flexing their competitive muscles to put on the bigger show. Although London’s concept for the 2012 Olympics (with a focus on sustainability and access to all) promises to be a radical departure from ostentatious Games of the past, the Cultural Olympiad still portrays the mentality of ‘bigger is better’.

Yet, defining the shape and scope of a nation and its cultural activities is a rather daunting task. If the 26 sports included in the Games are somewhat standard and easy to classify, that certainly is not the case when it comes to delineating the practices of culture. Furthermore, the United Kingdom is technically composed of four separate countries, meaning that the Cultural Olympiad will have to honor its geographical features by sharing its program. As a result, the UK’s attempt to be all-inclusive, with of over 1,200 official Cultural Olympiad events split over 4 years, poses coherency challenges for organizers and spectators alike.

And then there is question of finance. Some argue that spending $150 million – and rising – on the Cultural Olympiad is rather lavish, particularly given the country’s economic downturn. (Rather ironically, this is happening in the backdrop of extensive budget cuts for the public funding of the UK’s arts and culture sectors.) The sponsorship of the Cultural Olympiad is slightly controversial too; interests of prominent stakeholders and sponsors of the likes of BP and BT (British Telecom) often peer through. What is more, few activities involved in the Cultural Olympiad are allowed to make associations with the Olympic insignia, such as the five rings and the flame. These symbols are reserved solely for the global Olympic sponsors, who each pay in excess of $60 million for the rights to associate their products with the Olympic rings. Thus, there emerges a highly branded program which, at times, sits in stark contrast with the grassroots cultural movements it is trying to inspire.

In theory, the Cultural Olympics are a great idea – they provide an opportunity to showcase and boost the UK’s arts and culture. In practice, the success of London’s Cultural Olympiad remains to be seen. Sochi in Russia (host of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games) and Rio in Brazil (host of the 2016 Olympic Games) are already getting set for their Cultural Olympiad marathons. In the meantime, the UK’s Cultural Olympiad, along with the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012, will hopefully put the UK back in the news – for good.

image: UK love. Courtesy doug88888 on flickr.

Katerina Girginova

Katerina holds a BA in Communication Studies from The George Washington University, in Washington D.C. Upon graduation she immersed herself into the world of work at the National Geographic Channel and is a former MA in the CCT program at Georgetown University. Katerina's academic interests include innovation, intercultural communication, rhetoric and media - she enjoys good ideas and great people.

  • Maryz

    This is a fresh and timely look at a subject that brings together a number of relevant topics.
    Culture,can indeed be celebrated for what it is,and for its potential to stimulate creativity.The quest for gold is both personal and collective,but in either case it si important to celebrate the effort as much as the outcome.