There used to be Olympic medals for town planning, except they kept giving them to sports facilities

Amsterdam, 1928. An Olympic medal winner inside an Olympic medal winner. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the Olympic Stadium won a gold medal. How the medal was presented to the stadium is not exactly clear. Presumably they buried it in the ground or something.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by as much as you might think. The stadium was performance, not performer: the medal actually went to its Dutch architect Jan Wils, for his achievements in the now rarely played sport of “mixed architecture, architectural designs”.

The silver went to Denmark’s  Ejnar Mindedal Rasmussen, for a swimming pool in the village of Ollerup; the bronze to Frenchman Jacques Lambert for a stadium at Versailles.

The Olympic judges, you will notice, really like sports facilities.

All this sounds a bit weird today. We’re used to strange sports popping up at the Olympics – keirin, skeleton, “Nordic combined”, horse dancing – but at least those are, well, sports. They’re a physical activity based on co-ordination, skill and actually moving about. Architecture, as important as it is, is not a sport.

But for a long time, the Olympics weren’t just about sport: for nearly four decades, arts competitions were an integral part of the Games.

When the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Baron Pierre de Coubertin, came to revive the games in 1896, he wanted to emulate the ancient Greek originals as closely as possible. Those games had included sculpture, poetry and other forms of artistic expression (they were a great place to pick up a rich patron); and so, de Coubertin wanted to include them in his modern version, too.

The arts competitions were excluded from the early games, however, apparently on the grounds that organising a sports day big enough to bring together the entire world was quite difficult enough, without geting a bunch of musical divas involved too. Attempts to include them in the 1908 event were dropped, after an inconvenient eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 forced the IOC to abandon plans to run the games in Rome and re-locate them to London.

At the 1912 games in Stockholm, though, medals were for the first time offered in the five arts known, sick-makingly, as “the pentathalon of the muses”: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. These were repeated in 1920 and 1924 (no games in 1916; the world had other things on its mind, like the Somme).

Those early medals tables, though, are full of gaps: there simply weren’t enough entries.

And so, in a trick familiar to anyone who’s ever run an awards ceremony, the 1928 games started sub-dividing the categories. “Mixed painting” was replaced by “paintings”, “drawings and water colours” and “graphic works”. “Mixed sculpturing” was replaced by “statues” and “reliefs and medallions”. In the 1936 games – this is just wonderful – that was an Olympic medal in medals. (Nobody won the gold.)

Architecture, meanwhile, was replaced by “mixed architecture, architectural designs” (that was the one the stadium won), and – finally, the justification for writing about this on CityMetric – “town planning”.

What the difference was between these two categories is not as clear cut as one might hope. There were four games at which medals were offered in these categories (1928, 1932, 1936 and 1948; again, the world was a bit busy in 1940 and 1944). In those four games, all 12 medals for architectural designs went to stadiums or other sports facilities.

In town planning, by contrast, only nine went to stadiums or other sports facilities. The other three went to parks. None seemed to go to any actual town plans. Whether this is because people got confused, because the type of people who want Olympic medals really like their sports, or because Olympic judges simply didn’t see the point of any other sort of facility, history does not record.

The 1948 London games were the last at which the arts medals were offered. In 1952 – party because of fears that professional artists were ruining what was then still an amateur event; partly because it was too much work for one IOC to cope with – they were dropped. Since then, the games have sometimes been accompanied by a Cultural Olympiad, but its importance has varied with the enthusiasm of the host city.

The sad truth is, if you’re a town planner, the days when you could dream of becoming an Olympian are long gone.

On the upside, we’ve stopped giving out medals for bloody sports stadiums.

Why not check our latest podcast, which is about the Olympics? Go on, it’s well good.

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.