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Roll up, roll up, for 'the greatest show on Earth'

Will Gompertz | 10:33 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

What is the Cultural Olympiad? This is a question I am sometimes asked. It is often followed by "where?" or "why?" or "how?". It's an idea that so far appears to have failed to connect with most people. And even among those who are aware of its existence, there is a certain amount of confusion.

Here are the basics. The concept of a Cultural Olympiad is embedded in the founding principles of the modern Olympic Games as conceived by the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin at the end of the 19th Century. For a city to be awarded the games it has to commit to provide a festival of arts and culture known as the Cultural Olympiad. The idea dates back to ancient Greece and Rome: mind and body in harmony.

People celebrating London winning the 2010 Olympic GamesThe London bid team latched onto this aspect of the Olympic ideal, added some steroids to the idea, and promised to provide an epoch-defining, nation-changing, world-beating Cultural Olympiad. It would be a four-year festival starting the moment the Beijing Games finished lasting through to the culmination of the Games in London.

Since then there have been problems. Several of the original ideas have been dumped, money has been tight and the project leadership has not been at gold-medal standard. What started as an odd eyebrow raised in the corner of the room at the time of the announcement has developed into broad cynicism towards the project. Which is not unreasonable when the ambitions of the original Cultural Olympiad team can still be heard in some of the rhetoric on its website.

On one page, it claims that the Cultural Olympiad is "the greatest show on Earth". Really? This great show has been going on in the UK for the last 20 months and almost nobody knows about it. To even the most reasonable person, this immodest claim feels a bit Eddie the Eagle.

But today there was a new dawn. A new boss has been drafted in together with a team of arts heavyweights to help and advise. Ruth Mackenzie, the project's new boss, is a no-nonsense arts pro, whose experience at making festivals and playing politics should be a winning combination. She's made a good start.

While not publicly admitting that the words "Cultural Olympiad" are enough to turn the most ardent arts supporter off, she is quietly dispensing with them and the whole concept, instead focusing on an arts festival that will run from mid-June 2012 until the end of the Paralympics. This event will simply be called Festival 2012. Clarity at last.

The Cultural Olympiad will continue to exist - it has to - but as a sideshow and training camp for the main event. And as MacKenzie rightly points out, there have been many good and worthy projects already undertaken or shortly about to commence that are part of the Cultural Olympiad. It's just that individually or as a group, they have not amounted to even a quite good show on Earth.

Festival 2012 on the other hand, really could be something. But as with the athletes training for the Games themselves, there's a lot of hard work ahead.


  • Comment number 1.

    A Cultural Olympiad is really unnecessary and probably would cause many problems because of cultural difference and what one may see as pleasing another may not. What we have seen in the world of technology and the bulldozing of other cultures by the West is that good products find there way to a worldwide audience. Take, for example, traditional Asian music and traditional Western music or the tradtional Asian theater and the Western theater. These are very different and rely on cultural references and knowledge and an acceptance of the methods and structure. If simply presentations for the purpose of cultural sharing an event would be worthwhile, but a competition would be uncertian as any judging could be challenged. What is popular and what is good is often in dispute. Any cultural page in a newspaper will show the number of touring companies or exhibitions presenting various forms of the arts from other countries and cultures.

  • Comment number 2.

    Is it BBC policy never to link to anything outside the BBC?

  • Comment number 3.

    I imagine the usual state sponsored fiasco....
    Millennium Experience anyone?

  • Comment number 4.

    Really depressing.

    Olympics have sucked a huge amount of money out of Arts funding and the a half-decent Cultural Olympiad could have redressed this to some extent. Although it is patchy, with some boroughs blatantly uninterested in exploiting their arts possibilities, East London has some fantastic arts communities and small arts companies working on a shoestring. These could have flourished/expanded to give a true local legacy. Support could have been on the basis of excellence/innovation/potential and/or community projects. No attempt has been made to engage locally in this way. Some mention of doling out whatever funds are available to well-established brands (e.g. RSC) who won't benefit to the same extent but will look good in the brochure. Now have no confidence that this late salvage attempt will do anything but follow the same pattern, maybe with a token display from kids from local schools, without any plan for sustainable arts involvement/provision.

    Vaguely refreshing to have a media outlet for this pent-up disillusion! Thanks.


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