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Cultural Olympiad: Now we know what it is

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Will Gompertz | 11:23 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Britain's epic Cultural Olympiad, which runs from summer 2008 to summer 2012, is past the halfway mark, yet all but the most ardent arts enthusiast:
  • has never heard of it
  • or has heard of it, but doesn't know what it is
  • or has heard of it, knows what it is, but couldn't care less.

A statue in Olympia

A statue in Olympia

If I start talking to someone about the Cultural Olympiad, I can be fairly sure that his or her first question, usually while stifling a yawn, will be: "What is the Cultural Olympiad?"

Well, the idea of mixing sport with culture goes back to the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece: mind and body, and all that.

The concept was revived and incorporated into the principles of the modern Olympics by founder Pierre de Courbertin in the late 19th Century. From 1912 until the 1950s, gold medals were awarded for literature, architecture, sculpture, painting and music.

There's no doubt that the UK raised the bar by making the Cultural Olympiad a central part of the winning bid. It started rather inauspiciously on the day the Beijing Olympics closed. Remember the embarrassingly shambolic and cliche-ridden handover where a London bus was made to look tiny as it drove around the mighty Beijing Birds' Nest?

Beijing 2008

Then there were the bowler hats and umbrellas: images of Britain that the tourist industry had spent the last quarter of a century trying to banish. It's fair to say that efforts started a little off the pace, but since Ruth Mackenzie was handed the leadership baton and took on the running of the UK-wide Olympiad, it is beginning to find some form.

David Hockney painting

David Hockney has responded to today's announcement with an iPad painting

Her strategy is to focus on a high-impact 12-week arts festival in the summer of 2012 to run concurrently with the games. She announced this morning that her London 2012 Festival will start with a concert in Londonderry on Midsummer's Day, 21 June.

Jeremy Gilley is the man behind the idea for that event, which will be a reprise of something similar he has run under the banner Peace One Day. Jude Law will add a bit of celebrity stardust and help with the programming. Like many of the Cultural Olympiad events, it is a collaboration with partners who already had the project in development but found that its themes would fit with those set out by Ruth Mackenzie. In this case it is the notion of the Olympic Truce, which again goes all the way back to the ancient Greek Olympics.

There will be a new theatrical extravaganza by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett who were buoyed by the success of their Monkey Opera a couple of years ago. And major exhibitions of the work of Lucien Freud and David Hockney will be presented along with a new commission by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who brought the famous Turbine Hall-filling Sun to Tate Modern in 2003-04.

This is one project to keep an eye out for. Eliasson has the imagination and ambition to create an artwork that will not only become world-famous, but could define the London Olympics 2012.

The big beasts will being doing their bit too. The Royal Shakespeare Company is taking part in the World Shakespeare Festival, which will see theatre companies from Iraq to Brazil coming to the UK to perform Shakespeare. And of course the Edinburgh festivals, which already make up the largest arts festival in the world, will be a high-profile contributor.

Empire Stadium, Wembley, 1948

Empire Stadium, Wembley, 1948

Then there's the BBC. The 2012 Proms will be part of the festival and there will be extensive coverage of much of the other activity on TV, radio and the web.

The Cultural Olympiad might have got off to a poor start and spent the last two years trying to work out what it actually is, but with the announcement today of the first raft of commissions - about a third of what will be a total of around 100 - it finally appears to be up and running.


  • Comment number 1.

    James Naughtie probably summed it all up when "mispronouncing" Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's surname.

  • Comment number 2.

    Love the Hockney ipad painting. Doesn't look like LA. Is he still living in LA?

  • Comment number 3.

    "Cultural Olympiad"... I see an artist carrying his easel and paints trying to paint whilst competing in the 400 metre hurdles. Perhaps I should apply for a grant.... Oh I forget as I am neither 'good' nor 'great' I am prevented from competing! I find they whole way that the Cultural Olympiad is being presented highly offensive. It represents yet another example of the artistic elite given themselves the people's money to create 'culture'. What a disgrace!

    By the way is there a Paraplegic Cultural Olympiad? Art from the alternatively abled? (Singing by the mute! Blind drawing! Dancing by the limbless! Plays written by the illiterate (oh wait a minute we already have that one!) etc.)


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