The Olympics is not a sporting event, pp.4-6 | Salt Lake City | Olympic Games


Culture @ the Olympics
issues, trends and perspectives

The Olympics is not a sporting event!
Beatriz García and Andy Miah


With the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games winding down, visitors will have noticed how the Olympics does not only mean spending copious amounts of money to watch athletes whizz past at extraordinary speeds. Originally conceived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin as a vehicle of cultural and educational betterment, the Olympic Games in Salt Lake has served to reinforce these links in some novel ways.
Few people identify the Olympic Games as a cultural festival. The professionalisation and commercialisation of sport, coupled with its mediamagnetism means that cultural expression is pushed to the margins of international attention during the Olympic fortnight. Salt Lake has tried to challenge this by placing culture right in front of its visitors, no holds barred. By the time Olympic tourists depart on their long journeys home, there will be a feeling that

the Olympics does not just mean watching athletes. An important decision by the Olympic organisers has been to ensure the visibility of their cultural and arts venues through a wide distribution of “Olympic arts” banners where arts events were taking place. A key venue for the cultural program was located in front of the entry to the most popular Olympic entertainment centre, The Olympic Square.

The Square received huge volumes of people interested in the free activities organised by official sponsors. It also received Olympic spectators attending the skating Ice Centre and housed the Medals Plaza, where athletes were honoured nightly.

Culture @ the Olympics, 2002: vol. 4, issue 2, pp. 4-6

While Olympic spectators queued to enter the square, it was impossible to miss the bright colours of the cultural program flags and the enchanting view of the glass sculptures by US artist Chihuly, a landmark exhibition of the “Olympic Arts Festival”. The visibility of cultural activities has also been ensured through brochures informing about daily arts events that were accessible in all Olympic venues.

The exhibition by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly was also spectacular, engaging, and fun to digest. Also, one of the highlights has been the funk-ridden tap-dancing of Savion Glover, which brought the audience to its feet throughout the performance. Other interesting and clearly appealing components included a gastronomic feast (the Art of the Table, a dinner orchestrated by leading US chefs), and an extensive display of American native cultures in the form of a “Navajo Village” placed in the popular “Gateway”, a pedestrian area for shopping and entertainment.

Photograph taken at the Chihuly glass exhibition, Salt Lake City, 2002.

Another strength of the Salt Lake cultural program has been the nature of its components, which, in the most part, achieved a difficult balance between quality and accessibility. Performances by the Pilobolus Dance Theatre combine technical perfection and daring choreographies with a dazzling sense of humour. Their acrobatic approach to dance led their audience to establish easy connections with the performance of figure skaters, so becoming a very appropriate complement to the Olympic sports program.

an important strand of the program has been its emphasis on community reach, thus ensuring a sense of ownership by the locals
Beyond visibility and quality, an important strand of the program has been its emphasis on community reach, thus ensuring a sense of ownership by the locals. This vocation is remarkable in the context of Salt Lake and surrounding towns where the presence of the conservative Mormon church and other religious communities made a contrast with the loud and festive atmosphere of the

García and Miah, 2002: The Olympics is not an sporting event


Games. The Cultural Olympiad has allowed locals to engage with the Olympic spirit away from the atmosphere of excess common in many of the entertainment venues, where alcoholic beverages were promoted in abundance. One of the disappointing aspects of the cultural programme has been the lack of a distinctive identity to set it apart from previous Olympic arts festivals. The visual design has been almost identical to the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, which might speak for a lack of confidence in knowing what kind of image best suits Salt Lake.

While first time visitors might have been impressed with the festival bright colours, in the long term, the similarities with prior festival editions might make it difficult to remember what was so special about the Salt Lake’s arts component. Nevertheless, the Games in Salt Lake have demonstrated that it is possible to combine sporting excellence with representative cultural and arts expressions. Visitors have been given the chance to experience the city of Salt Lake from many different dimensions, not only through average entertainment but also through the local flavour of either modest or highly skilled artists and companies. The ability of the Olympic host organisers to ensure an awareness of their nonsporting program can be a reference point for future host cities.

Soldier Hollow, Utah



Paper originally published as: Garcia, B. and A. Miah (2002). The Olympics is Not a Sporting Event! Arts and Culture at the 2002 Winter Olympics. /art/olympic.htm

García and Miah, 2002: The Olympics is not an sporting event


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