Culture @ the Olympics
issues, trends and perspectives


More than a game
Olympic arts programming can increase local participationi Beatriz García

Two years ago I wrote an article titled ‘The Olympics is not a sporting event’. The intention was to emphasise the cultural dimension of an event that is often viewed solely as an elite sports competition. Unlike other sports events, the Olympics are supposed to be more than that. They are supposed to be a vehicle to achieve individual selfimprovement, civic involvement and cultural understanding in order to, ultimately, advance towards world peace.
In this context, the issue of direct participation can be seen as central to the Olympic experience. Interestingly, this is an aspect that has low resonance in discussions around the benefit of hosting the Games. This article debates existing contradictions between the Olympic ideals and the reality of staging the Games, and ways in which some of the

less known – but more meaningful – dimensions of the Games could place participation back at the centre of the celebration. The Olympic Games are embedded within an ambitious philosophy of ‘Olympism’ the objective of which is to foster human relations through the interactions of sport, culture and education. The Games are indeed the most visible expression of this ideal, inspired in the practices of Ancient Greece and revived more than a century ago by the French pedagogue Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Since the first Games celebration in 1896, the event has grown from being a utopian initiative by European aristocrats into the largest international peace gathering, which receives United Nations endorsement. However, not all dimensions of the Games have evolved with equal levels of support and public recognition. While the sporting competitions have become the top aspiration of any athlete around the world, and the

Culture @ the Olympics, 2004: vol. 6, issue 3, pp. 35-40


Olympic rituals and symbols (the rings, Olympic flag, anthems, torch relay and Games opening and closing ceremonies) are recognised and followed through the media worldwide, the educational and cultural aspirations of Olympism are often misrepresented, misunderstood or simply unknown by Olympic partners and the general public alike. Part of the problem of the Games and the lack of attention for their non-sporting dimensions is the strong dependence of the Olympics on media and sponsor support and with it, an increased dedication to satisfying the demands of journalists (broadcasters in particular) and commercial funders. This has led to an increased commitment to make the biggest spectacle the world has ever seen. In what seems an unintended twist of the original Olympic motto - ‘higher, faster, stronger’ – the Games are now seen necessary to be bigger and better each time, while the dedication to guarantee direct participation and local representation seems less clear. I have spent the past seven years researching the cultural dimension of the Games and, in particular, the role and potential of arts programming to maximise participation in and ownership of the Olympic experience. I base my recommendations to bid committees on this doctoral and post-doctoral research. As well,

my arguments are based on an evaluation of the cultural programme of the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, which I led soon after its conclusion.

the Olympic Games and their surrounding rituals have an intrinsic cultural value and are important cultural phenomena thanks to their worldwide dissemination
In my work it is evident that the Olympic Games and their surrounding rituals have an intrinsic cultural value and are important cultural phenomena thanks to their worldwide dissemination and thus their ability to influence millions of viewers representing more than 200 nations. However, it is in the close-up one-to-one relationships that the most meaningful and sustainable exchanges can take place. What do the Games mean to the local participants who grow with the preparations and, rightly, feel that they are hosting the entire world? How can these sentiments facilitate a greater sense of local cohesion among diverse communities who often struggle to engage with each others’ social problems?

García, 2004: More than a game



These aspects of the Olympic Games do not necessarily take place in the competition and ceremony arenas. They are, in fact, more frequent and visible in the bars, parks and streets of the host city, in its cultural centres and schools, in the apartments of the Olympic Village (where athletes reside, train and rest) and in the queues to enter Olympic or related venues.

the longer lasting consequences of the Games. After the circus has left town at an Olympic city, it is the local cultural legacy that brings a greater sense of optimism to a location. This is demonstrated by research on the legacy of the Barcelona 1992 Games, where the effect of having volunteered in the Games – resulting in increased pride and confidence in the city and strengthened cultural citizenship – has had greater ramifications and positive impacts than that of constructing a new upbeat seafront neighbourhood – the expensive Olympic Village, which, twelve years on, has achieved popularity with tourists in the summer but failed to create a sense of community within it and is considered a ghost town in the winter months. Today, with growing concerns and funding dedication to maximise security and prevent terrorism, it is possible that organises will pay little attention to on the potential for personal cultural exchange that the Games offers, which would reduce its participatory element. In this context, it is critical to rethink what more can be done through Olympic cultural and educational programming. I note below some suggestions that have emerged from my research on past Olympic editions – from Barcelona 1992
García, 2004: More than a game

Olympic spectators enjoy the warm sunny day at one of the Live Sites!, a non-ticketed space at Sydney 2000.

These are some of the many public arenas of an Olympic host city and its surroundings where locals, visitors and event participants can meet personally. Ultimately, they are the arenas where most cultural exchange takes place and where there are greater opportunities to increase participation. Yet, they are often underdeveloped and underappreciated spaces by the Games organisers, who have lacked the vision or infrastructure to capitalise on their potential to create meaningful personal experiences, which can become



onwards – and end with a reflection on the potential contribution of Olympic arts activities to enhance participation. In order to allow culture and the arts to play a significant role within the Olympics, two of the most important challenges to overcome are their low visibility among Olympic spectators and media reporters, and the limited appreciation or understanding of their relevance within the Games. The first challenge can be best overcome by linking arts activity with those Olympic events that receive greater media attention. This means incorporating arts programming within sporting venues, for example, placing exhibitions and arts performances at the entrance or surroundings of stadiums, in particular, at Olympic Park, which is the precinct gathering most competition venues – and broadcasting cameras. It also means establishing direct links with rituals such as the torch relay celebrations, which take place throughout the host country but are often disconnected from their local environment – or connected in not very creative or distinct ways. For the Seoul Games in 1988, one of the most memorable dimensions of the official arts programme was its role in the torch relay, as every city and town receiving the OIympic

flame organised a parallel arts festival showcasing local gastronomy and traditions. Furthermore, the issue of perceived relevance requires the arts programme to empathise with the surrounding Olympic atmosphere. This can be achieved through blending with the public arenas already mentioned: the arts experience should happen in the street and be a leading force in any organised open air festival during Games time. Unfortunately, past Olympic arts programmes have often been limited to showcasing elite artists in cultural venues that, though prestigious among the artconnoisseurs, may be marginal to the Olympic celebrations.

LiveSites! performers on the street, Sydney 2000.

This approach to arts programming does not welcome direct participation by the locals and, combined with the lack of media exposure, is rarely able to create meaningful impacts and legacies. Sydney 2000 offers a

García, 2004: More than a game



good example of the level of success that can be achieved through free street activities. Yet, it is also an example of a missed opportunity for establishing memorable cultural legacies. The open-air programme should have included more distinctive arts performances (such as that of the Australian company ‘Legs on the Wall’, also invited to perform in the Manchester Commonwealth Games) rather than typical entertainment (popular but often unremarkable acrobats and musicians). To end this article, it is perhaps worth reflecting briefly on how arts activity can further enhance the experience of participation in the Olympics. Given the aspirations of the Olympic philosophy and the potential (and challenge) of hosting largescale world events, there are three main areas that stand out: increased ownership of the event, greater inclusion and stronger opportunities for intercultural understanding. Event ownership can be increased by representing and giving a voice to specific communities in creative and distinctive ways, which can build on the strong sense of cohesion that characterises sports followers. To achieve this, it is important to design the arts programme in direct consultation with the locals and use it as a platform for their

involvement rather than solely as a prestige device for the elite. Arts activities can also enhance participation because they offer greater opportunities for inclusion. This is particularly important in the context of the Olympics, where the sport competitions and main rituals are reserved mostly for top athletes and distinguished citizens. Barcelona 1992 started the tradition of presenting four-year cultural programmes in the approach to the Games – the Cultural Olympiad. This tradition has caused some strain in terms of budgeting and promotion but has also increased opportunities for access and direct participation, with activities taking place beyond the Olympic host city and often incorporating existing festivals and other local initiatives.

arts activity can assist in improving cultural understanding through providing a context to the many discourses and experiences taking place during the Games
Finally, arts activity can assist in improving cultural understanding through providing a context to the many discourses and experiences taking place during the Games. As such, in order to

García, 2004: More than a game



appreciate the relevance of the victory of Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman in Sydney 2000, it was not enough just to watch her compete. The meaning of this victory was better understood through visiting the many exhibitions of contemporary Aboriginal artists or participating in the events organised by local Aboriginal groups where their current cultural, social and political aspirations were expressed. All of these arguments should help place the arts and, with

them, culture and education, back at the centre of the debate about the value of hosting the Olympics. As London – and four other cities – now take up the baton to bid for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, questions have arisen about what makes a successful bid. But perhaps first must be asked what should be the values underpinning it so that both the bid and, ultimately, the Games, deliver what they are meant to: not only a large-scale spectacle, but also an opportunity for individual development and intercultural understanding.


This article has been originally published as: García, B. (2004) More than a Game. The Value of Olympic arts programming to increase local participation. In: MailOut. The National Magazine for developing participation in the arts. (August/September 2004, pp.9-10)

García, 2004: More than a game


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