In a letter dated 2 April 1906, Baron Pierre de Coubertin questioned "to what extent and in what way art and literature could be included in the celebration of the modern Olympiads". Elaborating on his intentions, he added, "In the high times of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Olympic Games to create their glory. This is to become reality once again."
Baron de Coubertin had single-handedly revived the Olympic Games just years earlier, when the inaugural Olympic Congress was declared open and the first modern Games were officially, and unanimously, approved in June 1894.
To fully reawaken the spirit of the Olympics as they had been held centuries ago — a celebration of body and mind — Baron de Coubertin envisioned a global event that gave equal value to athletics and arts, such as painting, literature and even architecture.
He called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to examine several critical pedagogical themes. After having successfully discussed the integration of education and science at two previous meetings, Coubertin turned his attention to the arts. The official subject of the 1906 Congress, hosted at the Comédie- Française in Paris, was the "Incorporation of the Fine Arts in the Olympic Games and in Everyday Life".
As such, the IOC's first architectural competition brief, announced in 1910, requested proposals for a model of a modern Olympia. The results of the competition were supervised by the College of Architecture in Paris, which after a review in May 1912 awarded the first ever Olympic gold medal in architecture to Swiss architects Eugène-Édouard Monod and Alphonse Laverrière for their plan of a modern stadium.
While the overall format of the competitions remained largely unchanged as they travelled from city to city, the process evolved during the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, where the architecture competition was divided into two subcategories: architectural design and town planning. Moreover, whereas in the previous three Games medals had been given only for proposals, 1928 marked the first, and only, time that a medal was awarded for a realised building, with a gold medal going to Jan Wils's Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the structure in which many of the sports events were hosted.
Baron de Coubertin envisioned a global event that gave equal value to athletics and arts
Today, as we see yet another Olympic complex rapidly taking shape in London, it is clear that architecture is nevertheless still a central component of the events. Not only do cities continue to compete for the opportunity to host the Olympics, but the architecture of the Olympics itself has evolved beyond the amateur competition of merely showing models and plans.
Perhaps it is thanks to Baron de Coubertin's passionate efforts to celebrate the body as well as the mind that the Olympics continue to evoke a highly competitive race between some of the world's bestknown architects, even when there are no longer any medals up for grabs. Julia van den Hout, Architecture writer and curator