Whisper it softly in the plush and civilised corridors of Lausanne, but until now culture has made an eminently forgettable contribution to the Olympic movement. Despite the best efforts of the founders of the modern Games, who were determined to ally the ennobling effects of sport with those of the arts, culture has been little more than a refined gate-crasher at the increasingly frenzied celebrations of the human body’s capabilities.
In the early half of the last century, medals were awarded for the arts. There were competitions for poetry, architecture and sculpture. But, unlike their sporting counterparts, the names of the gold medallists are lost in the mists of good intentions.
The case of Bruno Fattori, winner of the silver medal for poetry at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, is not atypical. His prize-winning work “Profili Azzuri” is not only obscure; it cannot even be found. It has disappeared. All that is left is a florid contemporary description of his poem in a German newspaper, which lauded its “hymns to sport’s ecstasies of triumph and beauty, from jubilation to quiet joy”.
The following Olympics, held in London in 1948, were the last for which medals were awarded to artists and writers. It was a belated acknowledgement that sport and the arts were not really that analogous at all. As Ruth Mackenzie, director of London 2012’s Cultural Olympiad drily observes, “artists love prizes, but they don’t really like competing. You don’t get Oscars for the third-best actor.” Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, was known to favour the return of medals for the arts in this year’s Games, but pragmatism won the day.
Instead, London has different ambitions. Its arts programme, taking the form of a 12-week festival opening on June 21, is easily the most extensive and eclectic of the modern era. It may not be awarding gold medals for its participants, but it does aim to be never-forgotten. The 2012 Olympics are seen as a chance to prove the frequently asserted claim that London is the cultural powerhouse of the world.
When the festival programme was announced late last year, it was predictably imposing in scope and quality. The World Shakespeare Festival alone, inviting productions from prestigious companies from all over the world, would comfortably form the cultural centrepiece of any summer. The addition of Mark Rylance presenting pop-up performances of the sonnets in central London is a brilliantly conceived bonus, true to Shakespeare’s populist feel and allowing a touch of street spontaneity into the mix.
There is more high culture at the festival – Daniel Barenboim presenting a Beethoven Symphony cycle at the BBC Proms – along with the allure of the contemporary: major shows by Damien Hirst and Tino Sehgal. There are star names: David Hockney, Jude Law, Simon Rattle, Yoko Ono. And there is mass participation – most obviously in the form of Martin Creed’s self-explanatory “Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and loudly as possible for three minutes”, which will mark the opening morning of the Games on July 27.
“It was going to be at dawn but that might have annoyed everyone, so we have moved it to 8am,” says Mackenzie, ever mindful that compromise is an essential element of culture’s civilising influence.
When asked about the point of the Cultural Olympiad, she is quick to cite the ancient Greeks, who would mix great sporting and artistic events as a matter of course, and Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, who was first and foremost an educationalist who believed that sport and art were twin transformers of malleable young lives. Such sentiments played well in the success of London’s Olympic bid.
But when Mackenzie talks of a unique opportunity to “sell the creative industries and culture of this country”, she adds a powerful 21st-century motive to the equation. Culture has become a significant economic phenomenon in its own right. “We need to remind people that people should be buying our art, and coming to our country, because culture is what we do so brilliantly,” she says with frankness. She quotes a “favourite line” of Munira Mirza, the mayor’s cultural adviser: “Culture is to London what the sun is to Spain.”
Ironically, it is sunny Barcelona that is often quoted as the city whose Olympic Games had the greatest cultural impact, but this argument can be confused. Those famous opening shots of the 1992 Games, showing divers twisting in the air against the city’s dramatic skyline, reminded people that Barcelona was a beautiful – and sunny – place to take a holiday. They had little to do with the promotion of culture itself.
Of arguably greater impact was the cultural component of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Mackenzie cites theatre director Peter Sellars, who talks of its galvanising effect on the city. “This was the first time a lot of people in LA had their eyes opened to different ways of thinking about world theatre, and how people from different communities could come together and transcend their differences,” she says. “Its legacy in terms of artistic practice was huge.”
But does London need to get its message across? Surely the world knows about its culture? The Cultural Olympiad itself – the four-year build-up to the Games – has been something of a damp squib, and the London 2012 Festival, although full of good things, contains little that would be out of place during a normal summer in the city.
Mackenzie replies that it is up to London to raise the bar higher than ever. “One of [culture secretary] Jeremy Hunt’s challenges was for the festival to provide lasting moments that people will be talking about for the next 10 years. These are the things that will be UK-specific. After all, Usain Bolt winning the 100 metres in nine-point-whatever seconds could be happening in any stadium in the world.”
There is a sense of hustle in some of the Cultural Olympiad commissions that is also reflective of the times in which we live. Anish Kapoor’s blood-red ArcelorMittal Orbit, already standing proud in the Olympic Park, was conceived in a famous 45-second meeting between Boris Johnson and the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in a cloakroom at the world economic summit in Davos. As Mittal revealed at the launch of the project, “Boris did all the talking, and I said, ‘yes, why not?’.” Mayor seeks monument; magnate seeks cultural profile. We need not turn our noses up: the mutual needs of politics and business have often given birth to great art.
I ask Mackenzie about the most controversial aspect so far of the Cultural Olympiad: last month’s abrupt doubling of the budget for the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies to £81m. Although not part of her remit, she describes the size of the budget as “not extraordinary in any way. Of course, when times are hard, people are going to look at the figures. But we can’t miss this chance. It is not negotiable. We have to have opening and closing ceremonies, and we have to make them brilliant.”
Whether the opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, survives British culture’s notorious love of kitsch and irony will be one of the Games’ first and most intriguing tests. London’s showcase at the Beijing closing ceremony four years ago, involving umbrellas and a double-decker bus, was not a conspicuous success in this regard.
But Mackenzie is not in the mood for dwelling on negatives. She focuses on numbers: the 10m free tickets on offer throughout the country, the 26bn hits on the London 2012 website, the 6m email addresses already gathered by Games organisers. “This is an opportunity to excite new audiences. These are not the usual suspects, members of the Tate and so on. These are people to whom we can introduce the most incredible artists.” She says that most interest has come from the highly prized 16-34 age group.
I ask her for her personal highlight, and she cites Gustavo Dudamel’s visit to Scotland with the Simon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. They will stage a four-day residency with 100 young musicians from the Sistema Scotland project, culminating in an outdoor concert in Stirling Castle on midsummer’s night, June 21. “I started in youth work, and I know what young people are like. Here they are, playing the cello, practising for two hours a day, the kind of young people who would be more likely to be throwing stones at your car off a motorway bridge. It is an incredible project. And I absolutely believe that art is the way you can change your life.”
To paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal’s prescription: anima sana in corpore sano. A healthy soul needs to co-exist with a healthy body. Nowadays that slogan’s acronym – ASICS – provides the name for one of the world’s biggest sports equipment manufacturers. The ways of commerce are an indelible part of both the sporting and cultural worlds. London knows that better than anywhere. The genteel idealists of yesteryear might have been shocked, but also amazed. Prepare for spirits to be lifted faster, higher, stronger than ever.