Art and cities

The Olympics is not a Sporting Event!
Art and culture at the 2002 Winter Olympics

By Beatriz Garcia and Andy Miah, researching in Salt Lake City, Utah during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

The Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games drew to a close on February 24th March, 2002 after an intensive fortnight of sport competition and artistic events. During the Games, visitors were given the chance to realise that the Olympics does not only mean spending copious amounts of money to watch athletes speed past at extraordinary velocities. Originally conceived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin as a vehicle of cultural and educational betterment, the Modern Olympic Games, most recently presented in Salt Lake City attempted to reinforce these links in some novel ways. A success in this endeavour would offer this city the opportunity to be remembered, not only for its excellence as a sport host, but also as a distinctive location with particular traditions and cultural ambitions. The Olympic Games, both in winter and summer is thus, regarded as a key opportunity for a city to demonstrate its cultural heritage to the world. In many respects, this becomes manifest through the cultural and artistic programme that accompanies the sports. Given the vast global interest in these events, the Olympics is thus, a particularly rich resource for understanding links between art and the city.

Few people identify the Olympic Games as a cultural festival, which has undermined the chances of host cities to portray themselves beyond the sporting events. The professionalisation and commercialisation of sport, coupled with its media-magnetism means that cultural expression is pushed to the margins of international attention during the Olympic fortnight. It is for this reason, that Salt Lake provides a particularly interesting case in comparison to, for example, Atlanta 1996, where the arts programme passed unnoticed for many Olympic visitors. To its credit, the organisers of Salt Lake tried to challenge this by placing culture right in front of its visitors. As explained by Raymond T. Grant, artistic director of the Olympic arts program, the aim of the city cultural planners and the Games organising committee was "to ensure that, by the time Olympic tourists depart on their long journeys home, they will have a feeling that the Olympics does not just mean watching athletes".

An important decision by the Olympic organisers was to maximise the visibility of their cultural and arts venues through a wide distribution of "Olympic arts" banners, and the placement of events and activities in highly crowded areas. A key venue for the cultural programme 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 would be awarded their medals at the end of each day. While Olympic spectators queued to enter the square, it was impossible to miss the bright colours of the cultural program flags and the view of the large glass sculptures by US artist Dale Chihuly, a landmark exhibition for the "Olympic Arts Festival". Another key venue of the program was the "Navajo village", which displayed a wide range of Native American artefacts from this community and which was located in the city's most crowded shopping and entertainment centre, "The Gateway". The visibility of cultural activities was also ensured through brochures providing information about daily arts events that were easily accessible in all Olympic venues.

Another strength of the Salt Lake cultural program was the nature of its components, which strove to achieve a difficult balance between quality and accessibility. From the daring performances of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre to the funk-ridden tap dancing of Savion Glover, spectators were given the chance to enjoy world class arts events at the same time as having fun and keeping the spirits set by the sports competitions. One key limitation of prior Olympic cultural programs has resulted precisely from the irreconcilable contrast between the format of elite classic arts events and the general festive environment of the Games. For example, in former Olympic cities such as Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, this led to a radical separation between arts audiences and average Olympic audiences. Consequently many Olympic visitors and spectators did not attend or show an interest in the arts components of these Games. Given the absence of press stories about non- sporting achievements, a failure to attract the interest of Olympic tourists and sports fans has reduced the projection of the host city's culture to its sporting venues and related entertainment.

Beyond visibility and quality, an important strand of the 2002 Olympic cultural program was its emphasis on community reach to ensure a feeling of ownership by the locals. This vocation was 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 Games. In a sense, the Olympic Arts Festival seemed to be designed to allow locals to engage with the Olympic spirit away from the excessive atmosphere of many of the entertainment venues, where alcoholic beverages - against Mormon principles - were promoted in abundance.

Indeed, an emphasis on "community" approaches within a major world event like the Olympics, involves the risk of not meeting the expectations of external visitors and being perceived as provincial or of poor standards. In Salt Lake, this was somehow balanced through the contribution of prominent US artists who, in addition to their most acclaimed performances, acted as festival ambassadors in schools and grassroots arts centres. This initiative secured their engagement with the locals in memorable ways and made the "Olympic" experience accessible to more people. Surprisingly, this appearance was marred by a sense of the locals not actually being there . Prior to the Games, many neighbourhoods had been warned against possible traffic jams and chaotic streets in the city centre. In effect, many locals seemed to suggest that they had kept a distance between themselves and the Olympics during Olympic fortnight. This presents somewhat of a paradox, since the arts and cultural programme was packed with local flavour. Certainly, it can be questioned whether there is a need for locals to be part of the celebrations in order for a successful image of a city to be projected. Yet, there does seem something a little disappointing to hear that many residents did not enjoy their own Olympic fortnight.

A further disappointment for the cultural programme was its lack of a distinctive identity by contrast to prior Games. The programme's visual design was almost identical to that of the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, which might speak for a lack of confidence on knowing what kind of image best suits Salt Lake. While first time visitors might have been impressed by the festival bright banners and brochures, 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. This is a major constraint for a city, as it diminishes the chances to sustain a distinctive image in the minds of visitors and television audiences. Yet, it is also reflective of the event-machine that is emerging with its homogenising management structure. When one way seems to work, it is bound to be repeated or the risk for failure is significantly accentuated.

This reveals one of the major difficulties of hosting arts and cultural programmes at the time of a major event like the Olympics. Certainly, the gigantism and unrivalled media attention attached to the Games offers a unique chance to put the host city on the world map. However, it also brings the threat of flattening all aspects that are unique to a place, substituting them by an ever-growing standardised paraphernalia of Olympic symbols and corporate branding. The characteristics of Olympic rituals and sponsor entertainment seem to be easily transferred between Games. In this context, what chances does a host city have to make a difference and impose a personality that overcomes or, at least, shapes the powerful images of athletes excelling and crowds cheering? Again, the best bet is a strong, distinctive and memorable cultural and arts programme.

The Games in Salt Lake have demonstrated that it is possible to combine sporting excellence with representative cultural and arts expressions. Visitors were given the chance to experience the host city from many different dimensions, not only through the average free entertainment provided by sponsors, but also through the local flavour of either modest or highly skilled artists and companies. Challenges remain in areas such as media presence and visual identity. However, overall, it is possible to argue that in 2002, the Olympic organisers succeeded in providing a cultural program attractive to Olympic visitors and accessible to locals. It remains to be seen whether the program will provide lasting cultural legacies to the city. In any case, the ability to expand an awareness about non-sporting activities to the spectators of such a large scale event, can be a reference point for future Olympic host cities.


Andy Miah is a Teacher Fellow in Applied Ethics, Technology and Culture at the University of Abertay, Dundee. His publications consider a wide range of applied contexts, including medicine, technology, sport, and leisure.

Beatriz Garcia is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow. Her research concerns the ways in which cities project identity and community through the hosting of mega-events, and the policies that inform such choices.