Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 15:17 UK

Why we have a Cultural Olympiad

A cultural gala at the Great Wall of China in Beijing
Beijing held a plethora of cultural events while it was Olympic host

By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The organisers of London 2012 have announced an ambitious series of cultural events to run alongside the Olympic Games.

Some 500 events costing at least 40m and culminating in a festival of culture are promised - but the idea is not a new one.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, held the view that it could bring sport and culture together.

Like the Ancient Greeks before him, the Frenchman sought to revive the idea that mind, body and spirit could be celebrated by the modern games, a notion enshrined in the Olympics charter to this day.

Only one winner from Great Britain emerged, in the oils and watercolours contest

While the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, the games between 1912-48 held arts competitions with the victors awarded gold, silver and bronze medals.

Spoils were up for grabs in architecture, painting, literature and music, usually with sport as inspiration.

Arts medals

Architectural medal winners invariably came up with a design for a sports venue, while the musicians triumphed with Olympic-titled pieces.

At the Olympics held in London in 1948, cultural competitions were staged for the last time, and Finland headed the medals table.

Only one winner from Great Britain emerged, in the oils and watercolours contest.

From 1952, a series of cultural events to complement the sporting action was launched.

Pierre de Coubertin at 1924 Paris Olympics
Pierre de Coubertin (l) wanted the Olympics to unite body and mind

As with the Olympic action itself, it has become bigger with each games and has reflected what the host nation has to offer.

It was in 1992 in Barcelona that the Cultural Olympiad became a four-year event, marking the city's entire tenure as games host and promoted local gems including the Picasso Museum.

In 2000, the Sydney Olympics cultural component paid close attention to Australia's Aboriginal peoples through an arts festival which began three years before the sporting action.

The organisers of the Beijing Olympics put on a huge show for the Cultural Olympiad, with five festivals - one for each year of their tenure as games hosts.

A whole plethora of other events were staged, including a film festival for fans of sport cinema and 1,500 young musicians performing on top of the Great Wall of China.

London's Cultural Olympiad also has the job of following Beijing's huge effort, and promises to bring the arts closer to ordinary people and involve every corner of the UK.

And so the long history of marrying art and sports through the Olympic Games continues - and is thanks to a high-minded Frenchman from the 19th Century.

Cultural Olympiad plans unveiled
04 Sep 08 |  Entertainment

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