Cultural Olympiad: A Primer


Elegantly chaotic”; “bloody brilliant”; “at once subversive and sublime”; “a people’s ceremony”: this is what the world thought of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony (source: BBC). For the Guardian’s art critic, Charlotte Higgins, it was the “cultural highlight of 2012”.

An estimated audience of one billion viewers worldwide tuned in to watch Danny Boyle’s spectacular celebration of everything British, from free healthcare to art, music and fashion.

It felt like a culmination; and it was indeed only the tip of the iceberg compared to what went on in the country over the previous 4 years.

In 2008, as London won the bid, the BBC retraced the history of the cultural wing of the world’s biggest sports event, recalling that the founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, had a vision of celebrating the union of the mind, body and spirit.

“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. (…) From 1952, a series of cultural events to complement the sporting action was launched. (…) 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.” (Source: BBC).

The official website for the Olympic Movement states its commitment to creating sustainable legacies, and a factsheet available for download gives details of improvements observed in host cities since 1992, with the Summer Games in Barcelona and the Winter Games in Albertville.

And then came London, logically the biggest Cultural Olympiad of all times – as often with festivals, growth is the only viable option.

There’s a lot to say about the objectives and outcomes of cultural planning on such a grand scale, and its mid- and long-term effects will be fascinating to study, but for now here are a few facts and figures taken from the official London 2012 Cultural Olympiad website.

Between 2008 and 2012:

– More than 16 million people across the UK took part in or attended performances;

– More than 3.7 million people took part in nearly 3,700 Open Weekend events [a nationwide series of sports and culture events taking place on the last weekend of July in 2009, 2010 and 2011, to mark the countdown to 2012];

– Some 2,500 cultural projects have been awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark [an accreditation awarded to projects that have embraced the inspiration of London 2012 and the values of the Olympic movement, assessed by London 2012 and the International Olympic Committee].

The Cultural Olympiad was made of different strands and programmes:

– The official London 2012 Festival, a UK-wide 12 week-celebration from 21st June to 9th September, bringing together more than 25,000 artists in over 12,000 events all over the UK and drawing a total of 19.5 million attendances, including 16.5 million participating in free events;

Unlimited, a festival of 29 major commissions celebrating arts and culture by Deaf and disabled artists, of which an online archive is available on the Southbank Centre website;

– A £40 million national and regional legacy programme supported by Legacy Trust UK, a dedicated funding body managing national and regional projects “to ensure that the benefits of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games were felt by diverse communities across the entire UK.”

And beyond numbers, what about the art? Here’s a quick round-up by the Guardian, with the best, the worst, what will stay and what’s still available to watch online.

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I am interested in the research around London 2012 and cultural events of a similar scale and will be posting follow-up articles on evaluation methodologies, regional impact, programming for large and diverse audiences and digital outreach.

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