Arts Take Their Mark

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A Papua New Guinea artist performs at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival

Intro | Dance | Theater | Music

For some, art and sport, like oil and water, don't mix. "Maybe it goes back to the schoolyard," says Paul Costantoura, author of the recent Australia Council report Australians and the Arts. "There were sporting types and there were non-sporting types." But Costantoura uncovered a surprising degree of overlap. Of those surveyed, 78% agreed that "people can enjoy the arts in the same way that they enjoy sport." While followers of Shakespeare or Shirvington might beg to differ, both arenas offer audiences a primal ritual, says Costantoura: "It's the vicarious struggle of the hero. Will they succeed or will they fail?"

During the Sydney Games, Leo Schofield is hoping for some crossover curiosity. As maestro of the Olympic Arts Festival, which opens this week, he has brought some 4,000 artists from around the globe to compete for attention over the next six weeks. In founding the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin sought to recreate ancient Olympia, when "letters and the arts were always harmoniously combined with sport." But after his Pentathlon of the Muses was abandoned in 1948, Olympic arts have often been sidelined by sport. "Whatever festival you mount, it will only ever be a pendant event to what is, after all, the biggest festival in the world--the Olympic Games," Schofield says.

To help steal some of that thunder, the former advertising man is starting cultural proceedings a month early, and making the program as loud and large-scale as possible. If Mahler's choral Symphony No. 8 for a thousand voices at the SuperDome on Aug. 19 doesn't get attention, nothing will. "It will celebrate both things," says Schofield. "The merger of sport and art."

In the ancient Panhellenic Games, the two were as tightly bound as a winner's laurel wreath. At Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, "1,000 Years of the Olympic Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece" reminds us that where bull leaping and chariot racing have fallen from favor, art has endured.

"The athletic body, the perfect human body, has formed the basis of the study of art for centuries," says Rachel Kent, a curator at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. With "Sporting Life," the MCA's Olympic offering, Kent explores how sport has seeped into the contemporary consciousness: photos of gym junkies show how identity can be constructed, while a video of a university football team poses the question, "Are stadiums museums?" Nearby, in a room of trophies gathered from everyday Sydneysiders, sport becomes art and art becomes sport.

When the Olympic torch bobs up the Opera House steps on Games eve, the two will blur even more. Schofield, for one, doesn't see why the Olympic ideals of "faster, higher, stronger" can't also apply to the arts: "We can measure our performance against the world's best practice, our companies against other companies, just as athletes measure themselves against competitors from other countries." Let the arts begin.