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Visualising the Olympics

17 April 2012

“Images depicting the Olympic Games provide fascinating commentary and insight into the socio-economic and political contexts of the time in which they were designed,” says Dr Mike O’Mahony, art historian and author of Olympic Visions from the Department of Historical Studies.

Mike's research into the visual representation of sport, with its particular focus on the Olympics, has raised considerable interest in the public and academic worlds, culminating in the publication of two books and leading to the development of a new area of academic enquiry, bridging the gap between the disciplines of sport history and art history.

Sport is a complex and historically significant social practice,” he continues, “and yet traditionally, art historians have not engaged widely with its visual representations. Similarly, sport history has tended to concentrate on textual, rather than visual evidence. So it’s been really fascinating and enlightening to bring these disciplines together around the very timely subject of the Olympic Games.”

Supported by a two-year Leverhulme Fellowship, Mike's research explored the visual representation of the Olympics since 1894, when the Olympic Games were first officially revived for the modern era. Throughout this period the Olympics have been inextricably linked to art and culture. Between 1912 and 1948 for example, the Games even included actual art competitions, complete with bronze, silver and gold medals, and every Games since has included programmes of cultural activities. This was largely the result of International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin's efforts to revive the cultural aspect of the ancient Games. The opening ceremonies themselves are theatrical extravaganzas, highly choreographed and designed with cinematic ambition, dazzling audiences at the Games as well as the millions of other spectators watching on TV.  

“There was widespread interest in the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Games of 2008, for example” said Mike. “Having already established its economic and political credentials on a global scale, China now used the Games to enhance not only its sporting, but also its cultural identity on the world stage. Through the mass medium of live television coverage, the opening ceremony of the Games thus presented an image of China that reportedly was watched by one third of the world's population. It was a mega spectacle.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Games have become increasingly accessible through the development of mass media. Accordingly, people now experienced the Games second-hand, through visual imagery framed by the media which in turn, has shaped broader understandings of the Games as well as how we engage with this body of material.

“Olympic Visions analyses this engagement and how audiences relate to material that clearly reflects the pressing concerns of the times, including the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, the Cold War, and broader issues of class, race and gender.” says Mike.

Mike’s research has taken him on journeys from London to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the archives of The LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles, USA. He has published his findings — Olympic Visions: Images of the Games through History – with Reaktion Books, London, and has also produced an edited volume entitled The Visual in Sport, looking at sport imagery generally, co-edited by sport historian Mike Huggins.

The research is enjoying heightened interest from other academics and members of the public,” he continues, “which is clearly linked to the London Olympics being only three months away. The Visual in Sport also catalysed interest in the subject, given the various recent public exhibitions that have been curated around sport and visual representation.”

Already the 2012 London Olympics are presenting interesting developments around the choice and use of the visual, such as the construction of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture alongside the Olympic Park and the widespread presentation of Jessica Ennis as the 2012 ‘poster girl’. “It’s too early to comment on how the visual representation of the latest games will reflect the social and economic trends of the moment but it’s definitely something worth watching,” Mike concludes.


Key facts

Olympic Visions: Images of the Games through History can be ordered online at:

An edited volume entitled The Visual in Sport, edited by Mike O’Mahony and Mike Huggins, is also available online at:

Further information about The Visual in Sport project

Recent exhibitions looking at visual representation in sport include Birmingham’s Barber Institute, whose summer 2011 offering Court on Canvas explored the representation of tennis in art, and the 2012 Playing for Scotland exhibition at Scotland's National Gallery.

The LA84 Foundation increases the impact of sport on young people’s lives, using surplus funds endowed from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.


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