The Art of the Olympics

Premiere athletes from around the world will converge on Athens next month for the Olympics, but some standout events will feature canvas, clay and significantly less sweat.

While the games are no doubt a sporting spectacular, the associated cultural exhibits foster the unique history-drenched appeal of the Olympics (search) and help reveal the host city's soul.

From the history of pleats to the Greek influence on Picasso, there will be an array of visual treats on display in Greece during the games.

Without "the pomp and ceremony and the surrounding mystique [the cultural exhibits] infuse into the games, the Olympics would be merely another major sports event," said Richard Stanton, a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (search).

Z. Candi Staurinos, a marketing associate for the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, Pa., who is traveling to the games as a volunteer with the softball competition, said she's looking forward to the Hellenic heritage as much as the home runs.

"Having the Olympics come back to Athens is definitely an opportunity to showcase more than sports," she said. "I think the cultural events are important to any Olympic Games."

Staurinos, who is first generation Greek, is also excited about having the world's eye on her home turf.

"Athens is a very cultural city to begin with," she said. "All you have to do is walk down the street to see performances. There are plays in open amphitheaters, concerts, and a Greek style of music called Rembetiko."

Arts may seem like a nice side dish to some people today, but cultural events once reigned at the Olympics alongside the athletics.

"The Olympic Games have been intertwined with culture since their inception in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece," said Stanton, author of "The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions." "Literally all we know today about the ancient Olympic Games comes to us through the artistic artifacts that were found in archeological discoveries."

A sculptor at games past would've been put on a pedestal just like a sprinter: Architecture, music, literature, painting and sculpture were competitive events from 1912 through 1948, said Stanton.

"The winners of those events received the same Olympic medals as the winners of the athletic events. After 1948, the 'competitions' in the arts were changed to 'exhibitions.'"

And many exhibits examining Greek heritage and sports will be open during the 2004 Summer Games.

"The Athletic Spirit in Ancient Greece" at the National Archaeological Museum (search) in Athens will feature pieces of ancient Greek art on the subject of the Olympic Games.

"Magna Grecia: Sports and Olympism in the Hellenic World" will be at the Museum of Cycladic Art.

"Olympic Cities -- Gods Becoming Men" at the Frissiras Museum will explore human diversity, human fallibility and the beauty of the body through digital art.

The influence that Greek prehistoric and classical sculpture, and classic literature, had on Picasso's art can be explored in "Picasso: Greek Influences" at the V. & E. Goulandri Museum of Modern Art in Andros.

Delve into the origins and influences of fabric folds at "Pleats: From Ancient Greek Clothing to 21st Century Fashion," showing at the Benaki Museum (search) in Athens.

And two exhibitions that feature the city as the star, "The Great Sightseers of Athens" and "Views of Athens by Contemporary Greek Artists" will be held at the Museum of the City of Athens.

Susan Manders (search), the official U.S. artist for the 2004 Olympics, said she feels that artists and athletes have similar qualities.

"The important part is the process in getting there and completing the painting," she said. "You have to enjoy the whole journey. Athletes are not dissimilar to being a painter, we're both on a continuous journey."

Manders, 55, has been touring schools discussing her painting "All Eyes on Me," which she said expresses the exhilarating moment athletes experience when they arrive at the Olympic Games.

Staurinos agreed that art and athletics complement each other well.

"Whether you are on a stage in a theater or on the stage in a wrestling match, people are still watching you and you are trying to perform your best. There is a lot of connection between the two."