>The Olympic Games, as it is widely known, include a programme of cultural events in their organization, which take place during the Games as well as in the interim four-yearly period between the Games.
Once the city of Athens took over the organization of the 2004 Olympic Games, Greece put forward the establishment of a new institution, the Cultural Olympiad.
The goal was to identify the Olympic Cultural Events as an autonomous entity, with a distinct character and function: to reflect the ideas and values embedded in the Olympic Ideal through a series of activities and initiatives. Until then, the cultural aspect of the Olympic Games was important but in a rather supplementary way. The proposed institution would usher the Games into a new era focusing on the development of human relations by means of culture. The underlying rationale was that the very nature of the cultural events on offer would capture the true value of the Olympic Ideal and reinforce its resolve to unite people. As a result, the Games would leave the country of its birth with a new added value.
UNESCO, in its 29th session of the General Conference (1997), unanimously welcomed its co-operation with the Cultural Olympiad organised by Greece. In 1998, Evangelos Venizelos -at the time Greek Minister of Culture, Juan Antonio Samaranch – at the time President of the International Olympic Committee, and Federico Mayor – the at the time Director General of UNESCO, founded the International Foundation of the Cultural Olympiad, thus establishing its headquarters in ancient Olympia. The Foundation operating as the custodian of the newly launched institution conveyed its international status to the latter.
Once the political and international aspects of the Greek initiative were defined, the time was right to put theory into practice. The preparation for the new institution had to be complete by the end of the Games in Sydney, so that the Cultural Olympiad could make its official start.
Indeed, in 2000, the administration and running of the Cultural Olympiad was entrusted by law to the Hellenic Cultural Heritage S.A., a legal entity under the supervision of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture recently renamed as The Hellenic Culture Organization (HCO). HCO became fully operational within a limited amount of time in order to meet the demands of this endeavour – with the financial support of the Greek government.
As soon as all preparations were complete, an agreement among the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, the International Olympic Committee and Athens 2004 was finalized and signed. It established the Cultural Olympiad of the 2004 Olympic Games. HCO announced its events calendar, which included a 100 point programme of various types of cultural events for the period between 2001 and 2004. The Cultural Olympiad was inaugurated with Bob Wilson’s production of “Prometheus” at the Athens Concert Hall in January 200l.
The Report of the first two years (2001-2002) offered an impressive account of activities planned and realized. In total, 48 events related to music, dance, theatre, cultural heritage, architecture, ecology, artistic creativity on the Internet, books, poetry, painting, ceramic art and film had been held. A significant initiative in 2001 involved an international symposium, entitled “Rethinking Culture”, that took place in Olympia.
Prominent people from across the world, including distinguished intellectuals and arts people, attended the conference that led to the signing of the “Charter of Olympia”, a political manifesto proclaiming culture, peace and social cohesion.
The Report showed an active trajectory from the part of the Cultural Olympiad while also allowing room for improvement. The main axiom, that the events be original and have a distinct international character, had been followed to a considerable degree. However, in a country with such a wealth and variety of cultural activity, the distinctiveness of the Cultural Olympiad needed to be articulated and reinforced. At the same time, new aspects would be added to the initial approach, further elaborating and clarifying the message originally put forward. It followed that the conclusions of the Report would help fine-tune the architecture of the new institution.
A brief look at the organisation of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games shows that Greece was given the opportunity to put forward a new institution, and carry the responsibility for its implementation. The purpose of the institution was to add a permanent value to the Olympic Ideal, one that promotes the understanding and mutual respect of different cultures through a series of activities that resonate globally comprehensible human values.
Moreover, the Cultural Olympiad had the potential to succeed as long as it is perceived as being something different from already existing cultural activities. In conjunction with the Olympic Games, the Cultural Olympiad could reinforce mutual understanding and, ultimately, become the catalyst that united us all.
The Cultural Olympiad, as an institution, consisted of three distinct areas, as presented during the official 2003-2004 programme launch:
The first area referred to the arts culture, and comprised the cultural events. These events were original, and highlighted co-operation between cultures. They had distinct international features and were easily distinguished from currently ongoing cultural activities. Simultaneously, they had been designed in such a way so as to offer the possibility to be communicated internationally.
The second one referred to the culture of everyday life. Through a series of initiatives, the Cultural Olympiad raised awareness through symbolic participation in the latter, but, mainly, sought tangible outcomes. The initiatives mentioned must have an exemplary character for others to follow suite. The most prominent example, to date, is the co-operation with UNICEF, whereby 1.4 million children were immunized against the six main life-threatening diseases with funds provided by the Cultural Olympiad. Concurrently, this partnership has yielded a unique collection of UNICEF Christmas cards carrying the message of the Cultural Olympiad around the world.
Finally, the third area referred to the institutionalization of the Cultural Olympiad. Countries supporting the Olympic movement were asked to set up a National Cultural Olympiad Committee. More than 70 countries had already responded by 2001. Meanwhile, an International Committee had been established to award the “Kotinos” prize, something that would take place at the closing ceremony, in September 2004.
Man shapes his relation with time, locus and word like a modern Prometheus who struggles constantly for his own emancipation and the acquisition of knowledge, by coexisting, participating and jointly creating – though often through conflict. It requires determination and hard work to approach culture as a bridge for creating peace rather than a cause for sparking off war.
Each institution was supported by a set of values so that, once no longer a theoretical conception, it progressed on a steady course – its potential for continuity and permanency, and the achievement of its goals thereby ensured. Furthermore, having a value system meant that an institution could be constantly monitored and evaluated as to how effective it is, kept updated and, hence, sustainable.
The value system of the Cultural Olympiad consists of two such sets:
- Ecumenical ideals, at the heart of which lay the notion of globalization, in itself featuring the interplay of four sets of principles. These were:
– state and democracy
– religion and equality
– science and progress
– art and creativity
- Prevailing, globally comprehensible, Greek values such as:
– The Olympic ideal
Greek culture has provided humanity with enduring and imperishable values, all of which revolve around the notion that everything has to be in moderation.
These values are embedded in modern culture and define its ideological basis.