When the Olympics Gave Out Medals for Making Medals
With respect to the Vince Lombardi trophy, the Stanley Cup, and the NBA championship ring, the most treasured reward in all of sports might be the Olympic medal. Gold, silver, or bronze, this acknowledgment of sporting achievement has been coveted since its introduction in 1896. After all, it’s not just a regional prize—it means you’re the best in the world.
And for a few select recipients, that reward hasn’t been for athletic accomplishment. It was for art. And for three men in particular, that meant getting a medal for designing—a medal.
From 1912 to 1948, art competitions were a regular part of the Olympics. In categories like architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music, participants were vying for Olympic history. Considering the nature of the event, it was usually required that they had some kind of sporting theme. (Professional artists were prohibited from entering, otherwise Pablo Picasso would have run the table.)
In 1924 and 1936, a total of three men received the prize for designing medals. Not for the Games themselves, but for artistic purposes.
In the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, French sculptor Claude-Léon Mascaux got one medal for his multiple medals. Mascaux created Cadre de Medailles, a collection of sporting medals with an animal theme that took home the bronze in a mixed sculpture category, which was open to all kinds of sculptures including busts. Mascaux's medals depicted figures representing wrestling, general athletics, jumping, running, gymnastics, swimming, and aviation.
Beginning in 1936, medal designers no longer had to compete with sculptors—the two were split into different categories. Italian artist Luciano Mercante won a silver medal in Berlin—no gold was awarded—for Medagliere, a collection with four medals featuring wrestling, rowing, running, and the high jump. Mercante also dabbled in coins and small metal works throughout his career.
Taking the bronze medal in medaling that year was Jozuë Dupon, a Belgian sculptor who was recognized for his six equestrian-themed medals. (Dupon was apparently renowned for his ability to render a good horse.) Curiously, Dupon received his medal posthumously, a rare feat for any Olympian. He died in 1935.
Both the medals and a number of the submitted artworks were poorly documented, so little else is known about them. But we do know that both Mercante and Dupon had their work seen by a large number of people; more than 70,000 spectators visited the art exhibit during the four weeks it was on display in Berlin that year.
Art competitions were relegated to exhibitions after 1948, owing in large part to the lack of professionals and the reluctance of some art judges to award medals to works they deemed unworthy, which was their right in those days. Today, art medals aren’t included in the total tallies of medals for countries.