Top Five Musical Controversies of Olympic Proportions

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sixteen years after Baron de Coubertin organized the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, he instituted what he considered his second greatest contribution—a Cultural Olympiad.

The arts ceremonies, implemented for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, stated that the quadrennial event must “involve international artists from the world of entertainment, dance, music, theater and the arts.” Along with this Olympic mandate came equally Olympian controversies, which we’ve gathered below.

1. The Art Competitions

Between 1912 and 1948, the Olympics staged competitions in the arts, which Coubertin called the Pentathlon of Muses. Despite attracting well-known composers to serve as judges, including Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky (who failed to award a winner at the 1924 Paris Games), the competitions faced continual struggles. Among the largest was the fact that artists didn’t want to compete because they were afraid of tarnishing their reputations with less than a gold. (One exception came in the 1936 Berlin Games where German composers dominated the podium.) Exacerbated by the poor spectator turnout and difficulty in proving the amateur status of the composers, the art competitions ended and in 1952, noncompetitive arts festivals replaced them.

2. A Kinder, Gentler National Anthem?

Some of the most poignant Olympic moments come after the awarding of a gold medal, when the victors' flag is hoisted to the sounds of his or her national anthem. However, in 2004, those instances caused grief for the Slovak composer Peter Breiner whose 204 arrangements of all the participating countries’ national tunes were severely scrutinized. Some American commentators complained that his orchestration of the "rockets red glare" was anemic and not suitably chest-thumbing. A Canadian thought his “O Canada” sounded like “an anthem on ouzo.”

3. Musicians Fake It

While Olympic authorities have banned doping among athletes, lip-synching at the festivities is more controversial. Beijing officials faced a firestorm in the media when it came to light that the adorable nine-year-old who performed "Ode to the Motherland" during the Opening Ceremonies was just mouthing the words to the recording of a less attractive girl's voice. More recently, the London Symphony Orchestra came under fire last month after reports that it will mime the opening ceremonies on Friday. On the other hand, Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra had to weather a storm when they refused to mime a performance to pre-recorded music at the 2010 Winter Games.

4. Women's Groups Protest Gershwin Medley

The opening ceremonies for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics provided one of the more spectacular moments when 84 pianists appeared in the Rose Bowl and began playing Rhapsody in Blue simultaneously (former British track athlete Seb Coe ranked it No. 37 on his list of the top 50 Olympic moments). However, women's groups protested that all of the pianists chosen for the performance were men. Organizers explained their choice, saying that the pianists were supposed to represent George Gershwin.

5. Marching Bands Out of Step

Plans for live music at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Games were put to the test when Australians became enraged that they would have to share the stage with ten American high school marching bands and a few from Japan (apparently, there were not enough marchers in Australia who could consistently step to the 22 1/2 inch requirements). An international kerfuffle ensued when the organizers rescinded their invitations to the foreign ensembles. A compromise allowed the Americans to perform with 400 fewer players.

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