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Medals for poets and painters? Not at this Olympics, but culture still key at London 2012

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The two sides of a gold medal made for the 1948 Olympic Games which were held in London. Medals for artistic achievement were first awarded at the 1912 Stockholm Games and continued until 1948.

LONDON -- A gold medal for poetry? How about one for singing, painting, etching, or even city planning? It might sound comical, but these were all once competitive Olympic events.

And the cultural side of the Olympics still continues with the London 2012 Festival of more than 12,000, mostly free events across the U.K.

Art, comedy, acrobatics, music, drama, film and fancy hats are all there for those in need of a little entertainment, artistic stimulation or simply a break from the sight of too much physical exertion.

It's just that they no longer hand out medals to those deemed to be the best.

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But Ruth Mackenzie, director of the Cultural Olympiad of which the London 2012 Festival is the main event, said they had thought about bringing back competition to the arts.

"We did actually look at it. The [London] mayor, Boris Johnson, ... was interested in this idea of reviving the medals," she told NBCNews.com.

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But she added the International Olympic Committee was "not enthusiastic and, I guess, in the end neither was I."

"Artists love winning prizes, but there isn't an Oscar for third-best female actress," she said.

'New audiences'
Mackenzie said London 2012 had sought to boost the amount of culture associated with the Games to more closely reflect the Olympic movement's three pillars of sports, arts and education.

"I view this as a chance really to aim high ... and introduce new audiences to new artists," she said.

She enthused about a whole string of the events, including concerts featuring the likes of Jay-Z and Rihanna and the River of Music event; the modern dance of U.S. choreographer Elizabeth Streb and company, who created a human waterfall in London's Trafalgar Square; more than 70 productions of works by Shakespeare in 40 languages; and U.S. artist Zach Lieberman's project to light up Hadrian's Wall with illuminated balloons.

Dikaia Chatziefstathiou, an expert on the Olympic movement and its history who is based at the U.K.'s Canterbury Christ Church University, told NBCNews.com that the cultural side of the Olympic movement was now "only at the periphery" because of the high profile of the sporting events. 

She praised the "extremely rich and diverse” program of events in London so far, but added that "on the negative side … still the average person in the street doesn't really know" what the Cultural Olympiad is all about.

The idea that the Games is about more than sport dates back to Ancient Greece -- when the best sculptors were honored -- and the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, she said.


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"It says a lot about Coubertin and how he understood aesthetics and how he valued the concept of beauty. He thought you can see beauty in sport and you can also see beauty in art, and those two shouldn't be separated, they should be linked," she said.

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Medals for artistic achievement were first awarded at the 1912 Stockholm Games and this continued until London 1948.

Team USA did particularly well at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, with three first prizes, four second prizes, one third prize and seven honorable mentions, according to page 764 of that event's official report. A watercolor entitled "Rodeo" -- pictured in the report -- by Lee Blair of the United States was among the winners.

Coubertin himself was one of the first artistic Olympians, Chatziefstathiou said.

"He wrote a poem called Ode au Sport [Ode to Sport] … in the 1912 Games. He submitted this poem with a pseudonym -- Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach, as if it was by two people -- and he won the gold medal," she said.

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London 2012 organizers posted a video on YouTube summarizing the kind of events being held at the festival.

One eye-catching artwork is the aMAZEme installation by Brazilian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo at London's Southbank Centre, which is a maze made out of 250,000 books with walls of up to 8 feet high. The layout of the walls is based on the fingerprints of the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Luke Scully / aMAZEme

The 'aMAZEme' installation at the Southbank Centre in London. "I think the arts is something so important for our evolution and for our life-meaning," Brazilian artist Marcos Saboya said.

Saboya told NBCNews.com that when the maze, which has a Facebook page, is dismantled the books will be given to the charity Oxfam to help tackle global poverty and disease.

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He said arts and the Olympics had been “always associated … since the beginning of the concept of the Olympics.”

“I think the arts is something so important for our evolution and for our life-meaning,” Saboya said, saying he hoped people visiting the installation would be inspired to read or reread some of the books.

In the shadow of the Games, London celebrates

The London Hatwalk has seen famous statues in the city get a makeover. Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square, William Shakespeare in Leicester Square and 18 other statues can all be seen wearing designs from sone of Britain's top milliners such as Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Beau Brummell's statue in London's Jermyn Street wears a new hat designed by Noel Stewart for 'Hatwalk' on July 30. Londoners and visitors have been invited to visit some of the U.K. capital's most iconic statues which are now adorned with bespoke head wear.

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"I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the heritage of British millinery and its contribution to our fair city than by dressing our most noble of statues, including our most heroic son, Nelson in creations dreamt up by our leading visionaries," London Mayor Boris Johnson said in a statement.

Many of the events are taking place outside London, including Prometheus Awakes by the Graeae Theatre Company and La Fura dels Baus in Stockton-on-Tees in northeast England Thursday.

Their version of the Greek myth about the human who stole the secret of fire from the gods promises the audience will "feel the earth move and the sky explode as a ten-meter-high (32 feet) Prometheus arises from the ground and creates fire and humanity in defiance of the God Zeus."

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