The Olympics Used To Have An Arts Competition (And Other Things About Games' Music That You Never Knew)

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If you've been watching the Olympics throughout the past week, you've undoubtedly heard the oh-so-recognizable Olympics theme song that we all associate with the Games. (Sing it with me now: Da, da, da dum dum dum dum...)


Or, wait. Maybe you associate this music with the Olympics instead?


As it turns out, those are two separate pieces of music, although on TV, we often hear them together. The first one was composed by the French-American composer Leo Arnaud in 1958 -- and it wasn't used for the Olympics until ABC started using it for their 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics coverage. The second piece is by John Williams, and was commissioned by the Olympic committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. According to Olympic historian Dr. Bill Guegold, the two pieces were merged together in an arrangement in 1996 -- and the mashup still survives today. (Check out the transition at :46 below.) 


That's just one interesting thing that we learned from Dr. Guegold, whose book “100 Years of Olympic Music: 1896 to 1996" is full of Olympic-sized surprises about the history of music at the games. For example: Did you know that until 1948, there was an arts competition at each Olympics? Music was just one facet of the "Olympic Games Arts Competitions," as they were called -- but hundreds of amateur composers from around the world would submit works to be judged, and hopefully, awarded a medal. This piece, called "Toward A New Life" by Czech composer Josef Suk, won the silver medal at the 1932 Games. (We think it deserved a gold, but that's just us.) 


Another thing that we learned from Dr. Guegold? While we Americans associate the Arnaud and Williams pieces with the Olympics coverage that we see here in the U.S., other nations associate completely different music with the Olympics. According to a recent unofficial survey of Olympic historians by Dr. Guegold, one of the pieces often heard during Olympics broadcasts in New Zealand and Great Britain is "Fanfare for the Common Man" -- both the original version, and the Emerson Lake and Palmer version.

(Side note: Is it possible that this music video, filmed in 1977 in the entirely empty Montreal Olympic Stadium, convinced both of these nations that the ELP version deserved a lasting place in their national Olympic broadcasts? We may never know.)