David Owen

By the time you read this, I hope to be on my way to Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium to hear a concert by Bruce Springsteen, the veteran American rock musician known as "The Boss".

Purely for this reason, I have decided to focus this week on one of the great non-events of 20th-century Olympic history - the music competition at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games.

This was modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin’s moment; having survived World War One and even presided over a near-miraculous revival of the franchise in Antwerp, less than 18 months after the guns fell silent, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was acquiring an air of permanence.

A return to de Coubertin’s home country offered an opportunity both to shine and to make up for what he viewed as the botched Paris 1900 Games, one of the most ambitious multi-sports extravaganzas ever attempted, but an extravaganza in which the IOC had been sidelined and the French Ministry of Trade, Industry, Postage and Telegraphs had largely called the shots.

And to be fair, Paris 1924 was, for the most part, a strong renewal, highlighted by the "Chariots of Fire" athletics competition and a men’s football tournament won by the exotic South Americans of Uruguay, who would go on both to retain their Olympic title in Amsterdam and win the inaugural World Cup on home soil in 1930.

Such was the interest in the 1924 final that the Official Report records that the new Olympic stadium was "much too small to contain all those who had made the excursion to Colombes" in the Paris suburbs.

The music contest - part of an arts competition consisting of five disciplines, architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature - did not, however, go to plan.

A music competition featured at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
A music competition featured at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

A glittering jury of no fewer than 42 members under the Presidency of a Monsieur Widor - presumably Charles-Marie Widor, 80-year-old organist at the famous Paris church of Saint-Sulpice and composer of several organ symphonies - was assembled.

Those sitting on the jury included giants of early 20th century music such as Béla Bartók, Gabriel Fauré, Ravel, Stravinsky, Honneger, Gustave Doret and renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, as well as the writer Jean Giraudoux.

The musicians hoped, according to the Official Report, that the 1924 Games would "give birth to a new music that was powerful, airy, different from music intended for closed rooms".

In the event, there were only seven entries: three from the host nation France and one each from Australia, Belgium, Britain and Norway.

Unlike those sitting in judgement on their compositions, none of this septet are exactly household names today.

There were at least two women - Ruby Reynolds-Lewis from Australia, whose entry was entitled Foxhunt, and Suzanne Daneau from Belgium, whose "Funerary Games" promised six instantaneous motifs: pole-vault, rings, long jump, water polo, javelin and discus.

I have been unable to unearth anything of interest on the Britain representative, George Bamber, also apparently an entrant for the literature award, or any of the French competitors, except for Henry Masquillier Thiriez, who appears to have come from Tourcoing in the north.

The Norwegian entrant, listed as Monsieur Moaritz, is assumed to be Marius Moaritz Ulfrstad, a 33-year-old organist, composer and teacher.

None of them found favour with the illustrious jurors.

Composer Igor Stravinsky was among the judges at the 1924 Olympic music competition ©Getty Images
Composer Igor Stravinsky was among the judges at the 1924 Olympic music competition ©Getty Images

Meeting at the Théâtre des Champs-Ėlysées this music jury decided in its wisdom that "no work seemed to it worthy of a prize".

Imagine telling that to the first three home in the marathon.

Without wishing to take issue with the musical geniuses who reached this conclusion, making snap judgements on artistic works is clearly a lot more difficult than differentiating between sports performances whose relative merit is often completely obvious and explicit.

The value of a work of art generally becomes clear only over time - which is why the greatest artists sometimes die in poverty.

A brief introduction to the 850-page Paris 1924 Report, under his signature, suggests that the question of art in the Olympics continued to play on de Coubertin’s mind.

"After the Games of the Seventh Olympiad (Antwerp 1920) I remember having expressed the wish for even fuller, more absolute universality," he wrote, under the heading, in Latin, "Mens fervida in corpore lacertoso" (Passionate mind in muscular body).

"After those of the Eighth Olympiad, it is intellectualism that worries me.

"The last Games," he elaborated, "in spite of the good and meritorious effort to cloak them with art and thought were still too much like "world championships".

"They must certainly be that…but you need something else on the side: the presence of national geniuses, the collaboration of muses, the cult of beauty, all the apparatus that goes with the powerful symbolism that the Olympic Games used to embody in the past and must continue to represent today…

"That is how the Olympic Games will be what they must be and only that: the quadrennial festival of human spring, but an ordered and rhythmic spring where the sap remains at the service of the mind."

I think what he is getting at is that the arts could be a way of setting the Olympics apart from other sports competitions and anchoring them to their ancient roots.

Meanwhile, I am wondering if that intimidating jury would have judged Born to Run worthy of an Olympic medal.