Olympic art of the past - and future

As a form of communication, posters face an interesting set of challenges. In order to be effective, they have to be visually attractive (or at least compelling), they have to get their message across quickly and without the aid of extensive textual content, and ideally, they should evoke an emotional as well as intellectual response, and stay in the mind long after leaving the field of vision. Take those challenges, and add the condition of trying to encapsulate an event that might happen only once in a lifetime for a given location, and you begin to understand the pressures faced by the nameless designers and artists behind the posters of every Olympic Games. If you'd like to see what kind of art such pressures can produce, The Olymperials has more than a century's worth of examples for your perusal - revealing a spectacular variety of responses to what is, essentially, the same assignment.

Web hosted by a hotel in Annecy, France (L'Impérial Palace - which will explain how the site gets its unusual name and distinctive logo), and supported by the Olympic Collectors Commission of the International Olympic Committee, The Olymperials features more than 2,500 original Olympic posters - with samples ranging from the first modern Games in 1896 to the upcoming Bejing Games of 2008. (Slots are already provided for posters as far ahead as 2014, and presumably the Torino collection will be made more complete soon.) And while you might find higher-resolution copies of specific posters elsewhere on the Web, you're unlikely to locate a more complete collection - and for those interested in a thorough, "longitudinal" study of this specific byproduct of the Olympic movement, The Olymperials stands alone.

Loading into a new browser window from the splash page, the Olymperials' Flash interface first displays a brief welcome to the exhibit, and with a click, moves visitors to the main index. Icons at the lower right of the screen link to background information, mission statements, and a quick lesson about the artifacts - laced with such bits of trivia as the fact that there were no "official" Olympic posters until the 1912 Stockholm games, and that the Moscow 1980 Games holds the productivity crown with 259 unique posters. To the left of the screen are the four main entry points into the exhibit, which remain accessible throughout the rest of the production.

The first of these options, simply labeled Olympic Games, loads a chronological listing of all of the modern Summer and Winter Games, and displays the official Games poster(s) from a randomly selected year to acquaint visitors to the site's method of presentation. The example chosen during my first encounter was 1992 - and being the last time that Summer and Winter games were held in the same year, the site presented a subset of links for both the Barcelona Summer Games and the Albertville Winter Games on the same 'page.' (For more recent years, each Games is featured on its own.) Beneath each host city's name is a listing for the number of distinct designs created for that year's event, and in the main area of the browser screen, thumbnails of the host's official Games posters are presented.

Of course, posters representing a city's Games as a whole are but a drop in the bucket, and by navigating a series of buttons along the bottom of the screen, surfers can access posters depicting individual sports, mascots, other nations promoting their teams, a sampling of sanctioned advertising, and even artworks created for a city's candidacy efforts before the Games were awarded. The numbers of posters within each category are also listed, and if there isn't enough room for all the thumbnails of a given category to be displayed at the same time, forward and back arrows, as well as page numbers, will appear at the extreme bottom right of the screen for subject-specific navigation.

Clicking on any of the thumbnails opens a near full-screen image, with designer and printer information about the particular poster appearing above (when available), and to the side, a pair of icons linking to background information and e-mail comments. In practice, many, if not most of the information boxes appear to be blank (this probably represents the early days of a work in progress), but if you select a poster that does have a bit of extra information, the link's icon - a face - displays a smile. Still, with or without these 'biographies,' the artworks were created to stand on their own without the need of explanation, and they do so impressively. From the theatrical imagery of Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904, to the highly graphic designs of Amsterdam 1928, to the vertigo-inducing posters for Mexico 1968, the visuals are more than enough to keep the visitor engaged. And in some cases, there's more than just artistry to give the visuals impact - some posters might spark personal memories, while others reflect a larger historical context. Examples of the latter including Berlin 1936, the war-cancelled Helsinki 1940 Games, and the ironically bright imagery from Munich in 1972.

The other three main categories display their contents in exactly the same manner as Olympic Games, and feature Other Olympic Events (Special Olympics, IOC meetings, a small Protest selection, etc.), the artistic efforts of unsuccessful Candidate Cities (e.g., the bid to bring the 1994 Winter Olympics to Anchorage, Alaska), and Olympic Fiction Movies (including a quintessentially Italian treatment for the Ryan O'Neal film, "The Games" ["I Formidabili"]). Those looking for posters for documentaries and historical films will find them in the main collection for the relevant year, such as the inclusion of "Chariots of Fire" images in the Paris 1924 collection.

Complaints? Well, if you don't have JavaScript turned on in your browser, you'll get nothing but a blank page - and no explanation why this is so. (By this time, I'd expect a 'sniffer' and "Turn on your JavaScript" notice to be standard operating procedure for sites where it's required.) There is a Flash sniffer though - but with older browsers it might insist that you don't have Flash installed even if you do, and won't let you proceed without it. If you find yourself in this situation, you can do an end run around the Flash sniffer and start your explorations here or here.

But my primary wish can't even really fall under the category of criticism. As I moved through the images on the site, I wished that there was access to beyond full-screen, detailed copies of these posters (using such plug-ins as "Zoomify"). But at the same time, I understand what a huge undertaking this would represent - not to mention the server space that would be required to hold high-resolution copies of more than 2,500 posters. Perhaps at some future date, the webmasters might include larger versions of a sampling of the most popular selections, but in the meantime, those interested in better depictions of specific images will have to turn to the search engine of their choice.

If they can tear themselves away.

The Olymperials can be found at http://www.olymperial.com/.

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