Prof. Lisa McCormick: The Chopin Competition and the Olympic Games: are there more similarities than differences?

The Chopin Competition and the Olympic Games

Photo of Prof. Lisa McCORMICK

Prof. Lisa McCORMICK

Specialize in the sociology of music at the University of Edinburgh. Author of "Performing Civility" (Cambridge University Press 2015), the first study of the social aspects of international classical music competitions.


other articles by this author

In 1948, a promising young pianist named Micheline Ostermeyer embarked on an ambitious concert tour to build on her success winning the first prize at the National Conservatoire in Paris. The same year, she became the first Frenchwoman to win an Olympic medal, claiming two golds and a bronze at the London Games. While Ostermeyer had studied piano since the age of four, she only began developing her athletic abilities as a teenager. With the outbreak of the Second World War, she was forced interrupt her studies at the Conservatoire and return to the family home in Tunisia. There she maintained a strict daily practice regimen of five to six hours a day in preparation for weekly half-hour piano recitals on Radio Tunis. In the evenings she played sports at the Oriental Tunis sports club to relax. A modest training routine of five to six hours a week was sufficient for her to become a mainstay of the track and field team and such a versatile athlete that she had difficulty deciding which Olympic events to enter.

Ostermeyer was a standout at the London Games, and not just because of her towering 180 cm figure. On the first day of the competition, she advanced from third to first place with the final throw of the discus, a discipline she had only been practising for a few months. Four days later she won the gold in the shot put, celebrating her decisive win by 66 cm with an impromptu piano recital for her teammates at the French team’s headquarters. She completed the week at Wembley with the high jump, matching her own French record and winning the bronze medal.

Micheline Ostermeyer, throwing the discus at the 1948 London Olympics. The French athlete won the gold medal only a few weeks after she made her first picked up a discus.
Photo: / Everett / Forum

In France, Ostermeyer’s Olympic triumphs were fêted, and she was lionised in the French press. But her fame as an athlete hampered her career as a professional pianist, and before long she retired from athletics altogether. “They thought I was an athlete who happened to play the piano,” she recalled. “In reality, I was a pianist who happened to compete in athletics.”  For years she avoided playing anything by Liszt fearing that such “sportif” repertoire would only confirm her fellow musicians’ prejudices. What finally won over lukewarm audiences was her performance of three warhorses of the piano repertoire in one evening: Brahms’s D minor Concerto, César Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and Liszt’s Concerto in E-flat. With this herculean programme, she established that her artistry matched her stamina and for the next 15 years, she delighted audiences across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

It is tempting to see Ostermeyer’s experience of combining international careers in athletics and music as evidence reinforcing the conventional view that the two fields are worlds apart. Classical music is typically seen as belonging to the rarefied atmosphere of concert halls, with their sweeping staircases, sparkling chandeliers and velvet chairs. In contrast, athletics inhabits the lively environment of stadia, with their glaring lights, blaring loudspeakers, and plastic seats. The two fields are also thought to attract very different audiences. Classical music is perceived to be a minority taste appealing mostly to elderly elites, while athletics is believed to enjoy widespread popularity across age groups and social classes. Whereas classical music represents the cerebral, athletics epitomises the corporeal. One is about refinement, and the other is about results. The list could go on.

What if instead Ostermeyer’s remarkable success inspired a serious consideration of the similarities between classical music and athletics? A good place to start would be a comparison between two world-class events in each field: the Olympics and the Chopin Competition.

The first notable common feature is that they are high-stakes events structured by stages. Just as athletes must qualify to compete in the Olympic Games by meeting an entry standard or achieving a certain ranking, hopeful pianists only become competitors in the Chopin Competition by passing the preliminary round or by winning a top prize in one of a handful of competitions considered to be of suitable standard. The proceedings of the Chopin competition itself are organised like a tournament in competitive sports, with eliminations reducing the number of contestants at the end of each round until a final trial determines the overall winner. In both cases, a bureaucratic organisation oversees the application process and publishes the rules governing adjudication to establish a level playing field where all participants have an equal chance at winning.

A second resemblance is the spirit of internationalism animating the event. They are both open to participants from around the world. The international character of proceedings is hard to miss at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, where each delegation parades behind their national flag. It is equally emphasised throughout the Games. National symbols are emblazoned on athletes’ jerseys and flags are listed on scoreboards alongside their names. The appropriate national anthem is played when winners take to the podium, and the media regularly update the medal table tallying how many golds, silvers, and bronzes each country has won. The international character of the Chopin competition is more subdued, but no less important. Flags of the competitors’ countries festoon the exterior of Philharmonic Hall for the duration of the competition, and competitors’ nationalities are printed in the programme and announced before each performance. Journalists routinely report how many countries are represented at the competition, and the prize winners’ nationalities are interpreted as indicating the vitality of their country’s pianism.

This shared international spirit has historical roots. It is generally agreed that the first modern international competition in classical music was the short-lived Anton Rubinstein Competition, which the founder intended to be held in August every five years, rotating between different European host cities. The inaugural cycle took place in 1890. This timing is significant because it places the emergence of international classical music competitions within a few years of the establishment of the International Olympic Committee (1894), the Venice Biennale of International Art (1895) and the Nobel Prizes (1901). According to the sociologist Maurice Roche, organisations like these fostered the early development of cultural internationalism by promoting a vision of an international society grounded in universal human experiences, principles and interests. This was accomplished by staging “mega-events”, large-scale cultural occasions of international significance that had mass appeal because of their dramatic character. Mega-events were also extra-ordinary; a world’s stage was constructed wherever they took place, and their periodic nature imposed a temporal rhythm independent of any particular nation-state’s calendar of anniversaries and holidays. The quadrennial Olympics remain the quintessential mega-event, and as one of the most prestigious piano contests, the quinquennial Chopin Competition is its counterpart in the world of classical music.

An even closer historical connection between the two events is found by examining why Jerzy Żurawlew founded the Chopin Competition in the first place. As a piano professor in Warsaw in the early 20th century, Żurawlew was troubled by young pianists who complained that Chopin’s music was boring and obsolete. He was equally concerned that colleagues were arguing for its removal from teaching programmes. Taken together, these showed just how much the composer’s popularity had declined in the decades since his death in 1849. Chopin interpreters like Żurawlew blamed the distortion of performance traditions, changes in piano design, and the development of musical style. After the First World War, neoclassicism had become all the rage, while Chopin represented the musty sentimentality of the salon.

Żurawlew decided to counteract negative attitudes toward Chopin by staging a competition that would combine the evaluation of performance with a crowd-pleasing spectacle. He got the idea in 1925 after observing the enthusiasm for competitive sports among young Poles. The growing passion for sport in Polish society would have struck Żurawlew because it was such a new development. According to the sports historian Wojciech Lipoński, Poles only began developing an interest in athletics after the country gained independence in 1918 because it could finally be represented in international events. A Polish team was assembled for the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, but the Polish-Soviet War prevented their participation. It was not until 1924 that Poland took part in the Olympics for the first time. The excitement generated by athletic feats so impressed Żurawlew that he became convinced that a Chopin Competition would attract young musicians eager to conquer the world’s stage. And history has proved him right.

More striking parallels emerge between the Chopin Competition and the Olympic Games when the training of participants is taken into consideration. The sociologist William Goode observed in The Celebration of Heroes: Prestige as a Control System that dispraise and denigration are much more commonly used in advanced training in the performing arts and competitive sports than in other fields such as the sciences. Teachers and coaches use disparagement not only to convey when a performance falls below an expected standard; it is also used to influence motivation by implying that disappointing results were caused by insufficient effort. The pianist or athlete on the receiving end of severe criticism experiences it as a loss of esteem and affection. It also gives them no choice but to work harder to remove any doubt that they are one of the elite. Outside observers might see dispraise as anger or abuse, but athletes and musicians learn to take it as a compliment. It indicates that they are being held to the highest standards, which only the best can hope to achieve. Through regular exposure to harsh criticism, athletes and pianists eventually internalise it to the extent that they chide themselves when their performance is anything less than ideal.

             Goode notes several characteristics shared by competitive sports and the performing arts that might explain why harsh criticism is so common in athletic and artistic training. Both involve controlling and conditioning the body, and the extent of the participant’s talent can only be discovered by driving the body to its limits. Aspiring musicians and athletes make considerable sacrifices to work with the best coaches and teachers because it is widely accepted that talent will only flourish with the best training. But of all the similarities, the most consequential is that musicians and athletes must be able to perform at the highest level at any time or place, even when this is chosen by others. Competitors in the Chopin Competition and the Olympic Games must cope with the pressure and rise to the occasion, whatever the circumstances, because there are no second chances. They cannot afford to have an off day because it will be noticed and fairly or unfairly, their reputation and standing in the competition will suffer for it. Therefore, harsh criticism functions in artistic and athletic training to motivate musicians and athletes to maintain an exceptional standard of performance so that even when they are not at their best, the performance will still be considered excellent.  

            The final similarity between the Chopin Competition and the Olympics is that both are judged by an international panel of judges that is frequently the source of controversy. The potential for scandal lies in the nature of judgment involved; both subjective and objective criteria are considered. At the Chopin Competition, the jury evaluates a pianist’s technique and artistry. A similar combination is found in the judgment of several Olympic sports, such as diving, synchronised (or artistic) swimming, gymnastics and figure skating. While the objective elements are by definition inarguable, the subjective elements are a matter of taste; they are necessarily personal responses to that performance on that day. This creates the possibility of disagreement among the judges as well as between the jury and observers. In the history of the Chopin Competition, a scandal involving judging has arisen nearly every cycle, and during the Cold War, these invariably led to accusations of political bias. The disciplines of Olympic gymnastics and figure skating have been tarnished several times by judging scandals, and in the case of the latter, an admission of vote-swapping provoked such an outcry that the judging system was completely overhauled.

             For many athletes there is no higher achievement than a gold medal at the Olympics, and pianists feel much the same way about winning first prize in the Chopin Competition. But for all the similarities just explored, the parallel should not be taken too far. As the music critic John Allison argues, “the Olympics cover countless disciplines, but the Chopin Competition focuses only on the piano, and a monographic aspect of the piano at that. It’s a far more concentrated exercise. In the Olympics, you are only as good as your last jump or sprint; in the Chopin, while much may depend on your performance in the final, the jury takes a longer view. I like to think – but maybe I am biased in favour of Chopin – that there is something more esoteric and spiritual about the gathering in Warsaw.”

Allison echoes the sentiments of many musicians who insist that rankings and competitions are fundamentally incompatible with music, which should be about beauty and transcendence. Their idea of a great musician is someone who trivialises the context of the competition through a compelling performance, and they object to any suggestion that music should look to sport for legitimation. Perhaps this attitude explains why the pianist Micheline Ostermeyer met such reluctance from musical audiences after her Olympic victory, and why her remarkable feat combining world-class athletics with an international career in music remains so rare.

Lisa McCromick

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 03/02/2022
Fot. AGIP / Rue des Archives / Forum