Fields of endeavour

When lottery funds were diverted from the arts to the Olympics, the relationship between sport and the arts was made rather fractious. Do they operate in the same cultural field or do they represent widely differing interests? Can the arts be seen as an extreme form of sport, or sport as an esoteric branch of the arts? They certainly share many attributes.

It is a commonplace to use the language of aesthetics to describe the accomplishments of a gymnast, or the balletic movements of a tennis player. The arts and sport equally involve obsessive and exhibitionist elements.

The combination of spectators and players is essential to both, and both enjoy the participation of professionals and amateurs. Both have patrons, heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies. Both share the concept of inspiration, and both have histories and critical analysts. While art is notionally contemplative and sport frenetic, frequently these terms can be reversed. Yet while the arts are an open field of creativity, sport, however creative, is centred on the quest for victory.

In the visual arts, more specifically, the aim is to produce objects to be enjoyed over the long term. Sports activities are undertaken within set boundaries of time. Most sport is highly visual, although sound can be compelling. But once the game or event has taken place, the "performance" is complete. It may be recorded but the result is known, and the impact of the live performance, like an operatic event, cannot be relived. The replay has value only for the most ardent fans and supporters.

However different, a relationship between sport and art is longstanding. Sculptures of athletes from ancient Greece are testimony to the skill of the sculptors and the prowess of the sportsmen. The modern Olympic movement, under the leadership of Pierre de Coubertin, aimed to create a more holistic view of sport and the arts as the complementary elements of a modern world. He wanted to celebrate the best international cooperation for the creative arts as well as for the competitive sports.

Yet over the years the games have not generally been occasions for artistic events. The opening and closing ceremonies, with their fireworks and somewhat gaudy routines, have arguably become Olympic cultural material par excellence.

The multibillion-dollar televised spectacular of the contemporary games is somewhat divisive in its effects. On one hand it produces a degree of distancing, the complex staging tending to prevent viewers experiencing the events' immediacy; on the other, micro-camera technology gives extraordinarily close coverage of live competition. The sense of occasion is thereby magnified for millions worldwide.

London won the 2012 Olympics on the ambition of its regeneration programme, its diversity of participation and the strength of its work with young people. The cultural and artistic programme was not an add-on but very much part of the bid. Now the plans for the Cultural Olympiad - Britain's four-year programme promoting sports and the arts beginning at the close of the Beijing games - are emerging, and a launch weekend in September will feature many celebratory activities. This broad celebration of activities is a natural fit for the work of the National Portrait Gallery.

The Cultural Olympiad is an opportunity to explore the fascinating overlaps between sport and the arts; hopefully with the same principles of skill, innovation, determination and creativity being promoted equally across both fields.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery.