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When aesthetes competed at the Olympics

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Lee Blair won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles without ever training in a gym, on a track or in a pool.

Blair's event: watercolor painting.

Although nearly forgotten, the Olympics held from 1912 through 1948 included arts competitions, with the winners receiving the same gold, silver and bronze medals as the athletes.

In addition to Blair's category -- he won for a watercolor called "Rodeo" -- there were medals for oil painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature.

Blair, a Los Angeles native who died in 1993, went on to other successes after winning his medal at age 20. He worked for Disney on several films, including "Fantasia," for which he helped design the dancing alligators. He also created some of the hallmark commercials of early television, including one starring a perky percolator for Maxwell House coffee.

According to family members, he never gave up the dream of being recognized as a great artist. But in his later years, he seldom spoke of his gold medal.

"I don't remember Uncle Lee ever once mentioning it," said his niece, Jeanne Chamberlain. In fact, she had never seen the medal -- until three weeks ago.

In the wake of the death of Blair's son, Kevin, Chamberlain was going through family documents stored in a safe deposit box in Northern California. She pushed aside some papers and found a thin, cardboard box.

"I opened it up, and there was the gold medal," said Chamberlain, 74.

It looked nearly pristine, as if it had been seldom out of the box.

"Of course," she said, "I began to cry."

The arts competitions were not part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. But the founder of the revived Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had long toyed with the idea.

Writing in a French sports magazine in 1891, he proposed an event consisting of a 14-kilometer race and written essay. Not simultaneously.

That event never made it into the Games, but De Coubertin pressed on, declaring in a 1906 speech that it was time to "reunite in the bonds of legitimate wedlock a long-divorced couple -- muscle and mind."

The arts competition debuted at the 1912 Games in Stockholm where an American, Walter Winans, won the gold for sculpture. But he didn't stop there.

Winans also took silver in the 100-meter team running single shots competition, thus becoming the only Olympian in history to win both for sculpture and shooting.

One other Olympian was a double sports/arts threat, according to the book "The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions" by Richard Stanton. In 1896, Alfred Hajos of Hungary won two golds in swimming. Twenty-eight years later, he got the silver in architecture for his design of a swimming stadium in Budapest.

At the 1932 L.A. Games, the arts component had 540 entries from 24 countries. No chants of "USA" accompanied the competition. Teams of judges quietly evaluated the works, all of which had to have a sports theme.

Most were in the visual arts and were exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum), where 384,000 members of the public viewed them, according to the official report on the Games.

The formal name of Lee Blair's category was Water Colors and Drawing. His "Rodeo" was a vibrant depiction of a crowded corral, full of horses and lariat-carrying cowboys.

The arts competitions lasted until the 1948 Olympics in London. After that, there were arts festivals held in conjunction with the Games, but no Olympic medals were given.

The demise of the competitions came under the administration of the iron-fisted Avery Brundage, who became president of the International Olympic Committee in 1952. He championed amateurism and expressed doubts that many of the artists who had participated in the Games were pure nonprofessionals.

Stanton, an amateur historian from Aptos, Calif., who self-published his extensive history of the subject, said Brundage might have had an ulterior motive -- resentment.

"He had entered in the literature category twice," said Stanton, 65. "The best he got was an honorable mention."

Blair's 1932 medal helped bring attention to what is now known as the California Style of watercolor painting. Over the next few years, his works were featured in exhibitions, but given the financial realities of the time, he chose a more commercial career path.

His wife, Mary, was also an artist who went to work for Disney. Her work there, and away from the studio, eventually overshadowed his, at least in popularity.

She's particularly known for playing a key role in the design of the It's a Small World ride that debuted at the New York World's Fair.

Her fame caused friction. "He always felt that he kind of took a back seat to my aunt," said another niece, Maggie Richardson of Rancho Cucamonga. "It was a male-ego kind of thing." Mary died in 1978.

According to Santa Barbara gallery owner Frank Goos, who has handled the couple's works, one of Lee's watercolors could now fetch as much as $25,000.

If they could be found. "Rodeo," in particular, is missing.

After the 1932 Olympics, "Rodeo" was either donated or sold (accounts differ) to Blair's alma mater, Polytechnic High School in downtown Los Angeles, where it hung in the library.

Then the trail goes cold. The school was relocated to Sun Valley in 1957, but the painting is not there, according to school officials. The Los Angeles Unified School District has no record of its whereabouts.

Just about the only remaining public reminder of Blair's Olympic achievement is a bronze plaque on the wall of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

There, his name is listed as a gold medal winner, along with those who won in gymnastics, wrestling and, of course, sculpture.

david.colker@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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