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Josef Petersen: Writer and 3-Time Olympic Medalist

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are underway in PyeongChang, South Korea.

In the coming weeks, many of us will watch these sporting contests with a mixture of appreciation—for the remarkable athleticism and work ethic on display—and utter incomprehension—because in truth, very few of us have ever hurtled down a luge track at 87 mph, or vaulted ourselves from a sheet of ice into the air balanced on nothing more than thin metal blades.

Nor would we be able to, even if we trained for a thousand years.

As artists, however, we’re allowed to take affront at our exclusion from this global event. Art competitions were integral to the founding of the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee believed art competitions needed to be included alongside athletic feats in order to truly represent the ancient Grecian ideal, to single out humanity’s best.

And so, between 1912 and 1948, writers, architects, playwrights, musicians, and more garnered 146 Olympic medals in categories ranging from “Lyric and Speculative Works” to “Solo and Chorus Competitions.”

In the 1948 London Games, Finnish civil servant Yrjö Lindegren (The Centre of Athletics in Varkaus, Finland) took home the Gold in “Town Planning.” In the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, American Frederick William MacMonnies (Lindbergh Medal) took Silver in “Reliefs and Medallions.”

And writers, of course, were legion. Writerly Olympic categories included “Mixed Literature,” “Dramatic Works,” “Epic Works,” and “Lyric and Speculative Works.”

Danish writer Josef Petersen was a force to be reckoned with. Although he never won Gold, he took Silver in the 1924 Paris Games in the category of “Mixed Literature” for his manuscript Euryale. In 1932, he again won Silver in “Mixed Literature” for his work The Argonauts. And in 1948, his The Olympic Champion (in a brazen example of ego run amuck and / or pandering to the judges) took Silver in the category of “Epic Works.”

From Wikipedia:

Josef Peterson was the son of a vicar and was a maternal grandson of the Norwegian poet Johann Sebastian Welhaven. Petersen, who worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent, has never been fully recognized by Danish literary historians, though his work was respected by contemporary critics for its knowledge of and identifying with Antique cultures. His best known book is Kongeofret (1923, i.e. The Royal Sacrifice) with Oriental motifs, moreover his Columbus novel En Verden stiger af Havet (1935, i. e. A World Rises of the Sea) must also be mentioned.

Although I suppose it should be a reality check for us all that even authors who are Olympic medalists can fade into obscurity, or fail to receive the recognition they probably deserve during their lifetimes.

So, watch the Olympics. Root for your favorite athletes, or the underdogs. Appreciate the purity of a well-swept ice curling sheet.

But remember, there was a time when writers like us might have competed too. And we might have stood shoulder to shoulder on the podium as Olympic champions.

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