When aesthetes competed at the Olympics
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.