Olympic Art on the River

by Carol DeFrank

OLUMPIC GOLD MEDAL WINNER AL OERTER, who lived and painted in Fort Myers Beach, could have chosen any place in the world to open the Art of the Olympians Museum, but he chose Fort Myers. The Museum opened this past January 29, but unfortunately, Oerter passed before his dream fully was realized. More than 1,200 people walked through the museum the first weekend.

Oerter, four-time discus gold medalist winner, set records at the Olympics and was a respected member of the United States Olympic Committee. According to his wife Cathy, health problems forced him to take life a little easier, allowing him more time to put his artistic talents to work. “He said ‘art and athletics are quite the same, except art is a lot easier on the shoulders and knees’.”

Located on the river in the heart of historic downtown Fort Myers, the gallery and museum capture the Olympic spirit through the arts. According to its Board of Directors, it is destined to be an economic stimulus for the area, because it is one of a kind and expected to draw up to 300,000 visitors annually.

Art of the Olympians (AOTO) features a display of Oerter’s artwork, along with art by more than 30 other Olympians — from fencers to bobsledders, Americans to Australians, sculptors to poets. The premise of the displays is based on the ancient tenets of the Olympic Games, where athletes nurtured their artistic as well as athletic abilities, stressing that the journey is just as important as the end result — winning.

Since its inception the Olympic Games have celebrated the extraordinary capability of mankind. AOTO emphasizes this celebration in the form of art. “Visitors discover the ancient Olympic ideals through evolving displays of film, art, academic presentations and educational programs. Al was dedicated to bridging the gap between art and sport, and to ultimately establish a touring exhibition illustrating this association. In doing so he felt he could create a greater understanding of what it takes to succeed in life,” Cathy explains.

The first floor of the 10,000 square foot building houses the Al Oerter Educational Center of Excellence and features multi-media exhibits. The second-floor gallery displays a 125-piece art collection, including intricate and realistic drawings by Fort Myers resident Liston Bochette, a decathlon and bobsled Olympian who supported Oerter’s vision from the beginning. Liston was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition since Oerter’s death in 2007.

Patrons can also enjoy figure skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming’s mixed media representation of the Olympic rings and a sketch of her Olympic figure skating routines, abstract paintings by the late gold medalist runner Florence ‘Flo-Jo’ Griffith Joyner, portraits by Fijian athletics competitor Tony Moore and graphic designs by record long-jumper Bob Beamon.

The seed for AOTO was planted in 2006 when the Alliance for the Arts asked Oerter to organize an art show to display his art in conjunction with the Winter Games in Torino, Italy. He agreed and invited fellow Olympians to take part in the project, including his friend, Bochette. Twelve other international athlete-artists were also featured.

“The show was so successful, he took it to New York City where it received rave reviews,” Cathy explains. “It was featured on the astro-vision screen in Times Square for the entire month of November, and as a result, we were invited to be guests on The Early Show. Al was convinced he had a winner and decided to find a permanent home for the collection.”

The Olympic community embraced the idea. AOTO’s vast network of contacts in sport, art, politics and business offered to help. Fleming narrated an hour-long documentary about the museum that aired nationwide. Another famous former Olympian, bobsledder Prince Albert of Monaco, pledged international fundraising support.

AOTO media contact Carla Ulakovic says, “It was the United States Olympic Committee’s respect for Al that made it possible to obtain the legal use of the word Olympian, as well as the Olympian rings, which are protected by an Act of Congress. We are one of only four locations in the country permitted to use the name and logo. The AOTO carries a commitment to encourage people of all ages, but primarily youth, to the ancient Olympic ideals of excellence in mind, body and spirit. Our goal is to enhance the relationship between athletics and aesthetics.”

The AOTO offers a fitting, lasting tribute to Al Oerter. Cathy says her husband wanted to bring visitors as close to the Olympic experience as possible. She hopes to keep the Olympic momentum alive between games by helping both young and old strive for excellence in all avenues of life. “According to Al, egotism has no place in sports. He always said he didn’t set out to beat the world, just to do his absolute best.”

Ulakovic adds, “Al and Cathy were married for 25 years. She knows exactly what he had in mind for the Museum since the beginning, therefore Al’s wish to change the ‘winning is everything’ attitude prevalent in today’s sports arena and get back to the basics of simply being the best you can be, will be her top priority.”

“We obtained a 20-year lease on the Pier Building on Hendry Street in 2008,” said Cathy, who is also an athlete. “We used the grant money from the city to furnish the interior, replace some flooring and tear out a few walls.”

The future looks very bright for the non-profit organization. There are plans to add a library, gift shop and café. “We have a big responsibility to maintain the facility as well as the programs, so we have initiated a leveled membership program, a volunteer program and have allocated rental space for corporations and individuals to hold functions or meetings,” says Ulakovic.

The Art of the Olympians Museum and Al Oerter Center of Excellence, located at 1300 Hendry St. in Fort Myers, open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm and Sundays 12-4pm. For more information about the Museum, Center for Excellence and Art of the Olympians Foundation, call 332-5055. •

from the May-June 2010 issue

The second floor gallery
displays a 125-piece art collection.

by Al Oerter

'Flying High'
by Bob Beamon

'In the Sunshine'
by Evequoz

'Epee Shot'
by Carl Borack

'Over and Back'
by Gregory Burns