St. Louis vs. Chicago: An Olympic Rivalry
St. Louis holds a unique and important place in Olympic history as the first American city to host the modern games. Earning the title, however, was not a victory easily won.
As the world turns its eyes to London for the 2012 Olympics, we at the Missouri History Museum are taking a look back at the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis. Those Games are fascinating for a number of reasons, ranging from the way the event differed from today’s Olympics to how the Games are still being debated by historians. One of the most interesting aspects of the Games is how they found themselves in St. Louis.
When a group of sports enthusiasts decided to revive the Olympics, Greece was the natural selection for the honor of first host. Athens held the first modern Games in 1896. Four years later the Games moved to Paris, home of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, president of the International Olympic Committee and the man most responsible for the Olympics’ revival. Although some argued that the Olympics should always be held in Greece, Coubertin was committed to the idea of an event that rotated around the world. And for the third Games he knew the natural country to host was the United States of America.
The United States was sports crazy at the turn of the century, and its athletes had performed particularly well at international events including the first two Olympics. Philadelphia and New York considered making a bid for the 1904 Games, but in the end, only two U.S. cities—Chicago and St. Louis—developed official proposals.
For International Olympic Committee officials there was no question which city deserved the honor. In May of 1901 they voted unanimously to award the 1904 Olympics to the Windy City. Chicago had an international reputation thanks to its earlier World’s Fair and was considered an easy and appealing place for athletes to travel to.
After the announcement of the site, the French ambassador to the U.S. sent a note to Chicago leaders saying, “All France is rejoicing with you, and I think even Scandinavia, Chicago’s greatest rival, will say it is pleased.”
While the Olympic movement was still young, Chicagoans seemed pleased to have the honor of being the first American city to host the games. Thousands of students and spectators gathered for a celebratory bonfire at the University of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune couldn’t resist gloating about its victory over St. Louis: “St. Louis tried to get the Olympian games but the International committee seems to have decided that St. Louis wouldn’t know what to do with them.” The editorial writers only tempered the enthusiasm by pointing out that triumphing over “a small city like St. Louis is nothing to be specially proud of.”
Chicago’s victory celebration was short lived, however. One year after Chicago was named as host, it was announced that the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the St. Louis World’s Fair) would be moved from 1903 to 1904. World’s Fair organizers had already announced that they intended to host international sporting events at the Fair, and now those events would be in direct competition with the Olympics.
Unwilling to remove the sporting events from their program of activities, World’s Fair officials suggested that the Olympics be moved to St. Louis. Chicago leaders worked to fend off the challenge. They suggested that rather than moving the location, the Games could be postponed to 1905. Others suggested that maybe the two cities share the Games. But none of these answers satisfied Olympic officials, and in February of 1903 the International Olympic Committee announced that St. Louis would host the Games.
Many questions remain about how that decision was made. Rumors at the time, for example, suggested that it was President Theodore Roosevelt who negotiated the transfer or at least pressured Chicago officials not to continue their efforts to keep the Games.
Whatever the process, St. Louis came out on top, and the St. Louis press promised that the Games would be a grand achievement. “The Olympic Games proper…will be not only greater than those of Athens and Paris,” the Post-Dispatch boasted, “but doubtless the greatest to be held for years to come.”
Although St. Louis can certainly lay claim to the title of first American city to host the Olympics, the greatness of the Games was hardly without doubt. Questions about the event’s quality were raised in 1904 and continue today. In the upcoming months we will explore some of those questions and explain how they have affected the legacy of the St. Louis Games.
—Jody Sowell, Public Historian
Our Olympics, an exhibit that highlights stories and photography from the 1904 Games, runs June 30–November 18 in the Bank of America Atrium.