A Long Way from London
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of articles about St. Louis’s role in Olympic history. To read the first article—about the way St. Louis won the honor of hosting the first Games to be held in the United States—click here.
The 2012 Olympics opens today with a ceremony featuring thousands of performers, created by the director of Slumdog Millionaire, and expected to draw a worldwide television audience of 1 billion. It will be the first and maybe biggest example of how different the 2012 Games will be from those held in St. Louis in 1904.
When the modern Games came to St. Louis, they were still in their infancy and had yet to become the worldwide spectacle we think of today. The Olympics were revived in 1896 in Athens and then held four years later in Paris. Olympic organizers knew they wanted an American city to host the third Games and originally chose Chicago, but when the World’s Fair was moved to 1904, the Olympics were also given to St. Louis.
The relative youth of the Olympic movement and the change in location resulted in an Olympics with a shockingly low percentage of international athletes by today’s standards. Fewer than 700 athletes competed in the 1904 Games, and more than 500 of those competitors were from the United States.
“It was largely a meet between American athletic clubs,” one Milwaukee athlete said. “I never gave any real thought to the idea that I was representing the United States of America.”
Women’s participation in the Olympics also got off to a slow start. Women were not allowed to compete in the first revival of the Games in 1896 because the Olympic committee chairman said it would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” Women got their first chance to be called Olympians in 1900 at Paris. There, women competed in tennis and golf and as part of mixed crews in sailing. St. Louis in some ways was a step backward. The only sport featuring female athletes was archery, in which six women competed.
A number of sports featured in 1904 also look unusual today. To many, tug of war seems like a competition more suited for elementary school field days rather than the Olympics, but from 1900 to 1920 it was a feature of all Games, including those held in St. Louis.
One sport made its first and only Olympic appearance in St. Louis. That sport was the plunge for distance, a kind of long jump for divers. Competitors jumped from a platform into a lake and glided as far as they could underwater without using their arms or legs. William Dickey of the New York Athletic Club earned the unique title of Olympic champion in the plunge for distance with a winning distance of 62 feet, 6 inches.
A major difference between the London and St. Louis Games, and one that continues to give headaches to historians, is how sports were classified. The 1904 World’s Fair included a number of athletic events not associated with the official Olympics, but Fair organizers decided that all athletic competitions, even those between local high schools, would be listed as part of the Olympic Games. The local press, on the other hand, often referred only to the track and field competition as the “official Olympics.” Adding to the confusion was the fact that athletic events were spread out over months. All of this has made official record keeping difficult and has resulted in disagreements about which sports were part of the true 1904 Olympics.
Despite the differences, the London Olympics owe a debt to St. Louis and the other cities that hosted the early Games. At the time, many questioned whether the idea of an international athletic competition held every four years in cities around the globe was desirable or even feasible. St. Louis kept the Olympic movement alive.
Just as interesting as the differences between the 1904 and 2012 Games are the similarities. In the next article in our Olympic series, we will look at the sports, the controversial decisions, and the fascinating athlete biographies that connect St. Louis and London.
—Jody Sowell, Public Historian
Our Olympics, an exhibit that highlights stories and photography from the 1904 Games, runs through November 18 in the Bank of America Atrium.