A Legacy in Dispute
Editor’s note: This article is the fifth 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. For the second article—about the differences between the St. Louis and London Games—click here. To read the third article—about the similarities between the St. Louis and London Games—click here. For the fourth article—about the marathon as an example of both the differences and similarities between the 1904 Games and those of today—click here.
Our Olympics, an exhibit that highlights stories and photography from the 1904 Games, runs through November 18 in the Bank of America Atrium.
Olympic Games are judged just as much as their events and athletes, and few Games have been as harshly criticized as those held in St. Louis in 1904.
The most accurate assessment of the St. Louis Games is likely that they were neither the overwhelming success that the organizers and local press made them out to be at the time nor the embarrassing failure that is most often portrayed today.
As the site of the first Games to ever be held in the United States and one of only three American cities to ever host the Summer Games, St. Louis can claim an important role in Olympic history.
The 1904 Games were host to a number of world- and Olympic-record-breaking performances. They were also home to a number of important firsts—the first African American to medal; the first time gold, silver, and bronze were awarded to the top three finishers; the first Olympics to include boxing. And they featured heartwarming stories of beat-the-odds athletes, such as Ray Ewry who, despite being stricken with polio as a child, won three gold medals in St. Louis.
The New York Times praised the Games as “the peers of any previous aggregation of international character.” Ferenc Kemeny, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member from Hungary, also praised the Games. “This is the greatest athletic meet I ever witnessed,” he said at the time. “I am surprised and pleased at the success of the Olympiad.”
That judgment was in sharp contrast with that of his boss, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC. In his memoir published in 1931, Coubertin called the Games embarrassing but said he wasn’t surprised. “I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town,” he wrote.
And that perception has stuck. In most popular histories of the Olympics, the St. Louis Games are held up largely for ridicule. A 2004 Wall Street Journal article, for example, carried the following headline: “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful and ‘Best Forgotten.’”
So, why the disconnect? Largely two reasons.
The Games were mostly an American affair. About 700 athletes competed, but more than 500 were from the United States. Although heralded athletes from across the world did come to St. Louis, their numbers weren’t enough to give these Olympics an international feel.
The 1904 Games were also spread out over months to fit with the World’s Fair schedule, and all athletic events associated with the World’s Fair were listed as part of the Olympic Games. At the time, this did not confuse reporters covering the competitions—they simply referred to some events as part of the “official Olympics”—but it has made it difficult for subsequent record keepers, journalists, and historians to determine which events were truly part of the Olympics.
This became particularly damning because of the sporting events included in the World’s Fair’s Anthropology Days. The Anthropology Days involved members of the Fair’s human exhibits competing in a variety of sports (many of which they had never played) to showcase the superiority of “civilized man” over the abilities of “savages.” This was undoubtedly an ugly moment, and though at the time these events were not considered to be part of the Olympics they have hurt the reputation of the Games.
Just recently in Smithsonian magazine, sports journalist Frank Deford called the 1904 Games a travesty and then claimed that “mud fighting and climbing a greased pole were highlighted Olympic events.” That assessment is due largely to the taint of the Anthropology Days and the confusion over which sports were actually part of the Olympics. (Pole climbing and mud fighting were not.)
These historical confusions and controversies have hurt the reputation of the 1904 Games, but they do not take away from what is probably the biggest contribution that St. Louis made to Olympic history. St. Louis kept the Olympic dream alive.
The revival of the Olympics, which started in 1896 in Athens, was off to a rocky start. Many questioned whether the idea of moving an international athletic competition around the world every four years was desirable or even feasible. Ultimately, Olympic fans and athletes owe a debt of thanks to St. Louis and other early host cities not for putting on the perfect Games but for proving that the Olympic movement was a tradition worth continuing.
—Jody Sowell, Public Historian
To read more about the 1904 Games, you might enjoy these books:America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904 by George R. MatthewsSt. Louis Olympics 1904, part of the Images of America series, by George Matthews and Sandra MarshallThe 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism by Susan Brownell