In 1904, St. Louis hosted the first Olympics on American soil. It was kind of a mess.
As the Rio 2016 Olympics begin to wind down, it is worth remembering that St. Louis once played host to the Olympics: the 1904 Olympics, the first to be held on U.S. soil — and they were a mess. Doping, shameful “Anthropology Days” competitions among “savages” and minimal international participation were a recipe for a games that the Wall Street Journal once dubbed “Comedic, Disgraceful And 'Best Forgotten.’”
Ironically, St. Louis wasn’t even supposed to host the 1904 Olympics. As Sharon Smith, Curator of Civic and Personal Identity at the Missouri History Museum, relayed it on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air: “St. Louis took those Olympics from Chicago.”
Chicago had originally won the bid to host the Summer Olympics. The people behind the Louisiana Purchase Expedition, aka the World’s Fair, didn’t want two international events to be held at the same time and made the case that the Olympics should be combined with the fair’s planned sporting events.
Pierre de Coubertin, who created the International Olympic Committee and brought the Olympics games to modernity in 1896 in Athens, Greece, followed by Paris’ games in 1900, consented and allowed the games to happen in St. Louis. He later famously said that “the games matched the mediocrity of that city.” Ouch.
Here are three big issues at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904:
1. “Anthropology Days” happened
As Smith describes it, the 1904 Olympics organizers put on a series of events over the course of a week which pitted “exhibited peoples of the fair” who were there for “various native displays” against Olympic athletes to see who was stronger and had more endurance. This series of competitions, known as "Anthropology Days," featured a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, javelin, and mud-slinging among the events people were coerced to play, according to The Smithsonian.
“The prizes were money as opposed to awards, because this wasn’t an Olympic event,” Smith said. “Some of these native peoples had no clue what the Olympic events were. There was no competition there. … it was an odd setup, an experiment to see who was stronger or better. It was a failed attempt.”
By today's standards, an event such as this would be universally reviled. This was the first and last time such a competition, which featured indigenous peoples from the Americas and around the world, was held at the Olympics.
2. Doping, cheating and scandal during the marathon
Imagine this: It’s summer in St. Louis and athletes are about to compete in the 26.1 mile run of their lives over St. Louis’ many hilly and dusty roads in crushing 90-degree heat and humidity.
“It was not very well thought out,” said Smith.
Then, add in this wrinkle: no water was allowed.
“Normally, you think about hydrating,” Smith said. “We gave the runners one chance to hydrate a third of the way into the race and then none after that. It became another experiment kind of thing, like, how can the body handle little bits of water, lots of dust, humidity and heat? What’s the toll for people for that? You get all these factors and people are falling off the wayside really quickly. It was this horribly bad experiment on the human body. You have 31 competitors starting the race and 14 ending it.”
The story doesn’t end there. A man by the name of Fred Lorz, who led early in the race, eventually dropped out of it. One of the trucks following the runners picked him up and continued along the race course. After resting for a little while, Lorz decides he is recovered, jumped off the truck and decided to run the rest of the race.
“He gets off and runs into the stadium, to the cheers of the stadium who thinks he has won the race,” Smith said. “He keeps the charade up until he is about to win the medal, he gives it up and says he rode part of the way through.”
In the meantime, the person who actually came in first is barely able to stand after being denied water by race officials.
“He’s been given all sorts of horrible things like strychnine, egg whites and brandy, to keep his composure,” Smith said. “… Thomas Hicks is the one who actually makes the run and wins it. We had some cheating and some doping.”
That race started and ended in Francis Stadium, which still exists today on Washington University’s campus. David R. Francis, whom the stadium is named for, was a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, governor of Missouri, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, U.S. ambassador to Russia, and president of Merchants Exchange.
3. Very few countries actually participated in the games
In actuality, only 12 countries were represented in St. Louis’ Olympics. Americans won 238 medals.
Germany, which came in second in medal count, only brought home 13. Many competitions only featured Americans.
“It is easy to cheer for the U.S. when they are the only athletes competing,” Smith said. America was against America. It wasn’t the U.S. against someone else.
Did we mention that athletes had to pay their own way to come to the games? And no one wore uniforms? And women were only allowed to participate in one competition (archery)?
Even though Rio’s Olympics have been shadowed by problems — from crime to green water — at least other countries showed up.
Two good moments to come from the 1904 Olympics:
Two athletes stood out during the 1904 Olympics and shed some light on an otherwise bleary, embarrassing mess: Dwight Davis and George Poage.
George Coleman Poage, born in Hannibal, Missouri, became the first African-American athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games. He won bronze in the 200 and 400 meter hurdles in 1904.
Dwight Davis, who was a 3-time major Grand Slam champion and participated in the 1904 Olympics, went on to do a lot for St. Louis. In 1911, Davis became the St. Louis Park Commissioner and built dozens of city tennis courts. He also served as Secretary of War as a member of President Calvin Coolidge’s cabinet. You may recognize the name from the Davis Cup competition in tennis or the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park.
“He did his Olympic thing and went on to greatness in other ways in St. Louis,” Smith said.
Want to learn more about St. Louis’ Olympic past? Check this exhibit out at the Missouri History Museum.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.