The First American Olympics

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It was natural, then, that the Olympic Games, after journeying to Coubertin’s beloved Paris in 1900, would next come to America. Our athletes had already garnered most of the medals that had been awarded.

If we seem to have lost track of the doughty Cuban postman for the moment, it is not surprising. Like the Games as a whole, the marathon was a tangle from the outset and difficult to follow. Only fourteen of the thirty-two starters ever finished. “The roads were so lined with vehicles that the runners had to constantly dodge horses and wagons,” one spectator noted. “So dense were the dust clouds on the road that frequently the runners could not be seen.”

Lordon began vomiting after ten miles and gave up. Mellor pulled out after sixteen. Lentauw lost valuable time when he was run off the course and chased through a cornfield by two large dogs. Another runner who slipped out of the race for a while was Fred Lorz. Representing the Mohawk Athletic Club, Lorz led for the first several miles, until he pulled up with cramps. Then he tottered, exhausted, to the side of the road, sat down, and waved weakly to the other runners as they passed. Later he climbed into a truck and was driven for several miles until he felt better.

The choice of St. Louis as the site of the Games represented an unhappy compromise. Originally planned for Chicago, the Games were moved south at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt so they could be held in conjunction with the St. Louis world’s fair, commemorating the Louisiana Purchase. Baron Coubertin correctly sensed that the Games would be merely an athletic sideshow for the fair. Hearing rumors that Americans planned to stage a contest of long-range tobacco-juice spitting, Coubertin threw up his hands and stayed away. The thought was not as crazy as it may have sounded. At various times the Olympics have included such disparate events as mountain climbing, choral singing, dumbbell swinging, and bowling on the green.

The Americans were supposed to have sent a ship to pick up the European teams, but it never arrived, and most Continental competitors stayed home. Not a single athlete from France or England made the trip. As a result, the international sporting event that Coubertin had hoped for settled down to essentially a track meet between the New York Athletic Club and the Chicago Athletic Association, for a trophy donated by A. G. Spalding, the athletic equipment manufacturer, which New York won by a single point. It was difficult to sustain public interest in the Olympics as an event, for it was stretched out from July 1 to November 23 to provide the fair with a continuing attraction. The crowd rarely exceeded ten thousand in a day—a sparse turnout considering that a few years earlier a boat race on the Thames between Harvard University and Oxford had drawn ten times that many.

But if the 1904 Olympics was an all-American show, the results were more than respectable by the standards of the day. In the twenty-one track-and-field events that had been held before, Americans in 1904 established thirteen Olympic Games records, and seven of the other eight were already held by Americans.

The name of Ray Ewry is all but forgotten now because the events in which he starred are no longer part of the track-and-field calendar, but at the time he was one of our most popular sports heroes. Ewry’s life was a classic story of a young man willing himself to become a great athlete. A victim of childhood polio, he undertook a series of exercises to increase the strength in his legs. By the time he reached Purdue University, he excelled as a standing jumper. He was twenty-seven when he went to the Paris Games and won the standing high jump, the standing broad jump, and the standing triple jump. He repeated his triple victory in St. Louis and was to go on to win four more jumping events in the next two Olympic Games. Ewry’s was a record for the ages: ten events and ten gold medals in four Olympic Games.

There were other heroes aplenty for the American team in St. Louis. Archie Hawn, the Milwaukee Meteor, raced home first in the 60-meter, 100-meter, and 200-meter dashes. James D. Lightbody, representing the Chicago Athletic Association, was another triple winner. On Monday, August 29, he came from behind in the 2,500-meter steeplechase to best the highly rated Irish champion John DaIy by one second. On Thursday he stormed through the 800-meter event, lopping five seconds off the Olympic record. On Saturday he set an Olympic and world record by running the 1,500 meters in 4:05.4. A few hours later he entered the four-mile team cross-country but could manage only a second-place finish.

Because of its place in Greek history, the marathon has always been a premier event in the Olympic Games. It is an event that destroys the unfit, and the casualties in St. Louis ran unusually high. William Garcia, a San Francisco runner, began to hemorrhage and collapsed to the ground near death from the heat and fumes that filled the air. Two officials were badly injured when their car swerved off the road to avoid a runner and careened down an embankment. The apples that Carvajal ate were unripe and caused him a severe case of stomach cramps, but doggedly he began running again. With attrition so high, just finishing would be a good showing.