The 1904 Olympic Games
August 10th, 2012Filed under: Stories
Without question, the London Olympic Games have been dazzling to watch. Who wouldn’t be inspired by our fellow Americans capturing the gold, especially Northwestern alum Matt Grevers’s record-setting win of the men’s 100-meter backstroke?
Seeing the splendor and pride of London and the predictions of athletes bound for Rio in 2016, I can’t help but regret that our hometown of Chicago will not be able to rise to the occasion of playing host four years from now. Alas, maybe someday…
Weightlifting became an Olympic sport at the 1904 games
Chicago Daily News collection, SDN-002638
But did you know that more than one hundred years ago, Chicago was set to be an Olympic host? The 1904 summer games were the third modern Olympiad: what an exciting time that would have been! Despite Chicago having won the bid, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, got the games, for organizers preferred to dovetail the sporting event with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—no small feat, indeed. The exposition celebrated the centennial (although one year delayed) of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty and introduced the ice cream cone.
The fair’s planners didn’t want the first Olympic Games on American soil to be in Chicago—host of the acclaimed 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—fearing that the event would detract from their international extravaganza. Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the renewed Olympic movement, agreed to the change in venue to Chicago’s loss.
Funny thing is, the third Olympiad turned out to be a smaller event all the same. It was overshadowed by St. Louis’s grander plans for its exposition. The games ended up being rather domestic or homey in nature, drawing mainly local, Midwestern, and East Coast university athletes and only a limited number of international competitors. The 1904 competitions occurred over nearly five months, opening July 1 and closing November 23. It primarily featured individual events (including tug of war and hammer throw) and introduced boxing, freestyle wrestling, weight lifting, and the decathlon as Olympic events. It was also the first games to award gold, silver, and bronze medals to the first, second, and third place finishers.
All the while, the Chicago Daily News was there, documenting each sports category and taking charming photos of the male competitors (only six women were recorded as participants among the 651 athletes, but they remained undocumented by news staff photographers).
James Lightbody was the big victor from Chicago, having set a world record for the 1500-meter race. Archie Hahn, the “Milwaukee Meteor,” ran an Olympic-record-setting time of 21.6 seconds in the 200 meter, a record that stood for 28 years. Cuban marathoner Felix Carvajal de Soto arrived late to his event and ran in his street clothes. The marathon, in fact, was one of the most attention-grabbing and derided events of the St. Louis games, critiqued for its lackluster path along a dusty road and foolish highjinks among competitors.
Not to knock the best of intentions on the part of the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition organizers, but I enjoy imagining what would have been had one of the earliest Olympic games of the twentieth century occurred along the lake in the Windy City.