America's first Olympics were a total mess and also quite racist
The U.S. cleaned up that year, taking home more than 230 total medals in its first turn hosting. No other country even hit 20 total medals. That's nuts.If seeking a benchmark for American Olympic dominance less than a week before the 2016 Games begin, you can't find a better statistical example than the 1904 edition.
But a closer look reveals the 1904 Olympics to be something else entirely: Deeply weird, sometimes comedic, othertimes offensive, wholly unique and a lesson in perspective when it comes to Olympic disfunction.
The 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis, lasted for nearly five months, not slightly over two weeks as is the custom today. They were a figurative marathon. Meanwhile, the actual marathon race — featuring strychnine as a performance enhancing drug and a competitor who traveled miles by car — sounds like a slapstick comedy sketch.
Then there was the bizarre sideshow called "Anthropology Days," in which supposedly primitive people culled from "living exhibits" at the 1904 World's Fair were made to compete in Western-style Olympic sports with which they had no experience.
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But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start with that medal count.
Check out this graphic of U.S. medal counts over time. That bar on the left that reaches way higher than all the others? That's 1904, baby.
Cue chants of, "USA! USA! USA!"
Tomato, tomah-toe. Point is, the USA kicked major heinie in 1904. Germany placed second in overall medal count. Its total? A piddling 12 medals, according to Mallon. No other nation even hit double figures in gold, silver and bronze combined.
How is this possible? Was the U.S. just that much better at sports than everyone else? When it comes to athletics, do we need to make America 1904 again?
The real explanation is much simpler, and much stranger.
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No one came to St. Louis for the Games. Only 11 nations besides the U.S. bothered to send delegations. There were 630 total athletes, according to Mallon; 523 of those represented the United States.
Loyal neighbor Canada sent 52 athletes. No one else sent more than 20. Six total women competed, and all six were American. (Also of note: An amputee with a wooden leg won six gymnastics medals; there were no Paralympics in those days.)
So why did so few nations show up?
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For one, 1904 marked only the third modern Olympics, and the first held outside Europe (Athens hosted in 1896, Paris in 1900).
St. Louis surely has many charms, but it's no Paris. It wasn't even the first-choice American city to host the 1904 Olympics. That distinction was originally intended for Chicago, according to the book America's First Olympics by George R. Matthews.
But there was a problem with the Chicago plan.
St. Louis was hosting the 1904 World's Fair, an international exposition meant to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase (which actually happened in 1803, not 1804, but we digress). The St. Louis exposition was to include athletic exhibitions.
Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman and the founder of the modern Olympics, feared a geographic split of top athletes if his event took place in Chicago as initially planned. He eventually agreed to let St. Louis host the 1904 Olympics — but not without misgivings.
"I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town," Coubertin later wrote.
Well, damn. Tell that to baseball's best fans.
Anyway, so began the star-crossed 1904 Olympics. We'll get to the super racist "Anthropology Days" in a minute. But first something a little lighter.
The marathon event at the 1904 Olympics sounds like a 'Three Stooges' sketch.
Image: Getty Images
Matthews' book details the absurd marathon event, which began during a gruelingly hot St. Louis summer afternoon. But heat wasn't the only problem, according to Matthews — not even close.
Most of the marathon course ran along dirt roads. Dirt roads kick up dust, which isn't good for running — especially running long distances in punishing heat. Moreover, officials were allowed to assist and coach marathoners during the race. Many of these officials traveled the route by car. Their cars stirred up even more dust, which made running the actual marathon even more difficult.
Fans initially thought a runner named Fred Lorz had won the marathon, according to Matthews. Lorz triumphantly entered the main World's Fair stadium, which was the race's final stage, with gusto and verve ahead of the other runners.
But Lorz was disqualified by race officials after being found to have rode several miles of the route in a car. (Yes — this was the actual Olympics. Crazy, right?)
Image: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Meanwhile, a man named Thomas Hicks won the race for real. But he nearly didn't make it, according to Matthews. Hicks was coaxed to the finish line by attendants who at one point boosted him with the "white of one egg" and a tiny dose of strychnine.
Yep — the same strychnine now recognized as one of the world's most dangerous poisons was once used as a performance enhancing drug for athletes. But Hicks got his marathon victory.
Now, finally, we get to the weirdest — and most shameful — part of the 1904 Olympics.
"Living exhibits" and colonialist spectacles
Image: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
The 1904 World's Fair included "living exhibits," in which humans from non-Western societies were displayed in supposedly natural environments for fair attendees. It was a human zoo, more or less.
With the Olympics also in town, a plan was hatched: A two-day affair called "Anthropology Days," in which people from the "living exhibits" would be put on athletic display, frequently in sports with which they had no experience.
It's a cringeworthy idea by 2016 standards, or by any honest moral reckoning. But 1904 was not 2016.
"The accounts of the time show that the spectacle of white men trying to persuade Natives to engage in sports that they did not understand was regarded humorously by the spectators as well as many of the participants themselves," writes Susan Brownell in The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race and American Imperialism.
Participants included American Indians, as well as people from Africa, the Middle East and the Philippines. In other words: Non-white people were displayed for the enjoyment and entertainment of white people. The spectacle was "grounded in the certainty of Anglo-American superiority," Regna Darnell and Stephen O. Murray write in the same book as Brownell.
But let's go back to Coubertin. He's the modern Olympics' founding father, the Frenchman who looked down upon "mediocre" St. Louis and someone who didn't even bother to trek to the 1904 Games. When he heard of the Anthropology Days spectacle, he was not impressed.
Image: Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
"Such an event, so contrary to the Olympic ideal, could hardly have been held anywhere else in the world than on this frontier of the Southern states," he later wrote. "As for that outrageous charade, it will, of course, lose its appeal when black men, red men, and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw and leave the white men behind them."
But Coubertin himself is yet another example of Olympic-caliber contradiction. The same man who castigated Anthropology Days as "contrary to the Olympic ideal" later advocated to make the Games for men only. He also called women's athletics "the most unesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate."
So, yes, today's Olympics of bloated budgets amid drastic social inequality are grotesque in their unique and contemporary way. But a closer look at 1904 shows the Games have always been a mess, a mirror in which we can see our own tremendously flawed collective reflection.