Not So Far from London

2, August 2012

Editor’s note: This article is the third 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.

Ray EwryRay Ewry of the New York Athletic Club competing in the standing broad jump at the 1904 Olympics. Ewry won the event. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1904. Missouri History Museum.

Looking at photos from the 1904 Olympics it’s not difficult to spot the differences from the Games currently being held in London. Many of the competitors are wearing jerseys promoting their city’s athletic club rather than the United States of America. The athletes often appear to be competing in front of only a handful of spectators. And some of them are running in street clothes.

But look closer and you can see what connects these two Olympic Games spread so many miles and years apart.

Athletes aren’t the only ones competing in the Olympics. There also exists a competition between host cities with each new host city promising to put on a Games more spectacular than the last. This was no different in 1904, even though only two other cities—Athens and Paris—had hosted the modern Games before St. Louis.

Boosters promised an athletic competition the likes of which had never been seen. The New York Times wrote that the 1904 Olympics would “undoubtedly prove to be the greatest athletic meeting of modern times.” St. Louis Republic reporters shared the view, claiming that “without a doubt these games will eclipse the ones of 1896 and 1900.”

The press was so confident about the Games because they were attracting some of the world’s best athletes. Although the 1904 Games did not draw the kind of international representation we expect today (more than three-quarters of the competitors were from America), they did feature great athletes from around the world and from across the United States.

Perikles KakousisPerikles Kakousis of Athens, Greece, winner of the two-handed weightlifting competition at the 1904 Olympics. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1904. Missouri History Museum.

Celebrated athletes included Zoltan Halmay, a Hungarian swimming sensation who picked up two gold medals in St. Louis and won another five medals in the 1900 and 1908 Games, and Perikles Kakousis, the Greek weightlifter who won gold in the two-hand lift and who was heralded in the local press for coming “thousands of miles to carry modern Olympic honors back to his native land.”

Just like today, some competitors were just as celebrated for their biographies as they were for their athletic prowess.  There’s no better example of that than Ray Ewry. Ewry won eight gold medals in the 1900, 1904, and 1908 Games, and remained the American with the most individual gold medals until Michael Phelps surpassed him. But it was the story of how he made the Olympics that made him such an inspiration.

An orphan since the age of five, Ewry was struck with polio when he was seven and was told that he may never walk again. One doctor, however, said he should try jumping exercises to build the strength of his legs. The plan not only allowed him to transition out of a wheelchair, it made him one of the most celebrated jumpers in Olympic history. The French called him “the human frog.” In St. Louis, he won the standing triple jump, the standing high jump, and the standing long jump.

Finally, the Olympic ideal of using sports to promote the bonds between people and countries was just as celebrated in 1904 as it is today. Commenting on the track and field competition, the Post-Dispatch reported that “the American athletes did all in their power to make foreigners who had come over the seas to strive for Olympic honors, feel that they were among brother athletes and that all racial feeling was eliminated.”

One sport, above all others, showed both the differences and similarities between the St. Louis Games and those of today. In the next article in our Olympic series, we’ll look at the 1904 marathon.

—Jody Sowell, Public Historian

Our Olympics, an exhibit that highlights stories and photography from the 1904 Games, runs through November 18 in the Bank of America Atrium.