ST. LOUIS – Many historians believe the 1904 St. Louis Games were a dark period in Olympic history. Some say they were botched. What really happened? Are the 1904 Games something St. Louis should be proud of?
Fewer than 700 athletes competed in the 1904 Olympics. More than 500 of them were from the United States. Sure, there were logistical problems. It was messy. But it was 1904.
“There wouldn’t, for example, be a ‘parade of nations’ until the next Olympic games in 1908 in London. So even that idea of marching in together as a country’s team, that just wasn’t part of the 1904 games," said Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research at the Missouri History Museum.
Just the third modern Olympics, many questioned if the Games could survive. Organizers with the St. Louis World’s Fair that year made it extra confusing by labeling all area athletic competitions ‘Olympic events.’ Even a high school basketball game was ‘part’ of the Olympic games.
But the real 1904 Games were home to many important firsts
“The 1904 Olympics was the first time that an African American athlete won a medal. It was George Pogue, who would later go on to coach at Sumner High School," said Sowell.
In fact, the St. Louis Games were also the first to give out gold, silver and bronze medals.
“Multiple Olympic records. Multiple world records were set at the St. Louis Games," added Sowell.
And one of those record holders? Ray Ewry, a guy who had polio as a child and was told he may never walk but went on to claim Olympic fame in St. Louis.
“He becomes one of the most heralded athletes in Olympic history," said Sowell. "He wins multiple gold medals at the St. Louis games. … [He] was the most awarded gold-medal-winning athlete before Michael Phelps.”
There was also George Eyser. The German-American athlete lost his leg in a train accident, but with his wooden prosthetic, won medals at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.
Did the 1904 Olympics fail in some ways? It certainly wasn’t perfect. But botched? No way, according to local St. Louis historians.
“First time boxing. First time an African American athlete is awarded a medal. First time you get the gold, silver and bronze," said Sowell. "These are these important aspects of the St. Louis games that, again, keep the games going.”