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Did St. Louis steal the 1904 Olympics from Chicago, and then botch the games?

ST. LOUIS – Organizers of the 1904 Olympic games wanted them in Chicago. Instead, they were in St. Louis with Francis Field at Washington University as the epicenter. So what happened? Did St. Louis actually steal the Olympics from Chicago?

Chicago won the bid unanimously to host the Games in 1901. They even reportedly rubbed it in St. Louis' face.

"They said ‘well, St. Louis wanted the Olympic games. They wouldn’t have known what to do with them if they got them," said Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research at the Missouri History Museum.

But that taunting would soon haunt the Windy City. Celebrating the Louisiana Purchase Expansion, St. Louis was scheduled to host the World’s Fair in 1903. However it was suddenty moved to 1904 – the same year as the scheduled Olympic games 297 miles up the road.

That’s when David Francis – yes, as in Francis Field, former Missouri governor and St. Louis mayor and also St. Louis World’s Fair organizer -- wrote up the Olympic committee to make a case St. Louis actually host the Games instead.

“You know what, we’re having this huge World’s Fair and as part of it we’re gonna have athletic games and they’re gonna over shadow your Olympics that you’re just trying to get started," said Francis, according Sowell. "And so you may want to reconsider and move the games to St. Louis.”

The Olympics committee didn’t like the idea of having competing games so close to one another. They also weren’t crazy about St. Louis.

“Pierre de Coubertin, although he was part of that decision, made the statement that he hated to see the Olympics go to a city of mediocrity and would not be part of that whole thing," said Larry Kindbom, Washington University head football coach.

However, at the turn of the century, hosting the World's Fair was the ultimate compliment, essentially making St. Louis the center of the universe. So to organizers it only made sense that people who came to visit the fair could also see the best athletes in the world.


“Ultimately the decision was made to bring it down to St. Louis because of the conflicting interest," said Kindbom.

That’s right.

“St. Louis did steal the Olympics from Chicago," said Sowell.

Consider it verified

While Chicago was meant to be the first American city to host the Olympics, you can thank Mr. Francis for ensuring it was St. Louis instead.

“This was the beginning of the St. Louis – Chicago rivalry ... It was definitely a mark for St. Louis to have the Olympics come here," said Kindbom."

Verify: Did St. Louis really botch the 1904 Olympics?

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.”