Modern Olympics, and the First United States Olympic Games (in 1904)


If you’re like my husband and me, you’re spending a fair number of hours this week  watching the Olympic Games. High points; low points. logo Olympics

In 2016, despite a few technical issues, teams from more than 200 countries are competing in the Games, which are being broadcast throughout the world. Today we take that for granted. But since I’m a history buff, I thought it would be fun to revisit the way the Olympics used to be.

No one knows exactly when the first Olympic Games were first held in Greece, or whether they were really founded by a son of Zeus, as legend says. But they were held every four years for over 1,000 years until a Christian emperor abolished them, citing their pagan origins.

A French aristocrat, Pierre de Courbetin, gets the credit for bringing them back. In 1894  he gathered 79 delegates from 9 countries to discuss the possibility of reviving the Olympic Games. Those delegates created the International Olympic Committee, selected a Greek, Demetrious Vikelas, as its chairperson, and chose Athens as the appropriate location for the first modern Olympic Games.

In 1896 241 men (no women) from 14 countries competed in 43 events. The winners were awarded a silver medal and an olive branch. There was no Olympic Flame or Olympic Oath. But the modern Olympics had begun.

The second Olympic Games were held in Paris in 1900, at the same time as the Paris World’s Fair. Women competed for the first time – in croquet – and 24 nations were represented by 997 athletes; 975 men and 22 women competed in 95 events. But little attention was paid to the Games because they were spread out over five months, mingled with the various other events taking place at the World’s Fair.

In 1904 the third modern Olympics took place in St. Louis, in the United States.

The American organizers hadn’t learned much from the Paris Olympics. The St. Louis games were held over six months, coinciding, as they had in Paris, with a World’s Fair. Because getting to St. Louis was more difficult for many of the world’s athletes than getting to Athens or Paris had been, fewer participated. Only 651 men and men competed, representing 12 countries – and the most of those competing (523) were from the United States.

But there were memorable moments.

 American gymnast George Eyser, who had an artificial left leg, won six medals. (This was, of course, pre the Paralympics.)

The Galt Football Club from Canada won the gold medal in football.

Archie Hahn set an Olympic sprinting record in the 200 meter, running it in 21.6, a record that stood for 28 years.

But the most remarkable event was the marathon, run on an extremely hot day, on  dusty roads, with horses and several new modern automobiles leading the way … and creating clouds of dust that the athletes had to run through.

Frederick Lorz was cheered as the winner … until someone discovered he was just jogging back to the finish line to get his clothing. He’d dropped out after running 9 miles.

Thomas Hicks finished first legally, but, in an early case of drugging, his trainers had given him several doses of strychnine sulfate mixed with brandy. He had to be carried off the track and would have died if doctors had not treated him immediately.

Cuban postman Felix Carbajal ran in street clothes he’d cut off to make the pants look like shorts. Along the way he stopped off in an orchard to snack on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Feeling ill, he then took a short nap.  Despite these delays, he finished fourth.

The first two Africans to compete in the Olympics ran in this marathon; two Tswana tribesmen from South Africa named Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani who had come to the United States to work at the Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair. They came in 9th and 12th in the marathon, but would no doubt have done better if Taunyane had not been chased a mile off the course by dogs.

Tug-of-war was one sport in which athletes competed in 1904 which is no longer an Olympic sport.

Since 1904 the Olympic games have become much more polished and sophisticated. Today countries compete to host the games. There are Olympics in both the summer and in the winter, to focus on sports in different climates and seasons. 

The Olympic Games seems destined to continue to change, to improve, and to provide athletes throughout the world with standards of excellence. Today the ultimate goal for many of the most talented athletes in the world is to represent their nation at the Olympics, to compete with the top men and women in their sport, and perhaps, just perhaps, to someday hold an Olympic medal in their hand.

The Olympics. In the past, and today, the Games symbolize the best of the best, and are an inspiration to all of us to be the best we can be, no matter what playing field we choose to compete on.


About Lea Wait

I write mysteries - the Mainely Needlepoint, Shadows Antique Print and, coming in June of 2018, the Maine Murder mysteries (under the name Cornelia Kidd.) When I was single I was an adoption advocate and adopted my four daughters. Now my mysteries and novels for young people are about people searching for love, acceptance, and a place to call home. My website is To be on my mailing list, send me a note at
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1 Response to Modern Olympics, and the First United States Olympic Games (in 1904)

  1. Lea, thanks for this recap of the games’ history. Love the little anecdotes about various competitors.

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