Imagine casting W. C. Fields as Oedipus Rex, and you have some idea of what is likely to happen when the Olympic Games become part of a world's fair. It was tried first in Paris in 1900 and again in St. Louis four years later. The results sent shudders through the system of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had finally succeeded in 1896 in reviving the ancient Greek games after extraordinary determination, persistence and diplomacy.
This is an article from the Aug. 15, 1960 issue
Things were difficult enough for the baron and his associates in Athens in 1896 when the first modern Olympiad was held—with most of the track and field prizes swept by the U.S.—but that one was orderly and sedate compared with the second in 1900 when the Olympics were part of the famous Paris Exposition. The facilities on the grounds of the Racing Club de France were primitive, the crowds meager and unenthusiastic, and the Games, a sideshow for the Exposition, were peculiar. The U.S. took 17 of the 22 traditional track and field events. The French excelled in shooting clay pigeons and running deer, and in archery.
But it was at St. Louis from May through November 1904 that almost anything was called an Olympic contest, and the antics then presented almost finished the baron's struggling dream. The city of St. Louis was preparing to put on a huge world's fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. Chicago had invited the International Olympic Committee to hold the III Olympiad there, but St. Louis used every kind of pressure to get the Games and finally threatened to hold competing athletic contests if the Olympics went to Chicago. President Theodore Roosevelt used his influence, and Chicago, fearing financial disaster as a result of competition, withdrew. The Games were transferred to St. Louis.
The Exposition was a great success and has survived harmoniously in the song, Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis, Meet Me at the Fair. The Olympics were something else—if they had a song, it would be the sort of thing John Cage might play on a prepared piano. Most Europeans found St. Louis too far from home and too expensive to get to in those days when you could not fly now and pay later. Germany sent a 10-man team, mostly swimmers. Hungary also sent some swimmers. Greece sent two athletes and picked up some others among Greeks living in the U.S. A few Irishmen arrived, but both Great Britain and France boycotted the Games that year, as did the Scandinavians and many other nations.
St. Louis had built a large stadium for athletic games preliminary to the Olympics and for the recognized Olympic contests themselves. Nearly 9,000 athletes contested for preeminence in this stadium, and before it was all over the following November some mighty bizarre contests had taken place. The track and field program alone consisted of 26 events, the largest number held at any Olympics. They began Monday, August 29, and ended Saturday, September 3. Before the officially recognized events took place YMCA games, Irish games and elementary school games were put on—in all 390 individual events.
In addition there was presented a series of lectures by physical education authorities and medical men on such subjects as "Anthropometric Methods," "The Equipment and Construction of Gymnasium and Athletic Fields," and "Health as Related to Civilization." It was a distinguished group of lecturers, and the Exposition published the entire series as part of the festivities.
However, all of this, and even the Olympic events, were anticlimactic after two so-called Anthropology Days on August 12 and 13. Pygmies and Kaffirs from Africa, Moros and Igorots from the Philippines, Ainus from Japan, Patagonians, Cocopa Mexican Indians and American Sioux braves, among others, were assembled in villages on the fairgrounds and then pitted against each other in contests that proved only one thing—they were there.
The Pygmies attracted the most attention. Nine of them arrived in St. Louis, via the jungles of the Congo State, the Canary Islands and New Orleans, on Friday morning, July 1, accompanied by three monkeys and eight parrots. At first John Kandola, their native missionary interpreter, insisted that they must have their customary native diet: monkey, elephant, hippopotamus, gazelle and human meat. However, in St. Louis they had to be content with beef and chicken. They took quickly to tobacco and money. The smallest of the lot, nicknamed "Autobank," was 4 feet tall, 27 years old and a cannibal with highly sharpened teeth. He was married and had two children, but he had left his family in the Congo. Every time anybody wanted to take his photograph he demanded and got 5¢, which he promptly put in a smart-looking civilized purse he had bought soon after his arrival.
The first athletic event for the aborigines was a 100-yard dash in six heats. The winner was a Sioux Indian named George Mentz, whose time was 11 and 4/5 seconds. According to Spalding's Official Athletic Almanac for 1905, this was "time that almost any winner of a schoolboy event could eclipse at will." Lamba, an African Pygmy, took 14 3/5 to do the 100 yards. In the shotput it was expected that the Patagonians, because of their size and feats of strength, would excel. But their best performance was 30 feet 5 inches with a 16-pound shot. This was 18 feet 2 inches behind the American record of the time. One American, Ray Ewry, jumped farther in the standing jump than the Pygmies or Ainus did in the running broad jump.
On the second day the aborigines did better in their own kind of contest: pole climbing. An Igorot from the Philippines climbed a pole about 50 feet high in 20 2/5 seconds. The American record for rope climbing, considered to be the nearest thing to pole climbing, was 15 4/5 seconds for 35 feet 8 inches of rope. The aborigines turned out to be a disappointment in spear throwing. Only three of them out of a couple of dozen could hit a post 25 feet away. They proved duds at archery also, and a target, four feet by six, 42 yards away, was pierced by only two of the entrants, though some of them had used bows and arrows for hunting and righting most of their lives. The Pygmies, however, shone in one of their favorite games—the mud fight. It resembled a snowball fight among schoolboys, and they showed great dexterity in ducking the mud.
In the recognized Olympic contests, Americans won 23 of the 24 track and field events, but they had little competition. All in all they gained 48 gold medals.
Spalding's Official Athletic Almanac for 1905 began its article on the St. Louis Olympiad with these words: "The Olympic Games of 1904, held in the stadium of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, at St. Louis, were without question the greatest athletic games ever held in the world."
Baron Pierre de Coubertin wrote of them: "In no place but America would one have dared place such events on a program—but to Americans everything is permissible, their youthful exuberance calling certainly for the indulgence of the ancient Greek ancestors, if, by chance, they found themselves at that time among the amused spectators."