The 1904 Olympics: The American Future and the American Past

International pageants such as World’s Fairs or Olympic Games are strange beasts of their very nature. While trying to project an image of a modern, vibrant place, they must necessarily also draw on the familiar in order to reach a wide audience. Sometimes this can be done in eye-catching and engaging fashion—think of the 2012 London Olympics, and their juxtaposition of Horse Guard’s Parade with beach volleyball. Thus these international pageants provide a curious mix of looking to the future at the same time as looking at the past.

The 1904 Olympics, which took place in St Louis, were no exception. Indeed, the Olympics were only held in the city because of the melding of the past and the future. Chicago was originally awarded the Games, much to the chagrin of their near neighbors to the south. St Louis threatened to organize its own athletic extravaganza; fearing that the new Olympic movement would be derailed,Olympic organizers shifted the Games.

Though St Louisan rivalry with Chicago remains a sporting touchstone to the present day, the reason for the particular anger was tied inextricably to the American past. In hoping to announce itself to the world as a major, thriving city, St Louis organized the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” for 1904 as a means of showing off the promise of the American West. The American future—a future of electrical, industrial, and athletic prowess—owed its significance to the visionary leadership of Thomas Jefferson and the opening of the American West.

The Olympics themselves, and the Exposition of which they were a part, are no longer seen in quite such a rosy glow. Baron de Coubertin was never really satisfied with St Louis, “a mediocrity of a town,” as the host city, and the organization of the Games was largely left to the Exposition’s organizers. The Games themselves managed to beat the boycott wars of 1980 and 1984 in leading to one-sided results; many events were contested solely by Americans. [1]

Most notoriously of all, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition used humans as displays and as pseudo-scientific objects of study. Though not officially part of the Games, “Anthropology Days” were held during the summer of 1904, in which indigenous peoples from around the world were introduced (briefly) to various athletic competitions, given (perfunctory) training, and then had their performances contrasted unfavorably with (mostly American) champions in the official Olympic sports. Never mind that the competitors at the Anthropology Days were not in St Louis for their sporting expertise; never mind the fact that competitors were pressed to compete in disciplines they’d never come across before. Indeed, in Spalding’s Official Athletic Almanac for the 1904 Olympics, it was proudly noted that the fastest time in the hundred-yard dash had been recorded by George Mentz, “an Americanized Indian.” (p. 251; the report into the Anthropology Days begins on p. 249.)

Spalding’s Almanac makes clear the feelings of American superiority that were tied up with the 1904 Olympics. Only the “Americanized Indians” were mentioned by name in the report; other competitors were reduced solely to their nationality. And repeated comparisons were made to the superiority of American athletes—the “ludicrous” lack of distance on the 56-lb throw, for example, or the comment that “it is doubtful that there is a high school championship that is not won with a better performance.” The ultimate conclusion was that the events proved “conclusively that the savage is not the natural athlete we have been led to believe.”

Though these events were not official Olympic events, they were clearly used to contrast American achievement, and the progress of American civilization. These days were also part and parcel of the wider fare of the Exposition; the hill on which native peoples built their accommodations for the summer was symbolically topped by an Indian school, representing the “summit” of assimilation. (Though even then, the feats of the Indian schools who participated in intercollegiate football demonstrations received minimal mention in Spalding’s Almanac).

The 1904 Olympics ultimately demonstrate that sports have been used to advance political and cultural agendas since the advent of organized sports. For an early Americanist historian, it is particularly interesting to see how the Games were tied into a particular exceptionalist vision of America that used the landmark achievement of Jefferson’s Presidency as a launching point for a brand of pseudo-scientific nationalism juxtaposed with the promise of the future. [2]

The deliberate contrast between the primitive dwellings of indigenous peoples with the Palace of Electricity mirrors that of the contrast of the Anthropology Days with American Olympians. Its use of the early American past was tied explicitly to modern political currents. And while the lack of historical fanfare for the 1904 Olympics owes much to inter-city rivalry and elite European disdain, the result of the unusual circumstances of the St Louis Olympic represent one of the most curious and revealing insights into national culture at the time of staging an Olympic Games.

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[1] Those that were more international frequently had competitors from only one other nation.

[2] The Missouri History Museum, which stands on the Forest Park turf laid out for the 1904 Exposition, is located in the Jefferson Memorial Building. It houses an exhibition on the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics that was influential in my thinking in writing this post.

Further reading: Susan Brownell, ed., The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

One comment on “The 1904 Olympics: The American Future and the American Past

  1. Nap Director says:

    Thank you for this article. I had not been aware of the dueling events in St. Louis.

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