1904 St. Louis Olympics: Mediocre? Overcommercialized?
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX)- Today it’s London that is welcoming the athletes of the world as the Olympics get underway, but 108 years ago it was St. Louis that was hosting the games.
According to UMSL Anthropologist Susan Brownwell the 1904 games were a sideshow to the world’s fair, but being the first games held outside Europe they made the Olympics a world-wide event, “It really brought the Olympic Games to the U.S. and got people excited about it. It publicized what the Olympic Games were.”
But Brownwell, editor of the book, “The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games”, says European historians still denigrate the St. Louis games.
She says one reason they scoff at them, is that because of a struggling worldwide economy at the time, even European teams weren’t stocked with Europeans, “Many of the athletes on the teams, like the German team, the Greek team, were actually immigrants from those countries living in the U.S. at the time.”
Even the head of the Olympic Committee at the time wasn’t happy with the games being held here.
The 1904 Olympics were originally scheduled to be held in Chicago, but when the World’s Fair was delayed until that year, the St. Louis organizers successfully lobbied to get them moved here.
Brownwell says Olympic Committee President Pierre de Coubertin didn’t like the move, “He finally sort of boycotted the games and spoke badly about them afterwards. He called St. Louis a ‘mediocre’ city and said that, as he expected, the games had matched the mediocrity of the town.”
Brownwell says the St. Louis games crystalized the conflict between Europe and the U.S. over the meaning of the Olympics that exists to this day. She says at the time Europeans criticized them for being overcommercialized, “The Spalding Sporting Goods Company was a major sponsor of the games. They provided a lot of the facilities and did a huge amount of advertising so the Europeans thought basically that was kind of tacky. They called us, ‘utilitarian.’”
She says in Europe it’s said that the games in Greece in 1906 and London in 1908, saved the Olympics from St. Louis.
Despite the criticism overseas, Brownwell says the games left quite a legacy in St. Louis, including some facilities that are still in use, “We have the stadium at Washington University (Francis Field) that was the site of the track and field events. There are a couple of buildings at Washington University that were used for gymnastics and other events that are still there.”
Plus she says Glen Echo Country Club was the site of the golf competition.