By Matthew D. Plunkett (Guest Contributor)
“Everything settled. You have Olympic Games.”
Baron Pierre de Coubertin sent this telegram in February 1903 and awarded the city of St. Louis the right to host the 1904 Olympic Games. Yet nearly two years earlier, in May 1901, Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee voted to award the same Olympic Games to Chicago.
Somehow St. Louis stole the Olympics.
Although Chicago won the original bid, St. Louis immediately set out to undermine its planning efforts. Already slated to host the 1903 World’s Fair, St. Louis’ ambition grew, and it quickly made the decision to steal the Olympics.
After securing $6 million in funding and delaying the opening of the World’s Fair for one year, St. Louis set out to persuade James Sullivan and the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) to hold its national track and field championships in St. Louis in the summer of 1904. Founded prior to the NCAA, the AAU was the premier athletic association in the country and held tremendous sway over its athletes.
Dubbed “America’s first sports czar,” Sullivan’s cooperation was essential. An IOC member once described Sullivan as “…a man whose great faults are those of his birth and breeding, but he…..holds the organized athletes of the clubs in the hollow of his hand.” If Sullivan collaborated with St. Louis, Chicago would lose the centerpiece of its Olympics because America’s best athletes would be in St. Louis. Given that Sullivan viewed Coubertin as “a powerless, pathetic figure in charge of an inept committee,” the decision to cooperate with St. Louis was most likely an easy one.
Using the combination of its financial backing and its willingness to use America’s athletes as leverage, St. Louis outflanked and outmaneuvered its northern rival. Chicago had only three choices: continue with the Olympics as planned but without America’s best athletes; transfer the Games to St. Louis; postpone the Olympics until 1905. Meekly, Chicago asked Coubertin to make the final decision.
Baron de Coubertin read the writing on the wall. In February 1903, he alerted Chicago of his decision. With two words, Coubertin wiped out two years of planning: Transfer accepted.
Whereas prior Olympics were covered by newspapers only in the northeast, the drama surrounding the transfer of the 1904 Olympics was covered far and wide. Readers’ interest in the story spurred further coverage even after the location of the Games was settled. As a result, Americans came to learn about the modern Olympic movement, its roots in antiquity and the prospect of the Olympics taking place on American soil. The intrigue surrounding the 1904 Olympics laid the groundwork for the popularity of the Games in America today.
And while Chicago continues to dominate the Midwest in population, economic output and cultural relevance, St. Louis can always recall when it swiped the Olympics from its big brother to the north.
Mark Dyreson, Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience, University of Illinois Press, 2008.
George R. Matthews, America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904, University of Missouri Press, 2005.
John J. McAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games, Routledge, 2007.
Stephen Pope, Patriotic Games: Sporting Traditions in the American Imagination, 1876-1926, Oxford University Press, 1997.
“Born From Dilemma: America Awakens to the Modern Olympic Games, 1901-1903,” by Robert Knight Barney, Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Vol. I, 1992, pp. 92-135. http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/Olympika/Olympika_1992/olympika0101f.pdf.
“Coubertin and Americans, Wary Relationships, 1889-1925,” by Robert Knight Barney. In Norman Mueller (ed.), Coubertin and Olympism: Questions for the Future. Report of the Congress at the University of Le Havre, September 17-20, 1997. Lausanne: Comite International Pierre de Coubertin.
“Chicago Loses the 1904 Olympics,” by John E. Findling, Journal of Olympic History, Journal of Olympic History, 12(October 2004)3, pp. 24-29. http://www.isoh.org/articles/16-chicaco-loses-the-1904-olympics/.
“Olympians Games for Chicago.” The New York Times, March 25, 1901
“St. Louis Gets Olympic Games.” The New York Times, February 12, 1903
“Front Page-No Title.” The New York Times, August 25, 1896
Matthew D. Plunkett is a history teacher and writer living in New York City. In addition to his historical writing, Matthew is currently working on a project about the Sunderland Football Club of the Barclay’s Premier League.