Road To The Olympic Games

Paris almost put an end to the Olympic movement

The word Olympic failed to appear on a single event program, and the Games took place from May to October alongside non-Olympic sporting events.

The French government tried to combine the Olympics with the World's Fair. The idea didn't work.

Visitors strolling towards the Pont Alexandre III during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. Very few even knew the Paris Olympics was underway. ((Photo by Byron/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) )

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After the success of the Olympic revival of 1896, Athens wanted to host the second modern Olympiad in 1900. Olympic godfather Pierre de Coubertin may well have wished the Greeks had gotten their wish, once he took stock of the fiasco his own country, France, made of the Games.

Paris detour

The numbers

Number of countries:   24

Number of athletes:  1,225   (11 women)

Number of sports:   18

Number of events:   95

Duration of Olympics:   4 1/2 months

Greece felt that as the historic home of the Olympics, it held a permanent right to host the Games. The International Olympic Committee opted for a rotation of hosts. The Greek-Turkish War, which was flaring at the time, made the IOC even less inclined to stage the Games in Athens again.

Besides, Paris was already hosting the World's Fair in 1900, and it seemed an obvious and appealing tie-in to the IOC to stage the Olympics in the City of Light. But the move backfired: It was enough to make de Coubertin later remark, "It's a miracle the Olympic movement survived these Games."

The 1900 Paris Olympics were a disaster of planning and execution. The French government seized event organization from the IOC and seemingly conceived of the Olympics as a sideshow to the World's Fair. In fact, there was little indication that the Olympics were happening at all: The word "Olympic" failed to appear on a single event program, and the Games took place from May to October alongside non-Olympic sporting events.

Spectators had little idea they were watching Olympics events, and while there were a lot more athletes than at the 1896 Games, a lot of them weren't really sure whether they were competing in official Olympic events. It would be years before there was any kind of accurate medal tally, and some athletes died without knowing they were Olympic gold medallists.

Gold medal for chaos

Just how haphazard was the planning for the 1900 Olympics? Consider the following:

  • the track and field events were held on an uneven, grassy field in the Parisian suburb of Bois de Boulogne;
  • there was no track; and the jumpers reportedly had to dig their own pits; the fencing venue was the World's Fair cutlery area, which must have seemed logical to a few knife salesmen;
  • swimming events were held in the Seine River, neither the cleanest nor the most placid of waterways;
  • organizers didn't allow for nearly enough room for the throwing events, so discus and hammer throwers ended up launching their throws into trees, or worse -- Hungary Rudolf Bauer won the discus gold on the strength of three throws that ended up in the crowd;
  • hurdles were fashioned out of broken telephone poles.
Never on Sunday

Multiple gold medallists

Alvin Kraenzlein (USA)  Athletics:  4

Ray Ewry (USA)  Athletics:  3

Konrad Staehli (SUI)  Shooting:  3

Aumoitte (first name unknown) (FRA)  Croquet:  2

Albert Ayat (FRA)  Fencing:  2

Irving Baxter (USA)  Athletics:  2

Hugh Doherty (GBR)  Tennis:  2

John Jarvis (GBR)  Swimming:  2

Emil Kellenberger (SUI) Shooting:  2   Frederick Lane (AUS)  Swimming:  2

Karl Konrad Roderer (SUI)  Shooting:  2

Walter Tewksbury (USA)  Athletics:  2

Hubert Van Innis (BEL)  Archery:  2

The host French did dominate the medal standings, with 26 gold medals all told, but no athlete accomplished more than American Alvin Kraenzlein, whose four gold medals in individual athletics events still holds up as an Olympic record.

Over three days, Kraenzlein won the 60 metres, the 110m and 200m hurdles and long jump. Kraenzlein's hurdle triumphs were partly due to what was then the innovative technique of going over hurdles with an outstretched leg. But his long-jump gold was tarnished by controversy. Kraenzlein's American rival, Meyer Prinstein, actually led the competition after the qualifying round, but Prinstein's own coach forbade him from competing in the final because it was held on a Sunday. (A number of other American athletes from church-affiliated universities also pulled out of events scheduled for Sundays.)

Kraenzlein managed one jump in the final that surpassed Prinstein's best effort by one centimetre to secure the gold. Christian or no Christian, Prinstein was reportedly so upset that he punched the champion in the face.

Canadian George Orton wins gold for U.S.

Canada did not yet have an Olympic team in 1900, but Canadians competed with the American team, which was made up of athletes from colleges and athletic clubs.

One such athlete was George Orton, of Strathroy, Ont., who finished third in the 400m hurdles before winning the gold in the 3,000m steeplechase. But because he was entered as an American athlete, it was not until years later that anyone realized that a Canadian had actually won an Olympic gold in Paris.

Orton's compatriot Ronald MacDonald was the last of just seven runners to finish the Olympic Marathon. He later complained that he and an American runner were the only athletes who ran the entire course, and that the three top finishers -- all French -- had taken a few shortcuts through the streets of Paris along the way, which would explain how they looked relatively well-rested at the finish. Michel Theato was finally acclaimed as the official Olympic marathon champion 12 years later.

Stan Rowley

If you think that a lot of athletes play fast and loose with the notion of citizenship these days, immigrating to countries that can offer them better financial and training support, consider the case of Stan Rowley. The Australian track star remains the only athlete to win a medal for two different countries at the same Games.

Rowley won bronze medals in the 60 metres, 100m and 200m, before some British friends coaxed him to join their side for the 5,000m cross-country team event.

Rowley was then persuaded by English friends to join their 5000m team for a cross-country event. The only other entry was France, but the Brits were a man short and wanted to avoid handing the French the gold in a default. Rowley had never run a distance race before, but no matter. Because of the curious point-scoring system of the race, all he had to do was walk to the finish and record a time for the British to win.

In the end, he didn't even have to finish. Race officials tired of waiting for him to finish, so they simply awarded him last place to close out the event.

 

Other novelties

Female athletes made their Olympic debut in 1900, although there were only about 20 of them competing. Even with those modest numbers, though, organizers couldn't keep them straight. There's still debate whether British tennis player Charlotte Cooper or American golfer Margaret Abbott deserves the title of first female Olympic champion.

Cricket, croquet, golf and tug of war all made their Olympic debuts in Paris, and were soon to exit the Olympic stage, along with one of the most curious of all Olympic events: the obstacle swimming race. Swimmers had to negotiate a course with three sets of obstacles -- boats they had to swim under.

 Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
 1.  France 29 41 32 102
 2.  USA 20 14 19 53
 3.  Great Britain 17 8 10 35
 4.  Belgium 8 7 5 20
 5.  Switzerland 6 21 9
 14.  Canada 1 01 2
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