Next August 6 through 21 the 2016 Summer Olympics (Officially: “Games of the XXXI Olympiad”) will be contested in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — which is a bit weird, since it will technically be winter in Rio. This is consistent with other summer games held south of the equator. The 1956 games in Melbourne – the southernmost city to host the games – were held in November and December, Australia’s spring. The 2000 Sydney games were played in the 2nd half of September, bridging winter and spring.
Toward the end of the Rio games the world is guaranteed a new Olympic champion in an old sport. When the gold medal is awarded the moment should be extraordinary in a most unusual way: It will likely represent the longest running Olympic championship reign to ever come to an end. And it might well remain that way forever.
I’d forgive you if you’re thinking of Usain Bolt (100-m, 200-m) or Michael Phelps (any number of swimming events) – but they might well win again, and their reigns would not end.
Think farther back.
You get points if you thought of Rugby, which has not been an event since the Paris games of 1924 (the “Chariots of Fire” Olympics). That year the United States won the gold medal and Olympic championship, successfully defending the crown they had won in the 1920 Antwerp games. Rugby comes back to life for the 2016 Rio Olympics for both men and, for the first time ever, for women. Even if the US men’s team manages to qualify for the tournament, it is highly unlikely they will successfully defend their 92-year running Olympic title. So, there will be a new champion, and that reign will come to an end.
Still, quite a few other Olympic events have been dormant even longer. Some will almost surely never return, so those reigns will last for as long as there are records. The Tug-of-War, a 5-time Olympic event from 1900 to 1920 (there were no games in 1916, due to the Great War), was won twice by teams from Great Britain, including the final championship, in 1920.
Two sports even more unlikely to make an Olympic re-appearance were last contested in Paris, in 1900: (1) Live pigeon shooting (won by Belgian Leon de Lunden), a ghastly, messy, bloody affair; and (2) Obstacle Course Swimming, won by Australian Frederick Lane. We can safely assign the Olympics’ longest reigns to these men, … forever.
Back during the Edwardian Era, in 1904, Saint Louis hosted the Olympics, prying the games away from Chicago well after the Windy City had been deemed the host city by the IOC and USOC (International and US Olympic Committees). The short story of this Olympic host-city purloin starts with the award to Saint Louis the honor of hosting the 1903 World’s Fair, which they dubbed “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition” — to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.
But wait: 1903? The extent of the fair was enormous — it covered 1,270 acres and had over 1,500 buildings, including more than a dozen Palaces (just the Palace of Agriculture enclosed over 23 acres, equivalent to more than 17 football fields). Yes, so enormous that the year of the Exposition was pushed back a year, to 1904.
At this point, the aggressive and ambitious leaders of the Exposition, led by accomplished and beloved President of the Fair, David Rowland Francis, lobbied hard (again) to host the 1904 Olympic Games, now to be concurrent with their World’s Fair. At this point Chicago had long since defeated St Louis for the honor of hosting the Games.
Francis was well-connected financially and politically: he had previously served as St Louis’ mayor, Missouri’s governor and as Secretary of the Interior during Grover Cleveland’s second term. Not just bluff and bluster, the Fair’s leaders credibly threatened to dilute the Chicago Olympics by simultaneously hosting World’s Fair Exhibition Games if their request was denied. Eventually the IOC and USOC acquiesced. Saint Louis got the games. Most events were contested just west of the fairgrounds, on the campus of Washington University, which was (and is) just outside the St Louis city limits.
The 1904 Saint Louis games of the III Olympiad were nothing like the extravaganzas we’ve come to expect over the past 50 years, or more. Now the games are over-hyped, over-marketed, and absurdly over-nationalistic. The Olympics then were still in their infancy. They were innocent, simple, often poorly organized, and decidedly non-nationalistic. Due to this simplicity, innocence and under-hype — and partly due to St Louis’ location deep in the American heartland — there was discouragingly low participation in the games.
Besides the Olympics, there were many athletic events held during and in conjunction with the Fair, and historians have had some difficulty ascertaining just how many events were actually Olympic events, and how many athletes, too. Adding to the confusion, there were Olympic Games that were more like demonstration events: the handicap games (where time or distances were added and subtracted based on athletes’ abilities, as in golf or bowling handicaps) and the very non-politically correct Anthropology games.
According to “1904 Olympic Games, Official Medals & Badges” (Greensfelder, Lally, Christianson, Storm) only twelve nations participated in what we’d call official Olympic “medal” events, and only 673 contestants. For comparison, in the 2012 London Olympics, there were 204 nations and nearly 11,000 athletes represented.
A huge majority of the athletes were from the United States: 539 of the 673. A further 52 athletes were from Canada. In any event, the athletes did not represent their own nations anything like today; they represented themselves and their local sports or swim clubs. No national anthems; no flag waving.
George Seymour Lyon was one of those 52 Canadians – a businessman from Toronto, born and raised near Ottawa. Although already 46-years old, he arrived with the confidence of an accomplished and natural athlete. As a young man, he had held Canadian national records in the pole vault and as a cricket batsman. And he had demonstrated prowess in baseball, lawn bowling, and rugby. There is a lot of river ice in Canada in the winter: Lyon was accomplished at hockey and curling as well.
With great physical conditioning, concentration, and demonstration of eye-hand coordination in baseball, hockey and cricket – Lyon had begun playing golf relatively late in life, at age 38. By the time he showed up in Saint Louis, in August, 1904, he had already won an astounding three Canadian National Amateur championships (’98, ‘00, ’03 – he would go on to win a total of eight such national championships, the last at an astonishing 56-years of age).
Seventy-Five contestants were entered for that Olympic Golf tournament. All but three of those seventy-five were from the US; the other three – including – Lyon, were from Canada.
The site for the golf matches was the nearly brand new course at Glen Echo Country Club, completed in 1901, just outside St Louis, in Normandy, Missouri. Well, actually, almost all courses in the New World were nearly brand new: Shinnecock Hills on Long Island was the first course in the US, built in 1891. Chicago Golf Club, in 1894, was the first course west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The 1904 Olympic golf competition was an absolutely grueling competition, by any standard.
Day #1 was a 36-hole qualifier. Players with the low 32 scores qualified for an elimination match play tournament: 36-holes each day. The finalists would have to play five more consecutive days.
Needless to say, Lyon qualified for the tournament, and over the period of 6 days he played 12 rounds of golf (two to qualify, and five 36-hole elimination matches), defeating men much younger than himself along the way, to win the championship and the gold medal. Ever the athlete, he celebrated by walking on his hands through the clubhouse after the award.
Lyon’s is the only gold medal ever to be awarded in golf, since golf has not been an Olympic event since then, and the St Louis Olympics were the first games to award gold, silver and bronze medals for first, second and third places. [The winner of the 1900 Olympic golf tournament, American pro George Sands, one of only 12 contestants, was awarded a silver medallion, after a stroke play tournament of only 36 holes).
Olympic historians may well disagree that George Lyon is the longest reigning Olympic Golf champion. It turns out that the 1900 Paris Games (also simultaneous with a World Exposition) held an obscure 9-hole golf tournament for women. Conducted 30-miles outside Paris in Compiègne on a course laid out within a horse racing track – and so poorly organized that the ten contestants had no idea they were competing in the Olympics – the tournament was won by a 24-year old American, Margaret Abbott, with a score of 47 strokes. To underscore their ignorance of the significance of the event, many women showed up to play in high heels and rather tight skirts. I wonder what those heels did to the greens?
Since there was no women’s golf competition at the 1904 games (perhaps they decided that 12 rounds of golf in 6 days was too much), Abbott stands as the longest reigning Olympic golf champion.
Abbott, born in India, had learned golf after moving to America at the Chicago Golf Club. She was in Paris with her mother at the time of the 1900 Paris Olympics and Fair to study art. She heard of the tournament and entered matter-of-factly. In fact, her mother also competed in the event, finishing 7th – the only time in Olympic history that a mother and daughter have competed in the same event.
Fifty-five years later, at the time of her death, Abbott still had no idea she was an Olympic Champion. At the end of the tournament she was awarded only a porcelain bowl. As the games’ significance grew through the decades, Florida University professor Paula Welch spent 10 years tracking down her family and let them know they were descended from an Olympic champion. 1900 was the first Olympics with women’s participation; so Abbott is the first American woman, and 2nd woman overall, to win an Olympic championship. (England’s Charlotte Cooper had won the women’s tennis tournament just hours earlier).
In 1902 Abbott met and married humorist Peter Dunne while in Paris. She also won the Femina Cup, precursor to the French Women’s Golf Championship. Quite a year. They then moved to New York, when, it seems, her competitive golf career came to a quiet end, partly due to a nagging knee injury she suffered in a bicycle fall as a child.
I can’t find what happened to Abbott’s porcelain bowl, but we do know that somewhere through the years Lyon’s gold medal somehow got lost. His family and the Canadian Olympic Committee have pleaded for a new official medal to be issued, but it has been denied. A duplicate medal hangs on display at the Rosedale Golf Club, in Toronto, only about 35-minutes from Canada’s Golf Hall of Fame, in Oakville, Ontario, where Lyon was inducted in 1971.
Lyon was also named to Canada’s Olympic Hall of Fame (in 1971) and to Canada’s Sports Hall of fame in 1955, coincidentally, the same year that Abbott passed away. (Lyon had died in 1938). If you wish to visit and achieve a two-for-one: Canada’s Olympic and Sports Halls of Fame are located in Olympic Park, in Calgary, Alberta (site of the 1988 Winter Games).
Well, either way, the longest Olympic champion reign to come to an end will be in Rio de Janeiro in the golf competitions. There will be both a women’s and a men’s Olympic competition for the first time in more than a century — and a gold medal for each. It would be nice if there will be tributes to Abbott and Lyon when it happens.
Peace, and … Fore!
Joe Girard © 2015
- a biographical book (and possible movie) is coming out on George Lyon soon. You can find out more here: http://www.georgelyon.ca/
- Lyon also entered 15 Canadian Senior Golf Championships (Presumably for seniors, from age 50 to 64). In those 15 years he compiled a most amazing record: He won 10 times and finished runner-up 4 times.
- The Normandy, MO school district includes Ferguson, MO.
Acknowledgments: Thanks go to my wife Audrey and to Max Storm (Founder of the 1904 World’s Fair Society and co-author of the 1904 Olympic book cited) for reading and re-reading this and for making editorial and structural suggestions.
the search for Margaret Abbott, by Paula Welch: http://library.la84.org/OlympicInformationCenter/OlympicReview/1982/ore182/ORE182s.pdf
- Chicago loses the 1904 Olympics: http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JOH/JOHv12n3/johv12n3k.pdf