Tag Archives: Olympics

Ray of Resolution

1900. The Games of the II Olympiad are underway as part of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The Track and Field events are being conducted in the stadium of the Racing Club de France Football. It is not the fancy stadium or field we would come to expect of Olympic Games decades hence – Racing Club plays in the 5th tier of French national soccer (football). But, it is conveniently located close to the fairgrounds.  Not far away, just under a mile, and across the historic River Seine, the 1,000-foot-tall Eiffel Tower – built as an awe-inspiring eye-catching fascination for the 1889 Fair – is in view.(1)

June 16. Ray stands beside the bar as required for this event: the standing high jump. No running approach or adjustment of feet position is permitted.  He takes a moment to gaze at its World Record height; so prodigious a height that, if cleared, it would have sufficed to earn a medal in the regular running high jump in the previous Athens Olympics. He begins his unique routine, breathing slowly and deeply, focusing his attention, gradually folding his lanky legs into a deep squat, stretching his powerful quad, calf, and glute muscles.  As his squat deepens, he begins to swing his arms, farther and farther, back and forth. Then – suddenly! – he explodes almost straight up.

Standing High Jump, Ray Ewry

Would it be Ironic that a man who came to world prominence labeled as “The Human Frog” would have the most life-altering circumstance of his entire life crash upon him during a silly race involving frogs? Because, after Ray Ewry’s performances in the II Olympic Games – winning three Olympic Championships in all three standing jumping events in a single day – that’s what the French media and fans called him: La grenouille humaine. And the name stuck.

I have found that a firm definition of the word Ironic is difficult to pin down, although many English speakers use the word often.  As Merriam-Webster states: “The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental …”  Best fit might be when a word’s, or a phrase’s usage – or a real-life outcome – is far different than what one would expect. Or as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said (of something completely different): “I know it when I see it.”

Ray Ewry was that man of world prominence. 

Standing High Jump, Olympics,  Ray Ewry

He was born in October, 1873, in Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the seat of Tippecanoe County, lying along the Wabash River, and contains its companion waterway: the Wabash Canal.  The river, the canal, and even the county fair and fairgrounds provided entertainment for young Ray.  But his life wasn’t even close to easy.


Much of America and Europe went through a canal building craze in the early 19th century.  These ambitious waterway constructions facilitated the transportation of goods and product.  In America grain went from the breadbaskets of the heartland to oceanic ports and thence to other American cities and to the world. Canals also facilitated the flow of all sorts of necessities to the heartland: forged machinery, stoves, clothing, boots, even sawn lumber and fine European clothing and furniture.  (One tip-off regarding canal building and its significance is the number of inland US cities with the suffix “-port” in their name, such as Logansport, Gasport, Middleport, Brockport, etc.  There are at least 4 Lockports, of course all near canal locks: one each in Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York states).

US Major Canals, circa 1853

Thousands of miles of canals were constructed. The Erie Canal is probably the most famous and enduring.  It opened in 1825 and traversed northern New York state for some 360-plus miles, connecting the four Great Lakes above Niagara Falls to the Atlantic Ocean … and thus helped make many cities along those Great Lakes  become commercial and transportation hubs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, etc.), and also helped make New York City into the gigantic hub of commercial trade.  That’s a status it enjoys to this day.

Of the significant but lesser-known canals we consider the longest North American canal at nearly 500 miles: the Wabash & Erie Canal.  This canal network connected Toledo’s Maumee Bay, at the western end of Lake Erie to Evansville, Indiana, on the right bank of the mighty Ohio River.  From there transportation to and from the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico was possible.

With construction beginning near Toledo in 1832, and finally reaching Evansville in 1853, the canal’s long-term future (as for many other canals) was doomed before it was completed, even though it had been in use since the first few miles of the big ditch were dug.  The steam powered “Iron Horse” was the next transportation rage.  Fueled with coal and using rapidly developing steel technology for engines, wheels and rails, the railroad would almost immediately surpass and suppress the potential of canals for convenient transportation.

1904 Saint Louis.  The Games of the III Olympiad are underway, again as part of a World’s Fair.  The Track & Field events are occurring on the newly constructed Athletic Field of Washington University (now known as Francis Olympic Field).  Again, the field lacks much of the glamour and size we’d grow to expect in future decades. The University is in the process of moving from downtown Saint Louis to just across the city limits.  Its many buildings and grounds are still works-in-progress.  Just a few yards away from the Athletic Field, the World’s Fair is using the University’s new Admin Building as headquarters for its massive spread of 1,270 acres of exhibitions – the largest Fair until Shanghai over a century later, in 2010.  And just a bit further away the Ferris Observation Wheel, at 264 feet tall with a capacity of 2,160 passengers is clearly visible.

August 29.  Ray stands at one end of the Long Jump pit.  His feet are on the ground; this is a standing jumping event.  He’d need one of his better jumps to secure 1st place and a gold medal (the 1904 Olympics were the first with gold, silver and bronze medals).  He gazes out to a spot well over 3 meters away, to world and Olympic record distance.  Fellow American Charles King has already broken Ray’s Olympic record at 3.21 meters.  Ray quiets his pensive, disciplined mind and begins his now well-known routine.  When he leaps, his explosiveness surprises no one.  When he lands –  properly not falling backward – the crowd roars its appreciation.  Ray has set a new World and Olympic Record at 3.47 meters (11 feet, 4.6 inches) – and won himself another Olympic championship.

Ray Ewry, Standing Long Jump, 1904 Olympics, Saint Louis

Unlike Paris, the Olympic events are spread out over month; yet like Paris, most of the athletic (track and field) Olympic competitions were crammed into just a few days.  In Paris, all of Ray’s events were held on a single day; in Saint Louis his events spread out a bit.  Yet, Ray won three golds again, sweeping the standing jumping events, between August 29 and September 3.  Although he set a record in the Long Jump, his other numbers were off from his personal best – a trend he had begun to notice in his training.

_____________________________________________________________

Not much detail is known of Ray Ewry’s early life in Lafayette, except that it was profoundly difficult.  I found little.  He had one sibling, a sister, Mabel, a few years younger.  His father, George, was prone to drink. His mother, Lizzie, died of “consumption” (now known as tuberculosis) when he was only 5-½ years old, and his sister was still a toddler.  Sodden with alcohol and sorrow, Ray’s father was unable to deal with the duties of sole parent, household management, and employment – so he turned to his friends and neighbors, the Elisha family, to raise his children. Mary Elisha became Ray’s and Mabel’s mother. Mr. George Ewry then vanished forever. Ray was an orphan.

Little was known about diseases – including hygiene and sanitation – even late into the 19th century.  And little could be done for what was known.  Thanks to Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek, the prolific lives of bacteria were certainly known, yet Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was decades away, and widespread use of it even further.  Viruses were unknown, although they were proved to exist in the 1890s; yet they were so small they were little understood until well into the 20th century.
____________________________________________________________________________

In Lafayette Indiana, like many other places, children frequently played in, and splashed about in, fetid waters.  Ray Ewry often did such when he was not off playing at the county fairgrounds.  He’d jump and swim in the Wabash Canal or River. All the kids did.  No one really thought much of it.

2021. It’s still the time of coronavirus, or Covid-19, although – hopefully – the end is nigh. Or at least major relief.  Tokyo will host the Olympics with essentially zero spectators.  Of the countless types of viruses, there are a tiny fraction that can have horrible effects on humans. But a tiny fraction of a very large number is still a large number. Among this vile fraction are a set of three that can cause conditions that terrify anyone: the polio viruses.

These are three similar but distinctly different polio viruses. Call them variations on a gene.  All are highly contagious and are different enough that vaccines must contain three different antigen triggers.  Thankfully two types are considered to be fully eradicated from the earth, and the other is found only in remote places – mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much as with Covid-19, the vast majority of people who got infected with a polio virus suffered very mild-to-no symptoms; some medical sites say 95-99%.  Of those with symptoms, most might have felt like they had a mild cold, or flu, and feel achy for a few days, or maybe a week. Perhaps a slight fever. And then it was gone.  [Also, like Covid-19, these asymptomatic infections can spread the virus]. What history and imagination conjures up for us is the one-in-two hundred or so who suffered some sort of paralysis. The onset of paralysis was usually some time – several days, or even a week, or more – after the body had seemingly “beaten” the virus. Overwhelmingly such paralysis victims were children: from very young to adolescents.

The odd adult case has a most memorable example.  Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the US, was stricken with polio paralysis at age 39 – the year after he had unsuccessfully stood for Vice-President as the Democratic Party nominee.  About 75% of such polio paralysis victims eventually get most, even all, capability back in their stricken limbs and muscles.  Roosevelt was among the minority who did not.

Sadly, for those who do recover, there is a high incidence of PPS – Post Polio Syndrome.  After many years, even after decades, the previously afflicted muscles begin to slowly weaken, and may eventually fail altogether.  The biological mechanism is not understood, as the virus itself is long gone from the body, and – now that Polio is nearly totally eradicated thanks to diligent vaxxing of all children – the phenomenon may never be understood.  Perhaps the aging body just “remembers” the condition and reverts back to it.

There are other infectious diseases that can have long-lasting effects, long after the infection is beaten.  One is caused by the genus of streptococcus bacteria.  Bacteria are much larger than viruses, but just as devious.  They are frequently “opportunistic”: the body generally fights them off well, but they still strike hard when the body is run down, perhaps fighting another infection (often viral), or there is a large cut or scrape to the skin, as often happens to young boys.

Strep bacteria have distinct proteins on their cell coating which the human body’s immune system identifies as antigens: something to attack and kill.  But sometimes the body is too run-down to fight the bacteria off quickly, or perhaps, after the age of Fleming, the use of antibiotics is delayed.  When strep hangs around the body for a while, the immune system gets over-programmed to attack the marked bacteria’s protein in its cell coating.  Unfortunately, that protein is very similar to other proteins that the body needs, such as in the muscles of the heart. And tissue in the joints.  The result is Rheumatic Fever.  It is usually a life-long struggle.  It’s an auto-immune disorder: the body attacks itself.

It was probably not uncommon to suffer such an infection along with a viral infection … like polio.

1906, Athens. The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold another Olympic Games competition to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the first modern era Olympics, also held in Athens.  Dubbed the “Second International Olympic Games of Athens”, they were the first clear forerunner to the much spot-lighted and hyped-up Olympics we know today.  Well planned, highly promoted, and separate from a World’s Fair. The track and field events are held near the center of ancient Athens, in the Panathenaic Stadium, a magnificent edifice, fully worthy of the Olympics, which remains today the only stadium built entirely of marble. So magnificent, in fact, that it was used as a main venue for the 1896 and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, as well as 1906.

Olympic Stadium, Athens, Olympiakó Stádio Athinon

Ray Ewry successfully defends his Olympic Championship in two events, the standing high jump and standing long jump.  After the 1904 games, the standing triple jump was removed from the Olympic event list, for which Ray and his aging body were grateful.  A tad discouraged by failing, yet again, to reach the height and distances of his previous performances, Ray nonetheless takes the time to scoop up some soil from the Athenian Olympic field and take it back to America.

June, 1881.  School is out.  Ray and his friends spend many muggy days playing in and around the old horse and wagon trails, taking time to splash about to cool off and “rinse off” in the fetid waters of the nearly abandoned Wabash Canal, part of the lengthy Erie & Wabash canal system.  Catching a few frogs was not out of the question.  Such “boy things” were commonly done, and no one thought much about it.

In June Ray caught a bad cold, perhaps a flu, with fever, chills and aches.  His greatest fear was missing the Tippecanoe County Fair.  To him the Fair’s highlight would be the Wheelbarrow Frog Race, to be held on July 4th.

Such “Frog” races were rather new to America, and especially Tippecanoe County.  Apparently the highly entertaining, laugh-a-minute race idea came along with immigrants from Italy.  The general idea is that each contestant gets a wheelbarrow (with low sides, or even no sides) and a frog.  Place a frog on each wheelbarrow and run.  Race distances were from a few hundred yards to a mile.  You must complete the race with both a wheelbarrow and a frog upon the wheelbarrow to win.

Frogs are generally placid and stay put … until the slightest bump or turn occurs.  Whereupon they jump off, and the unfortunate contestant must discard their wheelbarrow, stop running the race, and start running after their frog – hopefully retrieving it quickly.  It was not uncommon, and considered within the rules, that contestants would bump each others wheelbarrows.

Fortunately for Ray, he recovered from his summer “bug” after a few days, and Mary Elisha allowed him to participate in this hilarious half-mile race.  A bunch of young boys with small wheelbarrows and frog aboard (perhaps caught in the canal) took off from the starting line.  Along the dirt race path each participant, of course, had his frog escape from time-to-time: that’s the whole idea and the source of the fun.  Sometimes boys would catch each others’ escaped frogs (rules say one needs “a frog” to win, not “the frog you started with”). It was such fun for all of them and for the spectators!!

While chasing his escaped frog Ray began to feel tingling in his legs, like something he’d never felt before.  Each time the frog escaped and he chased it down, the tingling experience was of short duration; yet, each time it was longer and more intense; and each time he ignored the funny tingling and began running the race again once he had his frog aboard his wheelbarrow.  Coming down the home stretch Ray felt like he had a chance to win. The leader was just a few strides ahead. He ran and pushed as hard as he could.  No sense risking losing his frog now.  At full stride, the tingling returned.  It turned to weakness. The faster he tried to run the weaker his legs became.

With what seemed like the whole county watching, Ray fell face first onto the race path.  Had he stumbled?  Horrified, Mary Elisha and others watched as he tried to get up and complete the race.  But Ray couldn’t get up.  His legs were completely paralyzed.  At 7-½years old.

1908, London.  The Games of the III Olympiad are again, and for the last time, held as part of a World’s Fair.  The IOC had found, from experience in 1900 and 1904, that holding the games concurrent with such a grand Fair was not consistent with their vision for the future of the games…  especially after the success of the 1906 games in Athens, which stood alone, and shone greatly.

The 1908 games were awarded to Italy, to be hosted in Rome. Unfortunately, the catastrophic 1906 eruption of Vesuvius had stressed the Italian government greatly, and they backed out as host of the games.  London, which was to host another grand World’s Fair in 1908 (they had hosted what is arguably the first modern World’s Fair, in 1851) would now host the Olympics for the first time.  [Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960, and the achievements of Wilma Rudolf there are not without remarkable parallels to Ray Ewry.  London hosted again in 1948 and 2012].

At the astonishing age of nearly 35 (for a track and field athlete) Ray Ewry again defends his Olympic title in both the standing Long and High jumps, eking out height and distance just barely ahead of 2nd place.  Quietly both proud of his achievement and also a tad disappointed in his slipping numbers, Ray takes home the last two of his ten Olympic first place awards.  He is 10 for 10, winner of 10 events and undefeated in his Olympic career.  Unheard of even today for a multiple gold medal winner.

1881-1891. Young Ray is distraught and discouraged by his condition: Paralyzed and bed-ridden.  Mary Elilsha refuses to give up, reaching out to doctors and medical centers far and wide.  There is full consensus: this is a life-long condition.  Ray is forever paralyzed.  But one doctor provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps some physical therapy could possibly help.  It might well have just been a simple kind thing to say to a grieving “mom” like Mary.  No sense heaping more grief on her, and Ray.

Mary runs with this advice.  She finds a woman with a therapy background willing to spend time with Ray.  Some research suggests her name was “Kate”, but the source is not firm. Nevertheless, she quickly moves past massage and assisted range-of motion stretches; she improvises with a peach basket, cutting two holes in the bottom and hanging it from a rope suspended over a pulley on the barn.  Ray, wheelchair-bound, was lifted into the basket, its height adjusted with the pulley so that his feet barely touched the ground.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Ray spent endless hours in the basket.

“Push Ray, Push!”

Slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the basket was lowered – first by Kate, then after she had left, by Mary Elisha.  As it was lowered, although unknown to Ray for some time, he could support ever more weight, and this allowed him to flex his legs, exerting his muscles over greater range of motion.

By the time Ray reached his senior year in high school, he was still using crutches. But he could get himself into and out of the basket, raise and lower it himself, and he was growing in several ways.  Ray was growing stronger – much stronger.  He was also growing to be quite tall, now reaching 6 feet. And he was a superior student.

By the end of his senior year he was walking.  After 11 years of paralysis.  He enrolled at nearby Purdue University and started participating in the track club.  He continued his own training and therapy, keeping careful notes, and training with the club.

In 1894 Ray completed a degree in engineering, and moved on to a few years as an Associate Engineering Professor at Purdue.  His intellect and his physical prowess were catching a lot of attention.  Since freshman year, Ray began winning track events, although at a club level and against mostly regional schools.

Ray Ewry and the Athenian Olympic Stadium. At right his Olympic shirt bears the Winged Foot insignia of the New York Athletic Club

Later in the 1890s, Ray got the opportunity to move to the New York area, with a position designing and building ships for the US Navy.  As a coincidental bonus, he was also offered a sponsored membership at the exalted New York Athletic Club, where he could continue training and competing.  It was they who sponsored his participation in the Olympics. And provided a training site for him.

 

1910-11. Despite his age, Ewry had every intention of competing in the 1912 Olympic Games, in Stockholm. He continued his training and kept meticulous notes.  Outwardly upbeat about his chances of qualifying to be on the US team, inwardly and in his notes his mood was a bit darker.  His joints ached; not just his knees and not just when he trained.  It was everywhere. And he could feel his leg muscles weakening, despite his disciplined workout and training regimen.

It’s hard to tell the difference between the effects of aging and the combined effects of Post-Polio Syndrome and Rheumatic Fever.

In 1911, aged 38, while training for the Olympic tryouts, he suffered a knee injury.  These had occurred before, and he always recovered and worked through them.  Not this time. He just could not get through it this time.  After a few months of further training and therapy Ray decided it was time to retire from competition (although he remained active in the sport for decades, both coaching and judging at events).

After a very distinguished career with the Navy (as a civilian) Ray was recruited by the city of New York City to help further develop their water supply infrastructure.  The large city was still growing, and they would soon need not only more water, but better systems to deliver it.  Ray spent a lot of time over the next decades touring the state, inspecting and directing implementation of his designs, many of which are still providing steady, faithful service today.

Along the way, Ray married a local Lafayette girl, a lass named Nelle Johnson, several years younger than he, who had taken kindly to him when he was young, shy and struggling with polio paralysis.  They had only one child, a girl named Mary Elizabeth, who usually went by Betsy or Bets.  Sadly, Betsy got very early Alzheimer’s, and all of her memories of her father were lost.  Her only son, Thomas Carson, Ray’s only grandchild, a music industry professional, compiled much of Ray’s lesser-known history through much personal research. His work was a great resource to me in writing this essay.

Ray passed away in 1937 just before his 64th birthday.  One would normally think that is quite young for an athletically accomplished man who attended faithfully to his health.  I can’t find the circumstances, but it seems it was a quick slide at the end and might well have been negatively affected by the health issues of his youth … which followed him  through most of his adult life.

In 1928 Ray Ewry was invited back to Purdue to be present at the dedication of the new Ross-Ade Football Stadium.  As Purdue’s most accomplished athlete ever (and perhaps most accomplished engineer), he was the guest of honor.  For the ceremony, and unknown to almost everybody, Ray brought with him a small jar of soil from the Olympic Field at Athens, still untouched after more than two decades.  For the surprise highlight of the dedication ceremony, Ray spread the hallowed ancient Olympic soil upon the stadium field of his Alma Mater.

Ewry’s Olympic record of ten championships held up for many decades. In fact, so far, it has only been broken once, by the superhuman Michael Phelps, who has won 23 gold medals.  He broke Ewry’s record of 10 when he won his 7th through 14th Olympic Gold Medals at the Beijing Games, in 2008.  However, Phelps is not undefeated, as he won zero medals in 2000 (at Sydney, age 15) and has 28 overall medals (also the most ever) against “only” 25 golds.

It should be noted that several decades later, in 1949, the IOC decided that the 1906 Games were not “Real Olympic Games” and purged all records of those games from their official list. Most historians of athletics disagree, however, and they do indeed count these games and awards, since they were highly attended, highly promoted as Olympics, and set the trajectory for how the games evolved. So, officially, I suppose, per IOC (and Wikipedia and others) Ray Ewry has only eight Olympic championships. But I am with the consensus of historians: we emphatically say ten!

Thank you, Ray Ewry, “The Human Frog”, for showing us that anything is possible if we keep pushing our boundaries and continually try to better ourselves, even in times of strife, viruses, and disease… and beyond.

Joe Girard © 2021

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnote (1) Today, the Tower is only visible from this site if one peers carefully between trees growing in the park and new buildings built later in the 20th century. Here is a painting of an aerial view of the 1900 fair, which was likely made from a sketch that was made by an artist aloft in a balloon.  The athletic field is the green space across the river. It is possible that the old Theirs city wall, which was quite close to the park and fields, could have obscured the view, despite being heavily damaged during the siege in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

1900 World’s Fair. Athletic Field is the green space across the river. Arial Painting by Lucien Baylac, based on Balloon observations.  The Observation Wheel (Grande Roue) was about 354 feet tall, higher than the huge wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 Fair in Chicago, and also used at the 1904 Fair in Saint Louis.

 

________________________________________________________________________________

Various sources, among very, very many …

Before Leaping To 10 Golds, Athlete Beat Polio : NPR

Ray C. Ewry | American athlete | Britannica

Biography of Ray Ewry <small>(1873-1937)</small> – TheBiography.us

The Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center – College of Engineering – Purdue University

Ewry begins Olympic career with 3 titles in 1 day in Paris – Washington Times

Olympic Lyon and Abbott

Olympic Reigns

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.

Glen Echo Clubhouse, 1904. Converted from the Hunt Mansion. Normandy, Missouri

Glen Echo Clubhouse, 1904. Converted from the Hunt Mansion. Normandy, Missouri

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).

George S. Lyon, the only Olympic Golf Gold Medalist (until 2016, in Rio).

George S. Lyon, the only Olympic Golf Gold Medalist (until 2016, in Rio). Defending Champion for 112 years.

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.

Margaret Abbott on golf course, circa 1904

Margaret Abbott on golf course, circa 1904

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).

George Seymour Lyon's 1904 Olympic Golf Gold Medal

George Seymour Lyon’s 1904 Olympic Golf Gold Medal

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

 

Notes:

  1. a biographical book (and possible movie) is coming out on George Lyon soon.  You can find out more here: http://www.georgelyon.ca/
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Miscellaneous resources:

http://www.womengolfersmuseum.com/Famousgolfers/AbbottMargaret.htm

http://www.georgelyon.ca/search-for-gold/

http://www.ottawacommunitynews.com/sports-story/5806459-richmond-born-george-lyon-only-olympic-gold-medal-winner-in-golf/

the search for Margaret Abbott, by Paula Welch: http://library.la84.org/OlympicInformationCenter/OlympicReview/1982/ore182/ORE182s.pdf

http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/blog/olympics-female-gold-medalist/

 

  • Chicago loses the 1904 Olympics: http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JOH/JOHv12n3/johv12n3k.pdf