Olympic Games, American Participation in

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OLYMPIC GAMES, AMERICAN PARTICIPATION IN. The modern Olympic Games are a quadrennial sports event open to athletes of all nations. Except for the Moscow Games of 1980, American athletes have participated in all editions of the modern games.

Origins and Organization of the Games

The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece, where the first recorded games were held in Olympia in 776 b.c. Similar games were held in Corinth, Delphi, and Nemea. The Roman emperor Theodosius outlawed the games as pagan (they were held in honor of Zeus) in a.d. 393. The French baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the games, starting in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Chamonix, France, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. (Since 1994, the Winter Olympics have been held two years after the Summer Olympics.)

U.S. host cities have been St. Louis (1904), Los Angeles (1932, 1984), and Atlanta (1996) for the Summer Olympics, and Lake Placid, New York (1932, 1980), Squaw Valley, California (1960), and Salt Lake City, Utah (2002), for the Winter Olympics. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is in charge of selecting, training, transporting, and housing the American delegation to the games and of selecting the U.S. cities that will bid to host the games, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, chooses the host city and determines the program of the games and the rules of amateurism.

U.S. Athletic Records in the Games

From 1896 through the Summer Olympics of 2000, U.S. athletes won a total of 2,268 medals (930 gold, 714 silver, 624 bronze). While medals are not officially tallied by national origins (until 1908, athletes were not even part of a national team and the original charter of the Olympic movement specifically required that they compete as individuals), the United States won more gold medals than any other nation, including the Soviet Union (526), Germany (407), Italy (187), and France (181). Most (2,004) of these medals were won during the Summer Olympics (825 gold, 632 silver, 547 bronze). With 154 medals (59 gold, 55 silver, 40 bronze), the United States ranked fourth in the Winter Olympics in 1996, behind Germany (96 gold medals), the Soviet Union (86), and Norway (83). The United States added 13 medals to that total (6 gold, 3 silver, 4 bronze) at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Sports in which the United States has traditionally reaped more medals than any other nation have been track and field (298 gold medals from 1896 to 2000), basketball (16), boxing (47), diving (47), and swimming (191). On the other hand, American athletes have usually performed poorly in cycling, fencing, handball, judo, and winter sports.

American athletes James B. Connolly (triple jump, 1896) and Charles Jewtraw (500-meter speed skating, 1924) received the first gold medals ever attributed in the first Summer and Winter Olympics, respectively. Eddie Eagan is the only U.S. athlete to win gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics (light heavyweight gold, 1920; four-man bobsled gold, 1928). Starting in 1983, the USOC created a Hall of Fame for the greatest American Olympians. Individual inductees from 1983 to 1992 are listed here, with the year and event in which the athletes won a gold medal in parentheses:

Boxing: Floyd Patterson (middleweight, 1952), Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali) (light heavyweight, 1960), Joe Frazier (heavyweight, 1964), George Foreman (super heavyweight, 1968), Ray Charles "Sugar Ray" Leonard (light welter-weight, 1976)

Cycling: Connie Carpenter-Phinney (road race, 1984)

Diving: Sammy Lee (platform, 1948, 1952), Patricia McCormick (platform, springboard, 1952; platform, springboard, 1956), Maxine "Micki" King (springboard, 1972), Greg Louganis (platform, springboard, 1984; platform, springboard, 1988)

Figure skating: Dick Button (1948, 1952), Tenley Albright (1956), Peggy Fleming-Jenkins (1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976), Scott Hamilton (1984)

Gymnastics: Bart Conner (parallel bars, team event, 1984), Mary Lou Retton (all-around, 1984), Peter Vidmar (pommel horse, team event, 1984)

Rowing: John "Jack" B. Skelly Sr. (single and double sculls, 1920; double sculls, 1924)

Skiing: Phil Mahre (alpine skiing [slalom], 1984)

Speed skating: Eric Heiden (500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, 5,000-and 10,000-meter races, 1980)

Swimming: Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (3 gold medals, 1912, 1920), Johnny Weismuller (5 gold medals, 1924, 1928), Helene Madison (3 gold medals, 1932), Don Schollander (5 gold medals, 1964, 1968), Donna de Varona (2 gold medals, 1964), Debbie Meyer (three gold medals, 1968), Mark Spitz (9 gold medals, 1968, 1972, including 7 gold medals and seven world records in 1972), Shirley Babashoff (2 gold medals, 1972, 1976), John Naber (4 gold medals, 1976), Tracy Caulk-ins (3 gold medals, 1984)

Track and field: Alvin Kraenzlein (60-meter dash, 110-and 200-meter hurdles, long jump, 1900), Ray Ewry (eight gold medals in jumps, 1900, 1904, 1908), Mel Sheppard (800-and 1,500-meter races, 1,600-meter medley relay, 1908; 1,600-meter relay, 1912), Jim Thorpe (decathlon and pentathlon, 1912), Charley Paddock (100-meter dash and 400-meter relay, 1920), Frank Wykoff (400-meter relay, 1928, 1932, 1936), Mildred "Babe" Didrikson (javelin, 80-meter hurdles, 1932), James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (100-and 200-meter dash, 400-meter relay, long jump, 1936), William Harrison Dillard (100-meter dash, 1948; 110-meter hurdles, 1952; 400-meter relay, 1948, 1952), Bob Mathias (decathlon, 1948, 1952), Malvin "Mal" Whitfield (800 meter, 1948, 1952; 1,600-meter relay, 1948), William Parry O'Brien (shot put, 1952, 1956), Bob Richards (pole vault, 1952, 1956), Lee Calhoun (110-meter hurdles, 1956, 1960), Milton Campbell (decathlon, 1956), Glenn Davis (400-meter hurdles, 1956, 1960; 1,600-meter relay, 1960), Bobby Joe Morrow (100-and 200-meter dash, 400-meter relay, 1956), Al Oerter (discus, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968), Ralph Boston (long jump, 1960), Rafer Johnson (decathlon, 1960), Wilma Rudolph (100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter relay, 1960), Billy Mills (10,000 meter, 1964), Wyomia Tyus (100-meter dash, 1964; 100-meter dash and 400-meter relay, 1968), Bob Beamon (long jump, 1968), Willie D. Davenport (110-meter hurdles, 1968), Lee Evans (400-meter dash and 1,600-meter relay, 1968), Richard "Dick" Fosbury (high jump, 1968), Bill Toomey (decathlon, 1968), Frank Shorter (marathon, 1972), Bruce Jenner (decathlon, 1976), Edwin Moses (400-meter hurdles, 1976, 1984), Fred Carlton "Carl" Lewis (9 gold medals: 100-and 200-meter dash, 400-meter relay, long jump, 1984; 100-meter dash, long jump, 1988; 400-meter relay, long jump, 1992; long jump, 1996)

Weightlifting: John Davis (super heavyweight, 1948, 1952), Tamio "Tommy" Kono (lightweight, 1952; light heavyweight, 1956)

Wrestling: Dan Gable (lightweight, 1972)

Track and field and swimming were again the big U.S. medal earners at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. In track and field, Maurice Greene won two gold medals (100-meter dash, 400-meter relay). Michael Johnson, after winning the 200-and 400-meter dash in Atlanta in 1996, won two more gold medals (400-meter dash, 1,600-meter relay). Marion Jones won five medals, three of them gold (100-and 200-meter dash, 1,600-meter relay). In the swimming events, Lenny Krayzelburg won three gold medals (100-and 200-meter backstroke, 400-meter medley relay) and the women's team captured three gold medals in relays (400-meter medley, 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle). The men's basketball team, even though less dominating than its predecessors, won its third straight gold medal by defeating France (85–75), while the women's team earned its second straight gold medal when it defeated Australia (76–54). In super heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling, Rulon Gardner beat heavily favored Alexandre Kareline of Russia.

The Political and Economic Importance of the Games

The 1896 Athens Olympic Games attracted only 245 athletes (including 13 Americans) from fourteen countries competing for nine titles. The first games ever held on American soil, the 1904 St. Louis Summer Olympics, were ancillary to the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. Only thirteen countries sent athletes to the then-remote location (Olympics founder Coubertin did not even attend), and American athletes, the only participants to many competitions, won 80 percent of the gold medals. Such a lopsided result was never repeated. More than one million tickets were sold for the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and ten million for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where ten thousand athletes from 197 countries shared the 271 gold medals awarded in twenty-six different sports ranging from archery to table tennis and badminton. The growth of the games paralleled that of the American public's interest in them. Many sports like track and field, amateur skating, and gymnastics attract television audiences much larger than those sports usually garner in non-Olympic events. The Olympic Games are the most closely followed international sports competition in the United States. They also appeal to sections of the American population, such as women, who have a limited interest in other sports events.

Given the Olympics' popularity among American consumers, the economic value of the games reached great heights in the late twentieth century. The commercial success of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, which netted a profit of $223 million with no government help, is widely credited for ushering in the era of gigantic games dominated by corporate and television sponsor-ship. (Time magazine chose Los Angeles organizing committee president Peter Ueberroth for its Man of the Year award.) Even when the Olympics are held outside the United States, American companies provide almost half of the budget. NBC television paid $450 million for television rights (half of the $900 million worldwide rights) to broadcast the 1996 Olympics. Seven of the ten worldwide corporate sponsors for the 2002 and 2004 games are American: Coca Cola, John Hancock, Kodak, McDonald's, Time-Sports Illustrated, Visa, and Xerox. The reputation of the IOC and of the U.S. Olympic movement were tarnished when it was learned that the Salt Lake City bid committee had awarded lavish gifts to IOC members to obtain the Winter Olympics of 2002.

The Olympic Games were not isolated from outside political events; world wars forced the cancellation of the 1916, 1940, and 1944 games. African American sprinter Jesse Owens's four track-and-field medals in the 1936 Berlin games undermined the Nazis' claim to racial Aryan

superiority. (Ironically, segregation was still the rule in Owens's home state of Alabama, where he had picked cotton as a child.) At the 1968 Mexico games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals for the 200-meter dash and then raised their gloved fists in a "black power" salute while the U.S. national anthem was being played during the awards ceremony. Both Smith and Carlos were banned from the U.S. team and expelled from the Olympic village, but their protest remains as one of the most vivid images in civil rights and Olympic history.

The political use of Olympic results reached a climax during the Cold War as both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to prove their superiority in stadiums as well as in more conventional venues. In order to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter decided that his country's athletes would boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics unless the Soviets withdrew by February 1980. The Soviets refused (they remained in Afghanistan until 1988), and U.S. athletes who tried nevertheless to attend the games were threatened with loss of citizenship. At Carter's urging, many U.S. allies refused to go to the Moscow games, which only eighty nations attended, twelve less than in Montreal(1976), and forty-one less than in Munich (1972).

The 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics saw a politically charged final in the men's ice hockey event, when the American team won a 4–3 upset victory over the heavily favored Soviets. (Soviet teams had won the previous four gold medals in the discipline.) Four years later, the Soviet Union and fourteen other Eastern bloc countries (all except Rumania) boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. In the absence of such sports powerhouses as the Soviet Union and East Germany, the United States won a total of 174 medals (83 gold), more than its three closest rivals combined (West Germany, Romania, and Canada, which won a total of 156 medals, 47 of them gold).

The United States was not directly affected by the capture and death of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich games, but another terrorist attack marred the Atlanta Summer Olympics twenty-four years later. On 27 July 1996, a bomb exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person on the spot and injuring 111.


Greenspan, Bud. 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1995.

Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Olympics. Wood-stock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2000.

Young, David C. The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Philippe R.Girard

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