Olympic Games of 1904

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Olympic Games of 1904



The 1904 Olympic Games were held in St. Louis, Missouri, as an adjunct to a world’s fair, the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition, usually called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The fair titularly celebrated the centennial of Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory from the French, although that had occurred in 1803. The fair was originally scheduled for 1903, but plans could not be finished in time, so it was moved ahead to 1904. The Olympics themselves were less than memorable. With the 1900 Olympics, they have been termed “the farcical Olympics.”

The 1904 Olympic Games were originally awarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to Chicago. But James Sullivan, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), planned to hold competing sporting events during the world’s fair. Chicago did not have the money that the fair organizers did, and people there realized that athletes would choose between the two, and likely compete in St. Louis. Eventually, Chicago capitulated and ceded its rights to the Olympics to St. Louis.

Sullivan was then put in charge of organizing the Olympic Program. He planned a huge program that lasted from early July until late-November of 1904. Sullivan considered everything that was contested during the world’s fair as part of the Olympics. It is noted in the Official Guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, “By a decision of the International Olympic Committee all sports and competitions during the World’s Fair are designated as Olympic events, with the exception of competitions for the championships of local associations” (p. 138). It is more likely that this was a decision made by Sullivan, as he had little consultation with the IOC in 1904. He has left a quagmire for Olympic historians, who still debate which events should be considered Olympic in 1904.

Former Missouri governor David Francis ran the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Francis and the director of exhibits, Frederick Skiff, planned the exhibits to demonstrate man and his works, emphasizing education, with the exhibits separated into twelve categories. The pertinent ones to the study of race were Section 10 on Anthropology and Section 12 on Physical Culture. The Olympic Games were considered a part of Section 12.

The exhibits at the 1904 fair were designed to demonstrate the progress of humanity from barbarism to the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon civilization, and this was exemplified by a series of historical and anthropological exhibits contrasting various races and peoples. Emphasizing this, there were American Indian exhibits and exhibits of Philippine natives both of which contrasted modern civilization against the relative barbaric cultures of those two groups at that time.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened on Saturday, April 30, and drew an estimated crowd of 200,000 on the first day. There were over 540 amusements and concessions, mostly located around the main thoroughfare, the Pike. The Pike featured “Cliff Dwellers, Zuni tribes, and Moku Indians who had never been shown before.” Sections of the Pike demonstrated “Mysterious Asians with camel rides along its winding streets, and the Geisha Girls entertaining visitors to Fair Japan” (Mallon 1999, p. 10).

The 1904 Olympic Games took place primarily on the campus of Washington University, with the one-third mile track and its accompanying stadium having been specially built for the occasion. Alongside the track was a new building containing a gymnasium and locker rooms, which was then state-of-the-art for physical culture. The building and stadium still exist today.

The Olympic Games can be considered to have opened on July 1, with a series of gymnastic events. But on May 14, Sullivan staged the Missouri State High School Meet at the Olympic Stadium. He called it the

Olympic Interscholastic Meet and a small opening ceremony preceded it.

The track and field athletic events were considered the showcase of the Olympic Games and were held from August 29 until September 3. It was one of the few Olympic sports in 1904 that had a true international flavor, as 117 athletes from ten nations competed.

It is often written that George Poage of the University of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Athletic Club was the first person of African descent to win an Olympic medal, at the 1904 Games. This is incorrect. In 1900, a French team won a medal in rugby football, and one of the players was Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, an Algerian doctor who played for the French team.

But Poage competed in the 200-meter hurdles, the 400-meter hurdles, and the 400-meter race at the 1904 Olympic Games. He won a bronze medal in both hurdles events and finished sixth in the 400. His 400-meter hurdle bronze came on August 31 and this is the “first medal” to which many writers have alluded. However, there are further documentary problems with the simple assertion that he was the first black Olympic medalist. On that same day, Joseph Stadler of the Cleveland Athletic Club, an African American, competed in the standing high jump, and won a silver medal.

Perhaps more ironic was the presence of the first black African competitors in the Olympic Games. In the marathon, two runners represented South Africa. They had been workers at the South African exhibit during the world’s fair. They had been dispatch runners during the recent Boer War and were noted to be “the fleetest in the service.” They have been listed in most record books as Lentauw and Yamasani, but Professor Floris van der Merwe (University of Stellenbosch) has found that they were Tsuana Tribesmen named Len Taw and Jan Mashiani. They both finished the marathon, Taw in ninth place and Mashiani in twelfth.


More important to any study of race and racism may be the so-called Anthropology Days that were held as a sideshow to the Olympic Games on August 12 and 13. These were a series of events open to minority, aboriginal, or native people from various lands who were present at the Physical Culture exhibits of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Among the tribes that competed were Pygmies, Patagonians, Filipinos, Native American Indian tribes, Japanese Ainus, and certain Asian tribes. The events included throwing bolos, mud fighting, and climbing a greased pole.

Sullivan later wrote of the rationale for the Anthropology Days by commenting that he had several conferences with William John McGee, chief of the department of anthropology for the Fair, related to the athletic abilities of many of the foreign tribes that were being exhibited at the Fair. McGee described startling rumors pertaining to the speed, stamina, and strength of many of the athletes at the exhibits and he and Sullivan decided to set up a two-day athletic meet for them.

McGee was well-qualified for his position. He was at the time the president of the American Anthropological Association. From 1893 to 1903 he had been ethnologist in charge of the government Bureau of American Ethnology, resigning only to assume duties as chief of the department of anthropology for the World’s Fair.

Reflecting the mores of the time, Sullivan and McGee planned the Anthropology Days for August, “so that the many physical directors and gentlemen interested in scientific work could be present and benefit by the demonstrations” (Mallon 1999, p. 205). In fact, reading Sullivan’s rationale for the Anthropology Days, it is apparent that this was intended to be a scientific study of the athletic abilities of the “savages.” Interestingly, one of the spectators for the contests was the Apache chief Geronimo (1829–1909).

In addition to the so-called aboriginal events described above, several standard athletics events were contested: 100-yard run, shot put, 440-yard run, broad jump, high-hurdle race, one-mile run, and the weight throw event. In most cases, the events were separated into heats, or perhaps one could more accurately say, segregated. As an example, in the 100-yard run there

were sections for Africans, Lanao Moros (Filipinos), Patagonians, Asians (Syrians from Beirut), Native Americans of the Cocopah tribe, and Native American Sioux. There were no finals, in which the winners of the heats would have competed against each other.

The results were the opposite of the rumored superb athletic abilities of the various tribes. In fact, the athletes performed very poorly. In most cases, this was attributed to the fact that the events were strange and unnatural to them, and not ones that they usually practiced. Sullivan noted of the running events, “With eight or ten men on the mark it was a pretty hard thing to explain to them to run when the pistol was fired. In running their heats, when coming to the finish tape, instead of breasting it or running through, many would stop and others run under it” (Mallon 1999, p. 209). Sullivan eventually concluded:

It may have been a mistake in not having another day, when perhaps, the different interpreters could have explained to the savages more about what was expected of them, but nevertheless, the ‘Anthropology Days’ were most successful and interesting, and ones that scientific men will refer to for many years to come. It taught a great lesson. Lecturers and authors will in the future please omit all reference to the natural athletic ability of the savage, unless they can substantiate their alleged feats. (Mallon 1999, p. 209)

John Wesley Hanson’s full report on the World’s Fair contained a chapter on the Department of Anthropology entitled “The Study of Mankind.” In it he noted, “The special object of the Department of Anthropology was to show each half of the world how the other half lives, and thereby to promote not only knowledge but also peace and good will among the nations; for it is the lesson of experience that personal contact is the best solvent of enmity and distrust between persons and peoples” (Hanson 1904, p. 265). The chapter had subsections on “Central African Pygmies,” “Tehuelche Giants of Patagonia,” “Northern Japanese Ainus,” and several sections on Native American Indians. Interestingly, that report contains not one word on the Olympic Games.

The Guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition noted: “The Ethnological exhibit includes representatives of 23 Indian tribes, a family of nine Ainus, the Aborigines of Japan, seven Patagonian giants, and many other strange people, all housed in their peculiar dwellings, such as the wigwam, tepee, earth-lodge, toldo, or tent. Among the strangest people assembled are the Batwa pygmies from Central Africa. The various Filipino tribes constitute a complete anthropological display in themselves” (Lowenstein 1904, p. 92).

The 1904 Olympic Games are considered to have ended on November 23, at the finish of an Olympic football (soccer) tournament, won by a Canadian team from Galt, Ontario. But numerous non-Olympic sporting events were contested during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, including a series of American football exhibition games held from September through November. The last sporting event contested during the 1904 World’s Fair was such a football game, played appropriately enough by two schools devoted to training Native Americans, the Carlisle Indian School and the Haskell Indian School. Carlisle, which would later train the redoubtable Jim Thorpe, won the game, 38–4.

The founder of the modern Olympic Movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was not present in St. Louis. He was only informed of the happenings there by the Hungarian International Olympic Committee member, Ferenc Kémény, who did attend and wrote de Coubertin, “I was not only present at a sporting contest but also at a fair where there were sports, where there was cheating, where monsters were exhibited for a joke.” Later writing of the Anthropology Days, Coubertin presciently said, “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men, and yellow men learn to run, jump, and throw, and leave the white men behind them” (Coubertin 1931, p. 79).

Thus in many ways, the 1904 Olympic Games are important to the early study of race and racism at the Olympic Games. They saw the first American blacks win medals. They saw the first South African competitors who, pre-dating the days of apartheid, were also black men. But most importantly, they were the only Olympic Games at which aboriginal and native peoples were paraded about on exhibition and exposed to ridicule under the guise of a scientific study.

SEE ALSO Olympic Games of 1936; Track and Field.


Barnett, C. Robert. 1996. “St. Louis 1904: The Games of the IIIrd Olympiad.” In Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement, edited by John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Bennitt, Mark, ed. 1905. History of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. St. Louis: Universal Exposition Publishing.

Coubertin, Pierre de. 1931. Mémoires olympiques. Lausanne, Switzerland: Bureau international de pédagogie sportive. Findling, John E. 1990. “World’s Fairs and the Olympic Games.” World’s Fair 10 (4): 13–15.

Hanson, John Wesley. 1905. The Official History of the Fair St. Louis, 1904: The Sights and Scenes of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. A Complete Description of the Magnificent Palaces, Marvelous Treasures and Scenic Beauties of the Crowning Wonder of the Age. St. Louis, MO.

Lennartz, Karl, and Thomas Zawadzki. 2004. Die Spiele der III.Olympiade 1904 in St. Louis. Kassel, Germany: Agon Sportverlag.

Lowenstein, M. J., ed. 1904. Official Guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. St. Louis, MO: Official Guide Co.

Lucas, Charles J. P. 1905. The Olympic Games 1904. St. Louis, MO: Woodward & Tiernan.

Mallon, Bill. 1999. The 1904 Olympic Games: Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Sullivan, James E. 1905. Spalding’s Official Athletic Almanac for 1905: Special Olympic Number, Containing the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1904. New York: American Sports Publishing.

Bill Mallon, M.D.