Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Middle History — Olympic Heritage? Here?

In Middled’s first thematic gesture, I thought a historical account might nudge us that much closer to an understanding of this place, this middle. From where better to embark than St. Louis’ arguable zenith, that event for which World’s Fair Doughnuts on Vandeventer Avenue in my soon-to-be neighborhood (review forthcoming) is named?

But the 1904 World’s Fair is a tired story in this town. Check out the Missouri History Museum—they’ve got interactive exhibits. Yet, by studying the Internet, I’ve encountered something notable. Where did the first Olympic Games held on American soil go down? The third such event in the Modern Period after the 1896 Olympic revival? The first in which African-American athletes participated? I was shocked too.

Not long after the St. Louis Brown Stockings changed their name to the Perfectos and then promptly to the Cardinals (good move), the citizens of Chicago were provided with further reason to begrudge my people. Against the wishes of the International Olympic Committee President and an entire metropolis, the 1903 Olympics were moved about 297 miles southwest and rescheduled to coincide with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (that’s the World’s Fair). That same IOC president, Pierre de Coubertin, would later decry the St. Louis Olympic games, utilizing an ugly word: “failure.” Having skim-read two entire books at the St. Louis County Library, an oddly popular place on Monday afternoon, I would offer other words: cultural, kooky, near-death!

Eleven countries hailing from four continents participated in the games, though Europe was only represented by Germany, Greece and Hungary. There were fifteen events, all of which I won’t mention, though they did have tug of war, proven by the fact that somebody won a silver medal for it.
Women were only allowed to participate in archery because of, I suppose, the unstimulating nature of that sport. By running the sixty-meter sprint and the two hundred-meter hurdle, George Poage became the first African-American athlete to compete in the Olympics, finishing not in first in both events. Each American Olympian represented one of the major athletic clubs, the most competitive being New York, Chicago and Milwaukee, the insignia of which they wore on their jerseys.

Here’s where this long-winded post might get interesting. The marathon event took place on August 30th at three in afternoon with the temperature licking the ninety-degree mark. Thirty-two men took off at the sound of the pistol, but only fourteen would finish. Two participants who did complete the race were South African Tsuana tribesmen, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, who were attending the fair as part of the Boer War exhibit, having served as message runners during that conflict. Neither of them wore shoes, but I would hope that they were spared from hazing as the majority of their competitors weren’t wearing socks. Mr. Tau managed to finish ninth and might have placed higher if he hadn’t been chased more than a mile off course by a dog.

At the thirteen-mile mark, William Garcia of San Francisco collapsed and was taken to the emergency hospital where doctors pronounced that he would’ve bled to death due to a severe hemorrhage of the stomach had he not been treated sooner. Earlier, Fred Lorz had dropped out of the race with a cramp, but rode in an automobile for a few miles until he felt better and resumed running. He finished first, was quickly denounced, barred from Olympic competition for life, subsequently reinstated, and went on to win the Boston Marathon a few years later. The true winner was Thomas Hicks, who was poisoned (slightly) seven miles from the finish line. After running nineteen miles, Hicks asked for a glass of water. The officials tailing him in a car said he couldn’t have any, but did dampen his lips with a moist sponge. When this perfectly reasonable treatment proved inconsequential, Thomas was given two egg whites, brandy and one-sixtieth grain of strychnine. Not something New York Marathon runner, August Heffner, would probably recommend.

And I haven’t even introduced the most interesting character! Felix Carbajal, a former mailman, representing the two year-old independent nation of Cuba, raised money for his Olympic birth by running the length of his island, but squandered the entirety of his funds in a dice game in New Orleans. After hitchhiking and walking his way to St. Louis, Carbajal approached the starting line in a long-sleeved shirt, street shoes and a beret. Fellow athlete, Martin Sheridan, helped him cut off his trousers above the knee. Felix would finish fourth, but may have set a world record had he not blown sixty minutes of his time chatting with spectators in broken English and eating peaches, according to Charles J.P. Lucas, the head marathon official.

Clearly the marathon was the most thrilling of that year’s spectacles, but another non-Olympic athletic event has surfaced in the historical froth, possibly because it was the reason that famous Missourian, Mark Twain, refused to attend the World’s Fair. As the result of an eager conversation between social scientist, Dr. W.J. McGee, and James E. Sullivan, director of the St. Louis Olympics, three athletic exhibitions were put on, entitled, “Barbarian Games,” “Philippine Tribal Contests,” and “Anthropology Days.” McGee wanted to tabulate data to compare results among different native tribesmen and Sullivan wanted to “destroy the popular belief that aboriginal peoples, living close to nature, possessed natural athletic talent, and to confirm the athletic, hence racial, superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples” (see citation below). As with the marathon, the real winners in this madcap display may be difficult to identify, but the top “Anthropology Days” finishers all received American flags.

As you might imagine, all of the information and photographs in this post have been borrowed from two excellent books: America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904 by George R. Matthews (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2005) and St. Louis Olympics 1904 by George Matthews and Sandra Marshall (Arcadia Publishing, 2003).

Jeez. If you read all that, please consider yourself a Middled high honorary patron.


ernesto savage said...

I enjoyed this wonderous event relived.

May everyone be able to eat peaches while speaking broken english, like the Cuban Stallion himself.

A+ for pensmanship.

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