Olympic Archives

The progression of the early Olympic Games (Paris 1900 to Stockholm 1912)

Melosport’s Countdown to London 2012 coverage continues today with – The Progression of the early Olympic Games (Paris 1900 to Stockholm 1912)


Paris 1900 Olympics

In 1900, Baron de Coubertin brought the Games to his homeland, France. The Games were held as part of the Exposition Universelle, ‘World’s Fair’ which celebrated the world’s achievements during the 19th century. Less than two years prior to the Paris Games, the Union des Societes Francaises de Sports Athletiques (Union of the French Societies for Athletic Sports – USFSA) decided that they held the right to organise any form of sport during the ‘World Fair’.

The IOC had little choice but to pass over control to a new committee which oversaw every sporting event during the World Fair. The term Olympics was seldom referred to during the Games as the French preferred Concours internationaux d’exercices physiques et de sport” (International physical exercises and sports). The media commonly reported on the Games as the International Championships / International Games / Paris Games. The Games were spread out over five months and due to the muted promotion of the ‘Olympics’, many athletes did not even realise that they had taken part in Olympic Games.

1900 Paris Olympics summarised

  • Wrestling and weightlifting were dropped but 13 new sports were introduced. Motorcycle racing, ballooning, cricket, croquet, basque pelota (racquet ball – against a wall), a 200m swimming obstacle race and underwater swimming were all new events which never featured again in future Olympics.
  • Women participated at the 1900 Olympics with Charlotte Cooper (pictured) becoming the first female Olympic Champion after winning the singles tennis tournament (and later the doubles).
  • Alvin Kraenzlein (USA) set an existing Olympic record by winning four individual Golds (competitors were presented with cups and trophies) in the 60m sprint, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles, and the long jump.
  • American athletes dominated in Track and Field. They took 13 podium positions out of a possible 21 in the sprints and Hungarian, Rudolf Bauer, was the only non-American Olympic Champion in the Field events, winning the discus.
  • There was controversy in the marathon as American runners complained that the top two finishers, both French, had taken a short cut as they were the only runners not to be covered in mud.
  • A combined Swedish and Danish team defeated a French team in the tug of war final.

Compared to the Athens Games, the 1900 Olympics fell short of expectations. The politics from both committees and authorities, diluted the Olympic message.

St Louis 1904 Olympics

In 1904 the Games were also held at the same time as the World’s Fair, resulting in a lengthy competition where the events were spread over four months. No lessons had been learnt from 1900 and as such the Olympics became such a side-show to the World Fair that they were almost lost.

Due to the lack of non-American competitors, (many of the world’s athletes stayed away from the Games due to the location plus the Russo – Japanese War), the Games were amalgamated with the US National Championships. Boxing, free style wrestling and decathlon made their debuts in 1904. Such was the United States dominance that they won 78 Gold medals with second placed Germany only winning four (USA won 239 medals in total compared to Germany’s 13).

The marathon was the most notable event during the St Louis Games as Frederick Lorz who crossed the finish line in first position, taking the gold medal, was later proven to have travelled most of the distance in a car. The eventual and legal winner, Thomas Hicks, was given a few doses of brandy mixed with strychnine-sulfate by his trainers, which almost killed him. Luckily, Hicks was treated immediately by doctors after collapsing at the end of the race.

London 1908 Olympics

The Olympics made their way back to Europe in 1908. The fourth Olympiad was originally planned for Rome but due to the city of Naples being destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 1906, the Italian government diverted all funds possible into the regeneration of Naples.

Despite having only two years notice, London stepped in and delivered an extremely well organised Olympic Games. A 68,000 capacity stadium was built in White City with the running track approximately 530 metres long (three laps equated to one mile).  In the middle of the stadium, there was a pool built for swimming and diving events (these were the first swimming events not held in open water), plus there was an arena for wrestling and gymnastics in the stadium.

The 1908 Games set a precedent by standardising a set of sporting rules, making them applicable across all nations. Before this agreement, countries had their own rules resulting in their own interpretations and ultimately endless disagreements during competition.

Unsurprisingly and as per previous Olympics, the most talked about incident of the London Games was during the marathon. The marathon was fixed at 42 kilometres (26 miles). An additional 195 metres were added to the distance ensuring that the race finished below the royal box in the stadium. Italian, Dorando Pietri (pictured below) was the first runner to enter the stadium for the final stage of the race only to collapse twice and then run in the wrong direction. Once he finally found the right path he was helped over the line by two officials and was then disqualified for being aided. Although the gold medal was awarded to second placed American, Johnny Hayes, Pietri took all of the glory, topped off by a guilded silver cup presented to him by Queen Alexandra.

The London 1908 Games were also the first to hold winter events (figure skating). It was also the first time that the famous Olympic doctrine of ‘the most important thing about the Olympics is taking part and not winning’ was first proclaimed – in St Paul’s Cathedral by an American bishop.

Great Britain finished the Games top of the medal table with 56 Gold medals (146 medals overall) compared to second placed USA’s 23 (47 medals overall).

Stockholm 1912 Olympics

After the success of the London Games, the fifth Olympiad travelled north to Scandinavia. 1912 was all about efficiency. The Swedes ensured that automatic timing devices were used for the track events in addition to photo-finish technology plus a public address system.

Stockholm 1912 also introduced the longest cycle race in Olympic history which was a 320km (199 miles) road race. Wrestling also became an endurance event as the middleweight Greco-Roman semi-final between Russia’s Martin Klein and Finland’s Alfred Asikainen lasted a lengthy 11 hours.

The pentathlon and decathlon were both won with considerable margins by Jim Thorpe, a native American, but he was disqualified due to a breach of the Olympics’ rule of amateurism. Apparently, Thorpe had accepted a sum of money to play baseball before the Games. 70 years later in 1982, the IOC decided to reinstate Thorpe as the winner of the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon events, presenting his daughter with a Gold medal.

Sadly, in 1912, Portuguese runner Fransisco Lazaro, became the first Olympic athlete to die during an event after he suffered a fatal heart attack during the marathon.

Also during the marathon, Japanese runner Kanakuri Shizo went missing as he fell unconscious during the race and was taken in by a farming family. He left Stockholm without informing officials and completed the race 50 years later!

The Stockholm medal table was tight as USA won 25 Gold and 63 medals overall compared to the hosts who won 24 Gold and 65 medals overall. Following the earlier debacle of including the Olympics during the World Fairs, the London and Stockholm Games had put the Olympics firmly back on track.

Two years later and those plans were derailed due to the first World War. Following the conclusion of WWI, the next games took place in Antwerp in 1920.


Coming soon on Melosport – The Olympics after WWI and during the Great Depression (Antwerp 1920 to Berlin 1936)


– Athens 1896 – The Inaugural modern-day Olympic Games

The ancient Olympics and the revival of the modern-day Games

Categories: Olympic Archives

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