Paris 1900 set the annals of modern Olympic history | Sunday Observer

Paris 1900 set the annals of modern Olympic history

14 March, 2021
The Olympic Stadium Velodrome de Vincennes
The Olympic Stadium Velodrome de Vincennes

The first decade of the 20th century was an age of momentous technological progress, with the early years of the automobile, aviation and cinema offering promise of a brave new world. It was against this backdrop that the modern Olympic Games established themselves as part of the new landscape. The Paris 1900 played no small part in helping to write a glorious page in the annals of Olympic and world history. These games also represented a historic turning point with the inclusion of female athletes for the first time.

The Paris Olympics, officially known as the Games of the II Olympiad, were unique insofar as they took place over a period of five months in conjunction with the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) of 1900, in Paris, France. The competitions began on May 14, and ended on October 28. There was no opening or closing ceremony per se; a procession of gymnasts into the Velodrome de Vincennes, took place during the national festival of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France on June 3, 1900.

These were the first Games organized under the IOC founder and the first President, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. At the first Olympic Congress, which took place in Paris from June 16 to 23, 1894, he proposed that the first Olympic Games be held in 1900. The delegates were unwilling to wait for six years and a decision was made to hold the first Games in 1896 in Athens and the second in 1900 in Paris. It was during the 1894 Congress that the IOC was officially founded and to this day, June 23 is celebrated around the world in the form of Olympic Day.

The Organization of Paris 1900

The Baron de Coubertin believed that holding the 1900 Games as part of the World’s Fair would help public awareness of the Modern Olympic Games and submitted elaborate plans to rebuild the ancient site of Olympia, complete with statues, temples, stadia and gymnasia.

A committee consisting of able sports administrators of the day was appointed and a provisional program was drawn up. On November 9, 1898, the “Union of the French Societies for Athletic Sports” (USFSA) put out an announcement that it would have sole right to any organized sport held during the World’s Fair. It was an empty threat but Viscount Charles de La Rochefoucauld, the head of the organizing committee, stepped down rather than be embroiled in the political battle.

The IOC conceded control of the Games to a new committee which was to oversee every sporting activity. Daniel Merillon, the head of the French Shooting Association, was appointed as the president of this organization in February 1899. He proceeded to publish an entirely different schedule of events, with the result that many of those that had made plans to compete in concordance with the original program withdrew, and refused to deal with the new committee.

The new organizing committee held an enormous number of sporting activities. The sporting events rarely used the term of “Olympic.” Indeed, the term “Olympic Games” was replaced by “International Physical Exercises and Sports” in the official report of the sporting events of the Exposition Universelle of 1900. De Coubertin had commented later: “It’s a miracle that the Olympic Movement survived that celebration.”

Participating Nations and Medal Count

According to an IOC imprint, 24 nations sent competitors for Paris 1900. Modern research shows that athletes from 28 countries participated. The concept of “national teams” chosen by National Olympic Committees did not exist at that point in time.

In total, 997 competitors - 975 men and 22 women took part in 19 different sports. This number relies on certain assumptions about which events were and were not “Olympic.” The decision to hold competitions on a Sunday brought protests from many American athletes, and were expected to withdraw rather than compete on their religious day of rest.

The host nation of France fielded 72% of all athletes (720 of the 997) and won a total of 112 medals with 29 gold, 44 silver and 39 bronze medals. The United States athletes won the second-most in each with 19 gold, 14 silver and 15 bronze medals, while fielding fewer than 8% of the participants (75 of 997). The Great Britain won 16 gold, 7 silver and 9 bronze medals.

The gold medals were not awarded at the 1900 Games; instead, most of the winners were given cups or trophies. In some events, a silver medal was given for first place and a bronze medal for second. The IOC has retrospectively assigned gold, silver and bronze medals to competitors who earned 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, respectively, in order to bring early Olympics in line with current awards.

Alvin Kraenzlein, the Most Successful Athlete

At the 1900 Games Alvin Kraenzlein of the United States won four events in athletics with new Olympic records: 60m (7.0 sec); 110m High Hurdles (15.4 sec); 200m Low Hurdles (25.4 sec); Long Jump (7.185 m) to become the most successful athlete.

His four individual gold medals remain the unmatched record for a track and field athlete at a single Olympic Games. Kraenzlein’s pioneering technique of straight-leg hurdling brought him two world hurdle records in addition to his five world records in long jump. He is known as “The Father of the Modern Hurdling Technique.”

Sports at Paris 1900

It appears that the IOC has accepted Olympic historian Bill Mallon’s recommendation for events that should be considered “Olympic,” based on retrospective selection criteria - restricted to amateurs, international participation, open to all competitors and without handicapping. The Paris 1900 was the only Olympic Games in history to use live animals, pigeons as targets during the shooting event.

Only athletics, swimming and fencing had competitors from more than ten nations. The swimming competition, proved a success, attracting plenty of interest and athletes from a wide spread of countries. The Australian contingent caused a stir by introducing a new swimming style - front crawl or in modern Olympic parlance, freestyle. The other big hits were the gymnastics and cycling. However, the sport that attracted the biggest international field was fencing.

Swimming and water polo were considered to be two disciplines within a single sport of aquatics in the Olympic context. Among the other sports, only croquet was not an international competition, being contested by French players only. Like all the Olympic events widely regarded as official, there were 71 scholastic and 92 military events across a range of sports conducted during the 1900 World’s Fair.

Athletics: Throughout July 1900, Pierre de Coubertin himself was on hand to preside over the athletics events, or “running, jumping and throwing” competitions as they were called in the Bois de Boulogne. The United States swept the board winning 16 gold, 13 silver and 10 bronze medals from 23 events.

There was no track laid and races took place on an uneven field of grass littered with trees. The hurdles in the 400m hurdle race were 9.1m long telegraph poles arranged on the track and the race, uniquely in Olympic competition, had a water jump on the final straight.

Alvin Kraenzlein won 4 individual gold medals in athletics, a feat that has never repeated in the history of Olympic Games. Walter Tewksbury of the United States won five medals - two gold medals in 200m and 400m Hurdles; two silvers in 60m and 100m; a bronze in 200m Hurdles.

American domination was even greater in the field events. Ray Ewry started his Olympic career with a sweep of the three standing jumps - High, Long and Triple, while Irvin Baxter finished second to Ewry three times and won both the High Jump and Pole Vault.

The most contentious of all the events – the Marathon was intended to follow the track of the old city wall. The course was poorly marked out and runners often got lost and had to double back on themselves before continuing. On some parts of the course, runners had distractions from cars, bicycles, pedestrians and animals. Michel Theato of France emerged the winner.

Sailing: The 1900 sailing regatta differs from every other Olympic regatta in a number of ways. Five nations shared the medals. France and Great Britain were the most successful. In most classes there were two distinct ‘finals,’ boats were assigned time handicaps according to their weight within each class.

The IOC initially recognized the winner of the first race in each class as Olympic champion except in the case of the 10-20 ton class, which was decided on aggregate time over three races. However, currently the participants of both first and second races in 3 classes are present in the IOC database as medalists. It appears that one more race in each of 2 other classes has been recognized by the IOC.

Shooting: Switzerland’s Konrad Staheli was the outstanding marksman of the Games, taking a trio of titles and leading his country to the top of the shooting medal table. The medals were shared between six different nations. There is a debate as to whether the live pigeon shooting event was a full Olympic event, Belgian Leon Lunden shot twenty-one birds on his way to the championship.

Up to thirty unofficial shooting events were also held, most involving professional marksmen. Research has shown that one of the medal events in the IOC database (25m rapid fire pistol, also called military pistol cat. 6) was contested by professionals.

Swimming: The muddied waters of the Seine hosted the swimming events in 1900. Run with the current, the races produced very fast times by the standards of the day. John Arthur Jarvis of Great Britain, Frederick Lane of Australia and the German Ernst Hoppenberg each won two titles.

Lane received a 50-pound bronze statue of a horse as a prize. A couple of unusual events were held. The obstacle race required both swimming underneath and climbing over rows of boats while Charles de Venville stayed submerged for over a minute to win the underwater swimming event.

Water Polo: Great Britain were unchallenged, scoring 29 goals and conceding only 3 in their 3 matches. In the final, they limited the number of shots on goal to avoid humiliating their opponents.

Fencing: Nineteen nations were represented and was held in a field near the cutlery exhibit at the 1900 World’s Fair. French fencers dominated the proceedings but both Cuba and Italy also took titles.

The early rounds of the foil competitions were judged on style rather than the actual result. This meant that some fencers were eliminated without losing a contest while others were defeated and still progressed to the next rounds.

Archery: The history of the archery competition at 1900 Olympics is one of confusion. The IOC currently lists six events with Olympic status, but a case has been made that as many as eight other events equally deserve to be considered part of official Olympic history. Belgian Hubert Van Innis won two gold and one silver medals.

Equestrian: Equestrian made its debut at the Olympic Games with three jumping events being held, plus two other events. The Italian rider Gian Giorgio Trissino won a gold and a silver. He narrowly missed making Olympic history by winning two medals in the same event. Competing with two different horses in the high jump, he jointly won the gold medal and finished in 4th place on his second horse.

Rowing: The coxed fours descended into farce when officials changed the qualifying criteria for the final several times. The first final was held without any of the original qualifiers, who had withdrawn as a protest against the decision to run six boats on a course laid out for only four.

The officials then decided to run another ‘final’ for the boycotting crews. Both events are considered official Olympic competitions. The crews saw the advantage of having ultra-lightweight coxswain and recruited local boys and some could have been under ten years.

Tennis: A high quality men’s tournament saw Laurence Doherty reached the final when older brother Reggie stepped aside and let his sibling advance to the final. The two refused to play each other in what they considered a minor tournament.

On July 11, a landmark was reached in the history of the Olympic Games when Charlotte Cooper, already three times Wimbledon champion, took the singles championship to become the first individual female Olympic champion. A few days earlier she had teamed up with R. F. Doherty, himself a winner of three medals in Paris, to claim the mixed doubles title.

Basque Pelota: The Chistera form of the game was played at this, the sport’s only appearance at full Olympic level. Two pairs entered and the Spanish partnerships of Amezola and Villota became their nations’ first Olympic champions. The Mano form of the game and a Chistera tournament for professional players were contested unofficially.

Cricket: After the withdrawal of teams from the Netherlands and Belgium, only two teams played in the cricket tournament. A team made up of players from two Paris clubs consisting almost exclusively of British expatriates, played a touring team from the southwest of England.

An emphatic second innings bowling performance from Toller captured victory for the visitors as time appeared to be running out for them. If the French had held out for five more minutes the game would have been a draw. Knowledge of the game would have been lost but for the forethought of John Symes, a member of the victorious team, who kept a scorecard in his own writing.

Croquet: The croquet tournament was notable as it marked the first appearance of women at Olympic level. Madame Despres, Madame Filleul-Brohy and Mademoiselle Ohier were eliminated in the first round of competition. All players were French. A single paying spectator attended the tournament, an elderly English gentleman who travelled from Nice for the early stages. An unofficial two-ball handicap competition was also held.

Cycling: The home nation won six of the nine medals available. A number of unofficial events were held for both amateurs and professionals.

Golf: On October 4, Margaret Ives Abbott recorded the best round (47) on the nine-hole course to win the gold medal. In doing so she became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold, and also the reigning women’s golf champion for the following 116 years, but she remained unaware of her feat right until her death in 1955.

Football: The first football champions at the Olympics were the London amateurs of Upton Park F.C. A crowd of around 500 spectators saw them defeat their French rivals.

Gymnastics: 135 gymnasts took part in a competition that involved elements from track and field and weightlifting as well as gymnastic disciplines.

Polo: Eight separate tournaments were held in 1900 and only the Grand Prix is counted as an official medal event. Entries were from clubs rather than countries, and the winning Foxhunters club comprised English, Irish and American players.

Rugby: Three teams competed in the Rugby tournament. A French representative team defeated a team from the German city of Frankfurt and Moseley Wanderers from England. The Moseley team had played a full game of rugby in England the day before they made the journey to Paris.

They arrived in the morning, played the match in the afternoon and were back in their home country by the next morning. The proposed game between the British and German sides was cancelled, and both credited as silver medalists.

Tug of War: A combined Sweden/Denmark team, made up of three competitors from each country, defeated the French team to win the title. Edgar Aaybe was a journalist covering the Games for a Danish newspaper and was asked to join the team when another puller was taken ill.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)