Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
August 23rd, 2016

Closing Out the 2016 (& 1904) Olympics

Dad & I at the 1980 Winter OlympicsWell, the Rio games are finally over.

And I can say that it went well. Meaning, my absurd Olympic appetite was fully sated in the last two weeks.  I watched hours upon hours of every badminton match, fencing duel, and steeplechase that I could.

During my sixteen-day obsession, I took the opportunity to post daily Olympic history tidbits over on the Distilled History Facebook page.  Many who follow Distilled History on social media may have seen a few of them, but I’m not so sure. I still can’t figure out how Facebook handles “pages”. Unlike personal pages, Facebook seems to think Distilled History is a business (despite being classified as a “personal blog”) and keeps insisting that I pay to “boost” my posts to more readers. It’s a bit frustrating because I’m really not trying to make money off the page (or the blog). I just want to use it as a place to post fun St. Louis history finds and additional content that was edited out of larger blog posts.

Anyway, since I didn’t “boost” any of my Olympic history facts, I think Facebook made sure fewer people saw them. So, I decided to combine them all into a single post here. So, this isn’t a “new” post, but I have four or five in the works that should be coming along soon.

Finally, a few of these facts are related to my post about Olympian George Eyser that was published when the Rio games got underway. Click here to get caught up on that great story.

Glen Echo Country Club

112 Years Later, Golf is Back

In the Rio games, the first Olympic gold medal in golf was awarded (to Justin Rose of Great Britain) since Canadian George Lyon won the event at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. A Canadian who didn’t pick up a club until the age of 38, Lyon amused spectators during his final round in 1904 by cracking jokes and doing hand stands while waiting for his turn to hit. The event was contested at the Glen Echo Country Club, a course that still exists in the suburb of Normandy, just west of St. Louis. Glen Echo was not only the first 18-hole golf course in St. Louis, but the first 18-hole course west of the Mississippi River. But wait, there’s more. The 1904 American golf team also included a man named Albert Lambert. Lambert’s father was Jordan Lambert, the founder of a pharmaceutical company that is known for creating Listerine. Lambert was also an aviation nut, and not only was he one of the primary financial backers of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, he is the “Lambert” in our “Lambert-St. Louis International Airport”.

They Ran on a Trapezoid

Like many events at the 1904 Olympics such as cycling, lacrosse, roque, archery, and weightlifting, George Eyser’s gymnastics events were held in the infield of the Olympic Stadium (now known as Washington University’s Francis Field). Built in 1902, the stadium could hold 19,000 spectators and featured a track that looks much different from what we saw in Rio. Unlike the 400 meter track (1/4 mile) that is standard in track & field today, the 1904 games featured a 536.44 meter track (1/3 mile). The track featured one very long straightaway, four turns, and three shorter straights. In 1984, the facility underwent a major renovation which included a new 400m synthetic track and the spectator capacity was reduced to 4,000. In the attached photograph, the octagonal “Women’s Magazine Building” (now University City’s City Hall) can be seen in the background.

The 1904 Olympic Stadium
Oliver KirkBantams and Feathers

Along with events such as freestyle wrestling and the decathlon, the sport of boxing made its Olympic debut at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis. Held in the Physical Culture Gymnasium (next to the Olympic Stadium) on September 21st and 22nd 1904, the boxing competition had only seventeen boxers compete in seven weight classes. And since the event lacked world-class competition (only Americans participated), the boxing competition is not regarded as one of the highlights of the games. However, it did produce a bit of good Olympic history. Oliver Kirk, a fighter from the Business Men’s Club in St. Louis, won the gold medal in the men’s bantamweight division. But when only two boxers entered the featherweight class, Kirk fought the winner and was awarded a second gold medal. To this day, Kirk is the only man in Olympic history to win two gold medals in two separate weight divisions at the same Olympics.

Anton Heida

Austrian or American? Both.

Anton Heida, George Eyser’s primary gymnastics foe at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, has a good story to tell himself. Heida had one of the greatest Olympics of all time in 1904 when he won five gold medals and one silver medal in a single day. Heida is also the only athlete to have competed in the Summer Olympics for two different countries in the same games. An Austrian by birth, Heida competed as an Austrian during the first gymnastics competition held in July 1904. But in October 1904, Heida became a citizen of the United States. When Heida won six medals during the second gymnastics competition held on October 29, he competed an as American.

That’s a Pretty Painting! Here’s a Medal.1928 Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam

Many people aren’t aware that the Olympics used to contain art competitions. From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded for works of art, including architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. These five subjects were even broken into sub-categories, with awards for subjects like “lyric literature”, “graphic arts”, and “municipal planning”. Remarkably, the reason why the art contests were removed from the Olympic program is not because they weren’t sports (although all art entries were required to be “inspired by sport”), but because the artists were considered professionals and not amateurs. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, it can even be said that the stadium itself was a gold medalist. The stadium’s design was the gold medal winner for architect Jan Wils.

The Irish Whale

I was a discus thrower in high school, so as the track and field events got going in Rio, I decided to take a look at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics discus results. The winner was an Irishman named Martin Sheridan from New York. Part of a group of athletes known as the “Irish Whales”, Sheridan also won three medals in the 1908 London Olympics (one being the successful defense of his 1904 discus title). When he wasn’t throwing things for sport, he worked as a New York City policeman. I also found discus isn’t the only thing I have in common with Sheridan. When Sheridan died in the 1918 (in the notorious flu epidemic), he was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, the same cemetery my great-great grandfather is buried in. The photo below shows Sheridan competing in the 1908 games (and note the awesome garters he’s sporting).

Martin Sheridan

Dick Roth at the 1964 Tokyo OlympicsDick Roth’s Appendix

It wasn’t just the St. Louis Olympics that had me saying “no way”. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, American swimmer Dick Roth was stricken with an acute case of appendicitis just days before the swimming events started. Japanese doctors insisted on an immediate operation, but Roth adamantly refused. He also refused medication, so it was decided to simply pack him in ice and hope for the best. When he swam the 400 meter individual medley three days later, he not only won gold, he broke the world record. Interestingly, his post-swimming career has been just as interesting. In 1999, he wrote a book titled “No. It’s Not Hot in Here: A Husband’s Guide to Understanding Menopause”.


Olympic Shoes

They Didn’t Come in Gold Back Then

When I was a fledgling freshman shot putter and discus thrower in high school, I actually dropped something like $100 on a pair of shoes designed specifically throwing shot puts and discuses. Such shoes have no tread whatsoever, making it easier for hurlers to spin and slide inside throwing circles. But I also remember hiding them from my coach, because I knew he would scoff at my insistence that I’d throw farther as a result of wearing them. Well, I can say that I scored a grand total of TWO points that year, and I’ll go to my grave believing those shoes are the reason it wasn’t zero. Anyway, while flipping through old records of the 1904 Olympics, I found an A.G. Spalding advertisement for track and field gear. Back then, a pair of running shoes would cost the 1904 version of Usain Bolt a whopping five bucks.  Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $130 in 2016.

Matilda Scott Howell

It Runs (Or Maybe Shoots?) in the Family

In the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, the only official event in which women competed was archery. And the archery competition was dominated by one woman in particular: Matilda Scott Howell. Born in Warren, Ohio and representing the Cincinnati archers, Howell swept the field, winning gold in both individual events and the team event. Interestingly, her father also competed as an archer in the 1904 games. His name was Thomas Foster Scott, and he was 71 years old when he finished in 17th and 13th place in his two events. He may not have won a medal, but to this day, Thomas Scott still holds the record for being the oldest competitor at an Olympic games.

Dwight Davis Tennis, Anyone?

In the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the tennis competition was held from August 29 to September 5, 1904. The event was dominated by the Americans, which makes sense since only one of the competitors (a German) wasn’t American. And although he didn’t win a medal, the American team featured a historic figure of note. Dwight F. Davis, a prominent citizen from St. Louis finished 10th in the singles event and 5th in the doubles. Today, Dwight Davis is known for his political career (he was Coolidge’s Secretary of War), and the international tennis event he helped create as a member of the Harvard Tennis Team in 1900. The tournament was originally known as the “International Lawn Tennis Challenge”. Today, the tournament is known for the trophy Dwight Davis commissioned (and paid for himself) that was awarded to the winner: The Davis Cup.

The Sport of Roque

Don’t Call it Croquet

The Olympics have always featured sports that many Americans aren’t familiar with, and the 1904 Olympics were no exception. The only time the sport of roque was contested during the Olympics was at the 1904 St. Louis games. A variant of croquet, roque is unique in that it is played on a hard surface (such as clay or packed sand) and the court is surrounded by a short wall. The fast surface allows players to apply spin to a ball and the wall can be used to bank balls (like in billiards). Croquet and roque also feature similar playing implements including mallets and stakes, but in roque “wickets” are known as “arches”. At the St. Louis games, the roque competition was held on the infield of the Olympic Stadium from August 3 until August 8, 1904. The event was won by the “Father of American Roque”, a 64 year-old from Springfield, Massachusetts named Charles Jacobus.

Abandoned Venues? Not in St. Louis!The abandoned canoeing & kayaking venue in Athens

A big knock on the Olympics these days is that host cities are forced to spend millions building event venues that are quickly abandoned once the games are over. What happens in Rio remains to be seen, but recent hosts such as Athens, Beijing, and even Sochi are now faced with high maintenance costs for facilities that are no longer needed (for example, a baseball stadium in Greece) Well, at least St. Louis got that part of their Olympics right. Not only does the Olympic Stadium still stand, it is now home for Washington University athletics. Same with the gymnasium (also at Washington University) that held the 1904 boxing and fencing events. The 1904 golf course is still here (Glen Echo Country Club), and Creve Coeur Lake, which hosted the rowing events in 1904, is still where someone can watch a regatta. The only venue that no longer exists today is the “U.S. Life Saving Exhibition Lake”, where the swimming and diving events were held. More information about this man-mad lake (created specifically for the 1904 World’s Fair), can be found in this post I wrote back in 2012.

Water Polo at the 1904 Olympics

Some Were Olympic, Some Weren’t

To this day, Olympic historians bicker about what was an Olympic sport in 1904 and what wasn’t. Organizers filled the entire summer of 1904 with all sorts of athletic contests, including handicap events (assigning advantages through scoring), high school and college competitions, and various amateur organization championships. Today, the International Olympic Committee officially recognizes only seventeen of the sports contested, including athletics, gymnastics, golf, tennis, and others. Even tug of war, a sport contested at every Olympics from 1896 to 1920, is included in that list. However, many other sports contested that summer, including baseball, basketball, water polo, lacrosse, and even hurling, are not considered “Olympic” for one reason or another.

Other Distilled History posts about the 1904 St. Louis Olympics:
Weightlifter Fred Winters at the 1904 Olympics
August 12th, 2016

George Eyser’s Big Day at the 1904 Olympics

Clicky Thing

Here’s what I typed into Google a few days ago:

“What is that clicky thing on an Olympic bow?”

While enthralled with NBC’s archery coverage of the Rio Olympics over the past week, I kept noticing this little piece of metal (or maybe it’s plastic) on an archer’s bow flip down and “click” (it makes an audible “click”) just before an arrow was released. And I was sure Google would give me some fancy techno-archery term to describe something only what an Olympic archer would know.

Well, it turns out it’s just a clicker. Seriously. They call it a “clicker”.

Anyway, the purpose of a clicker is to let the archer know that the arrow has been drawn back enough to effectively fire it. It’s usually made of strong wire or carbon, and the audible “click” is the signal to fire away. And once again, I’m enlightened.

A Turnverein Team at the 1904 Olympics

Actually, this little nugget of information helps explain why I am so happy the Rio Olympics are finally here. The Olympics are filled with great history, and each time I watch the games, I find myself wanting to know more. So my Olympic experience is not just watching the games. I use the time as an opportunity to flip through reference books, click-through Wikipedia, and ask Google for the stories behind the sports that are played, where they have been played, and most importantly, the people who have played them. As I figure out what a “clicker” is, I’m also learning that the South Koreans are the best archers in the world (at least in the Olympics), that humans have been shooting arrows at things for over 70,000 years, and that the only sport women could participate in at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics was in fact, archery.

And speaking of St. Louis, all of this reminds me how great it is that the city I now call home once hosted the Summer Olympics.

The Horizontal Bar Competition at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics

The St. Louis games suffer a poor reputation in most Olympic histories, but it’s still fun to know we had one. Only twenty-two cities in the world have hosted the summer games, and it’s a feather in our cap to say we are one of them. Even better, we flat-out stole the Olympics from our midwest rival Chicago, the city the games were originally awarded to. That’s a story (and a good one) for another day, but I first have to tell the story of George Eyser, a story I’ve been saving since I last wrote about the Olympics in 2012.

George Louis Eyser was born on August 31, 1870 in Kiel, Germany. His family emigrated to the United States when he was fourteen, first settling in Colorado and then in St. Louis. He became an American citizen in 1894, was a bookkeeper by trade, but other than two remarkable facts, little else is known about George Eyser’s story. The first fact is that at some point in his youth, George Eyser was run over by a train and lost his left leg. The second is that despite this tragedy, George Eyser became an Olympic champion, winning six gymnastics medals (three gold, two silver, and one bronze) in a single day at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

The Concordia Turnverein Gymnastics Team in 1908

Before I get to the details of Eyser’s special day, let me set the table a little bit. A key reason why many Olympic historians believe the St. Louis games came up short is that many of the world’s best athletes didn’t bother to show up and compete. Many even use George Eyser to help make this point. If a man with a wooden leg could win gold, the guy who won silver must have been a pushover. It’s an argument that does have some merit. Getting to the middle of North America in 1904 wasn’t an easy task, and the 1904 Olympic organizers decided to stretch the Olympic events out over four months to coincide with the 1904 World’s Fair. To complicate things, organizers also broke the gymnastics competition into two separate events. One competition was held in early July of 1904, and the other in late October. As a result, many of the best European athletes decided not to make the trip. And although Germany sent a team of athletes to compete in the July competition, they didn’t stick around to compete in October.

But I believe George Eyser’s accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. The level of competition he faced certainly wasn’t as skilled as it is today, but the sport of gymnastics was in its infancy in 1904. Despite this, Eyser undoubtedly faced athletes skilled in gymnastics. One example is Anton Heida, a 25-year old Austrian from Philadelphia who won six gymnastics medals of his own, including five golds. Heida was also the 1902 national champion in the long horse vault, and was a respected gymnastics athlete. In fact, the only event in which Heida did not win gold was the parallel bars competition. And it was George Eyser who beat him.

Concordia Turnverein

In what must have been a fascinating event to watch, Eyser and Heida also tied in the long horse vault (known simply as the “vault” in today’s Olympics), and each man was awarded a gold medal. Eyser’s performance is remarkable because unlike events that didn’t require the use of leg power, such as rope climbing or the horizontal bar, the vault competition certainly did. And the 1904 event didn’t include a springboard like it does today. George Eyser was required to launch himself over the apparatus and safely land not just once, but three times. His impressive final score matched that of a national champion who had both legs intact.

Turner Meet Headline

Another reason I’m inclined to believe George Eyser was exceptional is because of how popular gymnastics was among German Americans at the time. This was due to an actual gymnastic movement, or Turnverein, founded by man named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn at a time when Germany was occupied by Napoleon’s forces in the early 19th Century. Established for the purpose of cultivating health and vigor through gymnastics, the Turnverein movement came to America when German immigration was at its peak in the mid-1900’s. As a result, hundreds of Turnverein (also known as “Turner”) societies were founded all over the country. In large cities like St. Louis, Turner halls became the athletic, social, and political centers for thousands of German immigrants settling into a new life in America. More than a dozen Turner halls were founded in St. Louis, and each one contained a gymnasium filled with German athletes learning gymnastics, practicing gymnastics, and making gymnastics a part of their daily lives. It was also common for Turner clubs to participate against each other in organized gymnastic competitions and athletic meets, with members representing their club first and country second. And this is how George Eyser became an Olympian. Along with the South St. Louis Turnverein, St. Louis was represented by the Concordia Turners at the 1904 games against clubs from cities like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and many others. In fact, no fewer than thirteen Turnvereins participated in the 1904 Olympics, and one must assume that George Eyser was just one of many with sufficient gymnastic ability to win gold.

Concordia Turnverein First Active Class

The popularity of gymnastics among German Americans could be one reason why the 1904 Olympic organizers decided to hold two separate gymnastic competitions. The events contested in July were restricted to Turners only, and were even referred to as the “Turner Games”. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in the days before the competition that “It will without doubt be the greatest competition ever held by Turner societies”. The Post-Dispatch also reported that the German Turnverein en route from Berlin was favored to win, but it wasn’t to be. When the German team arrived in St. Louis, it was discovered that the German athletes didn’t all belong to the same Turnverein. And since that is how the American athletes were organized, the Germans were barred from the team competitions.

Turners racing in the 100 yard dash

George Eyser didn’t find Olympic glory in the July competition. His Concordia team finished fourth in the team event (Anton Heida’s Philadelphia club won gold), and the all-around competition included track and field events that didn’t suit George Eyser’s unique disability. Not surprisingly, Eyser finished 118th (dead last) in the 100 yard dash, 118th in the long jump, and 76th in the shot put. However, despite a wooden leg, Eyser’s time of 15.4 seconds in the 100 meter dash is certainly impressive. The winner of the event, Max Emmerich of Indianapolis, won with a time of 10.6 seconds, just five seconds faster than Eyser.

Eyser & Heida's Medal Fight

On October 29, 1904, when the second set of gymnastic events began, George Eyser’s prospects for success were far better. The October events were apparatus-only, allowing Eyser to capitalize on his upper-body strength and technical gymnastic ability. As a result, he won gold in the parallel bars, rope climbing, and as mentioned earlier, tied for gold with Anton Heida in the long horse vault event. To round out his impressive day, Eyser won silver medals in the all-around and side horse, and won a bronze on the horizontal bar. Regardless of how the St. Louis Olympics are viewed today, George Eyser’s accomplishment of six medals in a single day is an impressive one. He faced quality competition in a sport that was widely contested at the time. And it wasn’t until 2008, when Natalie du Toit swam for South Africa at the Beijing Olympics, did another Olympic athlete compete with an artificial leg.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t able to find much else about the rest of George Eyser’s life. But it certainly seems that his competitive fire continued to burn. Along with continuing his gymnastics career with the Concordia Turners, I found George Eyser in a newspaper article published six months after the St. Louis Olympics ended. It seems there is more to the story between Anton Heida and George Eyser’s Olympic competition. The article states that the 1904 parallel bars gold medal was originally awarded to Anton Heida as the result of a scoring error. But when the scoring error was identified and Eyser proclaimed the winner, Heida refused to relinquish the gold medal. And as the article suggests, the matter was likely headed to court. Unfortunately, I can find no record of the resolution.

But I have another week of Olympics, so I have plenty of time to keep digging.

The Drink

Caipirinha

With all the Turners jumping, swinging, and flipping in this post, I suppose I should be celebrating the Olympics by drinking something at least a bit German. But with the games set in Rio De Janeiro, I simply couldn’t resist toasting George Eyser with anything but Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha.

Prior to the opening ceremonies of the Rio games, the caipirinha is actually a drink that I have never tried. I’ve been told often that is delicious, but for one reason or another, I’ve never ordered it. But as the Rio Olympics drew closer, I made sure to have a bottle of cachaça on hand.

Cachaça is the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil and the key spirit in the caipirinha. It’s distilled from sugarcane juice and has close ties to rum (but I’ve also been told not to call it a “Brazilian rum”). Anyway, it’s safe to say I became well-acquainted with the caipirinha since the opening ceremonies a week ago. I had a splitting headache the next morning, but it reminded me that I now have another cocktail for the bar book. It is a tart, refreshing drink that is not only perfect for Olympic watching, but for surviving the dog days of summer St. Louis is so eager to provide.

My caipirinha recipe:

  • 2 ounces Uma Gold Cachaça
  • 2 sugar cubes
  • 1/2 lime cut into half-wheels

Muddle sugar cubes and lime wheels in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and 2 ounces of cachaça (or maybe a bit more if you are in the fourth hour Olympic opening ceremonies) and shake vigorously. Pour into a rocks glass and enjoy.

And don’t forget to raise your glass to George Eyser, a true St. Louis Olympic champion.

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