This post has nothing to do with genealogy, only because I can’t tie it to my people in any fashion. Maybe Kevin’s ancestors in Norway can make this claim, but I sure can’t. It does have a little bit to do with history, though.
It’s a Friday night, Val is with Kevin, and I’m in my recliner with my animals close by (okay, one cat is almost sitting on my head) and I’m watching the Olympic channel. It’s that time where the 2020 Olympic qualifiers are in progress. Tonight’s sports capturing my attention are men’s indoor volleyball (that should come as no surprise to you, right?) and women’s gymnastics. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I absolutely love watching the Olympics: both winter and summer. I become the quintessential couch potato. I also “cheat” to get scores ahead of time when they are available. No, I’m not apologizing for it either.
As I sit here in awe of the athletes who have donned my screen tonight, it made me wonder. How long has the United States participated in the Olympics? That was easy enough to find out: the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. We sent 14 athletes and won 12 medals. The events were all in what we know as track and field. The participants were all from New England, and they represented our country well. The 1896 games were considered the first worldwide modern Olympics.
There was obviously no television, and radio didn’t really become a household thing until the 1920s. I’m interested in how the athletes were able to enter the world stage as well as how they knew about the games. Was the rest of the country aware of their efforts? Did they get results? Did they even care? Did my ancestors have any interest in the Olympics?
I did a perfunctory search on Newspapers.com and immediately learned some interesting facts: 1) the “summer” games were actually played in the spring. They closed in mid-April; 2) the most detailed articles seemed to be papers in New England and New York. To be fair, I found other publications that discussed the final results, from San Bernardino, California, to Sydney, Australia; 3) Most of the articles were one paragraph, though the Los Angeles Herald devoted two entire paragraphs to the results!;4) the predecessors to the respective international Olympic federation proposed that the games be open to international competition every four years in during Eastertide, between April 5-15 in Athens, Paris, London and New York, respectively; 5) France apparently was in the forefront to opening the games outside of Greek athletes.
Furthermore, an article appeared in College Life (Emporia, KS) on 13 Apr 1896 discussing the dismal prospects of sending Americans abroad to participate. The authors/editors felt that the distance would be a huge factor, and that we wouldn’t be able to send our best athletes to compete. I wonder if they eat crow on the other side?
Let’s jump to the 1900 Summer Olympics. They were held in Paris as part of the World’s Fair. The US medaled in Athletics (modern day Track and Field), Cycling, Sailing, Tennis and Golf. The articles I found for these games were published nationally, and were no longer concentrated in the Northeast. Though they were more numerous and longer than 1896, they pale in comparison to the news we now see.
In 1896, the games were not designated as the “summer” Olympics. They were THE Olympics. There wasn’t a winter Olympics. I know you’re wondering, so I’ve taken the liberty of doing a little research on them as well.
In 1901, the first winter competition came into existence and was called the Nordic games. The competitors were athletes from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. The competitions were also held every four years in Sweden.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the games were political (Sweden and Norway were at odds) and that the organizers were vehemently opposed to the creation of the winter Olympics. As the objectors died, so did the Nordic games. They only existed until 1926.
The Winter Olympics weren’t originally known or called as such. It was first called International Sports Week, which took place in January and February 1924 in Chamonix, France. If you’re old like I am, you’ll remember that the winter and summer games were long held in the same year, every four years. (The split into every two years happened in 1992.) The Summer Olympics were held in Paris. By 1928, the IOC was in existence, and they officially announced the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the second Winter Olympics.
I wonder when the idea to compete nationally and internationally took hold in mainstream America? Were the families as supportive and obsessed as we are today? Did they see the Olympics as a source of American pride? Did hearing about them make them want to hear more? We know that athletes of color were denied the opportunity to compete. Were women celebrated or reviled as well? How did these athletes persevere and grow sports into the iconic events we expect?
I don’t have anyone in my family who has competed on the Olympic stage, so I really don’t know.
I welcome your comments so we can all learn!