America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism. Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats—among them a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, and mud slinging—for the amusement of Caucasian spectators. Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.