The Olympic Games 1904

11 August 2016


The Games of the XXXI Olympiad are now well underway in Brazil, and inspiring stories are already beginning to emerge. Earlier this week Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won gold for Great Britain in the men's synchronised 3m diving, seven years after Mears had been given a 5% chance of survival after suffering a ruptured spleen during a diving competition. The Olympic Games are a great opportunity for usually unheralded sports to take centre stage, and many of the same events were on display when the modern games first started over a century ago.

The start of a race at the 1904 Olympics. Image (c) Missouri Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The 1904 Olympics were the third modern games. As with the 1900 Games in Paris, they were held alongside a World’s Fair, in St. Louis. A number of documents in Adam Matthew’s World’s Fairs resource have material on these Olympics, with one photo album in particular catching my attention this week.

The 'Fancy Diving Contest' at the 1904 Olympics. Image (c) Missouri Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

[L.P.E. album: St Louis World's Fair, vol 3 of 11] contains images of the gymnasium, various races and swimming events, and photographs of the ‘Fancy Diving’ competition. The moves may have been fancy, but the conditions look anything but. With a simple wooden board, open water arena and limited facilities for the competitors, whether the water was blue or green probably did not concern those taking part in 1904. Even so, the somersaults, tucks and flips being demonstrated by the St. Louis divers would be instantly recognisable to a modern audience used to watching highlights from Rio 2016 on television screens.

Elsewhere in the album the photographs give a feel of a school sports day more than an international competition. The gym is reminiscent of a school hall, with crash mats and bars carefully arranged. In the athletics events, runners line up on a tightly packed start line, with the crowd close around them, and no sign of starting blocks or designated lanes. The excitement of taking part, and the joy of winning, does not seem to have been diminished though, with crowds watching on eagerly and athletes receiving trophies gratefully.

The gym at the 1904 Olympics. Image (c) Missouri Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

So if you’ve been inspired by some of the sportspeople at Rio 2016, and want to know more about the history of the Olympic Games, why not dive into our World’s Fairs collection and take a look at the stars of past Olympics.
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Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence. Open access to the clickable documents featured in this blog will be available for 30 days.

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.

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