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A North American Perspective on the Olympics



By G.D. Maxwell

The flame and the fever were ignited again in Italy last Friday as the Olympics fired up the sports business machine and Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, hoped against hope for glory… or at least a less embarrassing showing than we’ve become used to. Since a sense of history is always worth packing along on an endless journey, here, as we grind toward our date with destiny four years hence, is a reminder of where we’ve been.

776 B.C. : The Olympic Games are recorded for the first time. Held in the stadium at Olympia, Greece, they were probably run a number of times before anyone thought to write down the results. The first event was a sprint. The winner’s booty included an olive leaf, poems to his prowess, and official status as "hero forever". The winner’s name has been lost to history. There was no television coverage.

394 A.D. : The Ancient Olympics are staged for the final time in Olympia. Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolishes the Games as part of a series of reforms against pagan practices. The Athens Daily Times however reports the games are suspended because of the unpopular demand by athletes they be allowed to wear clothing while competing and because of a general lack of interest best summed up by the phrase, "Been there; done that," only in Greek.

1894 : French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposes resurrecting the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee is formed.

1896 : The first modern Olympic Games are held in Athens. Harvard student James B. Connolly wins the triple jump and becomes both the first person and the first American awarded an Olympic medal. No women are allowed to compete since de Coubertin finds them "…impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Half a million Greek sheep applaud his decision. Home country Greece tops the medal race with 47 but the US’ 20 beats the pants off the Soviet Union… which is yet to come into existence.

1900 : Held as part of the Paris Exposition, the second Games incorporate women who the French, de Coubertin notwithstanding, find intensely interesting and aesthetic competing in lawn tennis and golf. Margaret Abbot of Chicago becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic medal and Alvin Kraenzlein of the US becomes the first person to ever win four gold medals, all in track and field events.

Two Canadians, though not part of any official national team, compete. George Orton, studying in Pennsylvania, accompanies a group of Americans to Paris and brings Canada its first Olympic glory, winning the 2,500 metre steeplechase and finishing third in the 400 metre hurdles. The other Canadian fails to win Olympic glory but his name lives on as an official Olympic sponsor: Ronald McDonald.

Medal count: France 92; USA 49; Canada 2. U.S. congressmen immediately convene a subcommittee to develop derisive French jokes.

1904 : The Olympics come to America. St. Louis, already host to the World’s Fair, inherits the Games when the organizers of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Chicago, where the games are supposed to be held, refuse to allow another international event to run concurrently. The Games last for months when the World’s Fair organizers decide to hold an event every day for the duration of the Fair. Many top European athletes refuse to travel to the US Midwest but the Games produce some memorable moments.

• American gymnast George Eyser wins six medals. Eyser’s left leg is made of wood.

• Fred Lorz, returning to the finish line of the marathon to retrieve his clothes after having dropped out nine miles into the race, is declared the winner. He goes along with the judges and accepts the victory. Shortly after being awarded the win, Lorz is outed and banned for life by the American Athletic Union (AAU). He is reinstated the next year and wins the 1905 Boston Marathon.

• Thomas Hick, a Brit running for the US team, is next to finish, having been liberally dosed with strychnine sulphate and brandy by his trainers who physically support him across the finish line.

Canada shines in lacrosse competition, winning both gold – 1904 being the first Olympics to designate medals gold, silver and bronze – and bronze. A total of three teams competed; the Americans won silver. The Shamrock Lacrosse Team, consisting of ‘white’ men with names like Sandy Cowan and Ben Jamieson, won gold. The Mohawk Indians team won bronze. Team leader, Spotted Tail, a Brulé Sioux chief, singled out the fierce play of teammates Man Afraid Soap, Rain in Face and Almighty Voice as key to the team’s victory.

Medal count: USA 238, Canada 2.

1908 : The Games are held in London instead of Rome due to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius two years prior that left the Roman air highly visible. The modern marathon’s length is fixed for the first time at 26 miles, 365 yards and is won by American Johnny Hayes after Italian Dorando Pietri is first declared the winner and then disqualified because he is physically helped across the finish line by his trainers.

Canadian Bobby Kerr wins gold in the 200 metre race and bronze in the 100. And Canada continues its dominance in lacrosse winning gold. The only other team entered won silver.

Medal count: Britain 141; USA prefers not to say but more than the Soviets… who still don’t exist. Canada brings home 16 medals.

1912 : American Indian Jim Thorpe wins the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm, the only man to ever win both events. One of the competitors Thorpe beat was Avery Brundage who came sixth in the pentathlon and didn’t finish the decathlon. Women compete in swimming for the first time. The US declines to take part since the AAU bars female swimmers from competition in anything other than long skirts.

Canadian George Hogson wins gold in 400 and 1,500 metre freestyle swimming, presumably not in a skirt.

Medal count: Sweden 64; USA 63. Canada 12. Sweden?

1913 : Jim Thorpe is stripped of his gold medals by the AAU when they learn he’s been paid $25/week to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. The IOC acquiesces to the decision saying, "We’re shocked! Shocked to find Olympic athletes aren’t all unpaid amateurs."

1920 : Antwerp hosts the Games which are completely unmemorable except for the bizarre inclusion of ice hockey. Of course, there being no winter Olympics at this point, why not include ice hockey? Canada’s Winnipeg Falcons skate to gold and thus begins a dynasty… sort of.

Medal count: USA 94; Sweden 64; Canada 2. Take that Sweden.

1924 : The Games are held again in Paris so the retiring de Coubertin could see them in his homeland one more time. Johnny Weissmuller wins three gold and a bronze in the pool for the US. He later parlays his Olympic glory into Hollywood stardom playing straight man to a chimp in the Tarzan movies. The Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Faster, Higher, Stronger), is used for the first time.

Medal count: USA 99; Finland 37. No medals for the Soviets who now exist but don’t countenance such capitalistic trifles as Olympics.

1924 : The International Winter Sports Week is held in Chamonix. Two years later, it is retroactively dubbed the first Winter Olympic Games when the Scandinavian countries finally clue in to the fact they can beat the pants off the Americans at virtually any winter sport ever devised. American Anders Haugen comes in fourth in ski jumping due to a scorekeeping error. The error, discovered in 1974, results in a special ceremony to award Haugen bronze fifty years after his jump. The Canadian ice hockey team, having migrated from what are now the summer Games, finishes their qualifying round with four wins, racking up a total score of 104-2 against Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Great Britain.

Medal count: Norway, Finland, Austria and Switzerland all whip the USA… who whips Canada.

1925 : The IOC defines amateur status and bans compensating athletes for time taken away from their jobs to train or compete, rendering the Olympics a leisure-class pastime. "An amateur is one who devotes himself to sport for sport's sake without deriving from it, directly or indirectly, the means of existence. A professional is one who derives the means of existence entirely or partly from sport." A member of the IOC, on the other hand, is someone who makes a handsome living, thank you, from the perpetuation of amateur sport.

1928: The first true winter Olympics are held in St. Moritz. Sonja Henie wins the very first gold medal in women’s figure skating and, taking a page from Tarzan, goes on to star in highly forgettable Hollywood films built around her prowess on skates. She refuses, however, to skate with a monkey. Canada beats everyone at hockey; get used to it.

Medal count: Norway 15; USA 6. Ouch!

1932: The Americans host the Winter Games at Lake Placid, New York. Canada wins gold in hockey.

Medal count: USA 12; Norway 10; Canada 6. It’ll never happen again.

1932 : Los Angeles hosts the X Olympiad when no other city – mired in the Great Depression wants it. For the first time, an Olympic village is constructed. American great Babe Didrikson wins two golds in javelin and hurdles and has a third snatched from her when judges rule her high-jump style illegal. As consolation, she becomes the first woman to appear on a Wheaties box in 1935. Canadian Horace "Lefty" Gwynne wins boxing gold in the Bantam weight division with a right hook no one saw coming.

Medal count: USA 103; France 19. Take that you cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

1936: The Winter Games are held in Garmish-Partenkirchen and for the first time ever, Alpine skiing events are held. The Austrian and Swiss teams boycott though because the IOC rules ski instructors ‘Gods’ as they’re known in Austria and Switzerland are professional athletes and therefore barred from Olympic competition.

Medal count: Hitler had hoped to win it all but those impure Norwegians and Swedes got in his way. The Americans did manage to beat the Canucks who, horrors, let the Brits beat them at hockey and came home with the silver medal… their only medal.

1936: Awarded before the Nazis came to power, Berlin hosts the Aryan Olympics. In a widely-regretted gesture of friendship, the Canadian and French teams salute Hitler during the opening ceremonies. Despite Germany’s widespread, state-sponsored use of anabolic steroids and testosterone, black American track and field star Jesse Owens brings glory to the US and a world of hurt to Hitler, winning four gold medals. The US also wins the first medal in basketball… on a dirt court… in driving rain. Joe Fortenbury was high scorer with 7 points.

Medal count: Germany 89; USA 56.

1948 : The Winter Games take place in St. Moritz. Dick Button shows the world a double axel for the first time and wins America’s first figure skating medal. Canada returns to dominance on the hockey rink, winning a fourth gold in the first five Olympic Games… not counting that summer Games win. And Barbara Ann Scott becomes Canada’s darling when she wins gold in women’s figure skating.

Medal count: Edged out by Norway, Sweden and even Switzerland, the US brings home 9 medals.

1948 : The first post-war Olympiad is held in London; Germany and Japan are not invited. Italy is since everyone can beat the Italians. Parts of the games are shown to the public on a new invention: television. Little does anyone know. American Bob Mathias becomes the youngest person to ever win the decathlon at age 17. Hawaiian Harold Sakata wins silver lifting weights. He resurfaces post-Olympics as the head-severing Oddjob in Goldfinger .

Medal count: USA 84; everyone else, fewer. Enjoy it while it lasts; the Russians are coming.

1952 : The Helsinki summer Olympics introduce the world to the USSR sports juggernaut. Soviet women gymnasts launch what will become a sports dynasty that remains unbeaten into the 1980s. Bob Mathias becomes the first man to ever win back-to-back decathlons. Canadians are rumoured to have competed.

Medal count: USA 76; USSR 71. You know where this is headed.

1952 : Former AAU president and US Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage steps into top job at the IOC.

1953 : Jim Thorpe dies. His family presses their claim for the reinstatement of his 1912 Olympic medals from 1912. Avery Brundage who competed unsuccessfully against Thorpe at Stockholm vowing to defend Olympic amateurism, declines. It is a drama that will play out repeatedly for the next 30 years.

1956 : Italy hosts the Winter Games at Cortina d’Ampezzo. Someone finally beats the Canucks at hockey; unfortunately it’s the Soviets… and the Americans. U.S. skaters take five of six figure skating medals and Austria’s Toni Sailer sweeps all three Alpine skiing events: a first. Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden win silver in pairs figure skating, the shiniest of only three medals Canucks bring home.

Medal count: USSR 16; USA 7, which is less than all the Scandinavian countries too.

1956 : The "Friendly Games" are held down unda in Melbourne… in November. Notwithstanding the moniker, the geopolitical highlight of the games is the new demonstration sport of boycotting. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycott the games to protest British and French involvement in the Suez crisis. Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands boycott because of the iron-fisted way the Soviets dealt with the Hungarian revolution. Hungary and the USSR compete however… against each other in a water polo match marred by violence, possibly the only time anyone other than the competitors themselves found a water polo match interesting.

Medal count: USSR 98; US 74. Churchill was right to be worried about them… and those fence-sitting Swiss who best the Americans as well.

1960 : Squaw Valley hosts the return of the Winter Games to the US. Walt Disney is Head of Pageantry. CBS pays an unheard of sum, $50,000, to televise the games and U.S. giant-to-be IBM tabulates the results on an early mainframe. Bobsleigh is cancelled when the organizing committee refuses to build such an expensive, wasteful run for the nine nations who would compete. Oh Whistler, where for art thou cojones. The US hockey team wins gold for the first time as the Canadians continue their slide toward mediocrity. National pride is saved from oblivion when Anne Heggtviet wins gold in women’s slalom skiing and becomes the first non-European to ever win the FIS slalom and overall world championship.

Medal count: USSR 21; USA 10. Somebody check the computer.

1960 : The Games in Rome are the first to be televised worldwide. Oh the agony of defeat. The gold in light-heavyweight boxing is won by young phenom Cassius Clay. And beating long odds, 20-year-old American Wilma Rudolph wins three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. The odds Wilma beat were polio in her preteens.

Medal count: USSR 103; USA 71.

Next week in Part II, the Olympics become professional, Ben Johnson becomes juiced and Canada finally remembers how to play hockey.