All of the craziness in Chicago for the NATO summit is making me glad that this city wasn’t awarded the 2016 Olympics, which went to Rio de Janeiro instead. NATO will be basically a few days, but the Olympics are much longer than that. The drain on this city, in terms of money and time, would have been enormous if the Games were in town. And besides, Chicago was an Olympic city once, before any of us were alive.
The modern Olympic movement is the brainchild of one man—Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. In 1894, Coubertin convened a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he unveiled his plan for a revival of the athletic competitions of antiquity.
The suggestion was made to hold the inaugural games in Athens, Greece as a nod to the origins of athletic competition. The success of the Athens games of 1896 set the stage for the next Olympics to take place in Coubertin’s home city of Paris.
The 1900 Olympics were a disaster. A World’s Fair was also taking place in Paris that summer, and Paris had previously hosted four other Fairs (in 1855, 1867, 1878 and 1889). The World’s Fair was a well-known commodity, both in Paris and around the world. The newer Olympic Games, however, were a curiosity at best. The result was a setback for the fledgling Olympic movement.
To regain momentum, the United States was chosen as the first Olympic site outside of Europe. This was in keeping with Coubertin’s global vision for the Games. As one of the nation’s most populous cities, Chicago immediately emerged as the primary candidates to host the games. The runaway success of the “White City” Exposition in 1893 further solidified Chicago’s chances.
A formal application was made by Chicago’s Olympic committee in May of 1901. No other city was in competition with Chicago, and Coubertin and the IOC had no other potential suitors.
And then everything changed.
A World’s Fair was scheduled for St. Louis in 1903, for the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase from France. When the fair got moved back one year–to give St. Louis more time to get their construction completed–the fair’s organizers decided to try to get the Olympics, too. And, because the new president–Theodore Roosevelt–got involved with the process, the games were moved to St. Louis, instead.
These games were the first to award gold, silver, and bronze medals. Before that, the winners were given laurels for their achievement. But the games were a disaster in several ways. The inland location of St. Louis meant that athletes from other countries (namely, European nations) didn’t attend. Also, the Olympics were reduced to a sideshow, playing second fiddle to the Fair, rather than amplifying itself. And third, the brutal heat of St. Louis in the summertime made for a truly epic marathon. I’ll write about that some other time, but there were lots of things going on with that race.
So NATO will officially kick off today, and all of the highways will be closed for some massive gridlock in the coming day or two. And there’s gonna be a hot one outside today, so the protests in the street will probably get crazy once again. We’ll see how it unfolds, and then be grateful that there won’t be an even bigger show coming four years from now.