1900 Paris, France

The 1900 Summer Olympics, today officially known as the Games of the II Olympiad, was  celebrated in 1900 in Paris, France. No opening or closing ceremonies were held; competitions began on May 14 and ended on October 28. The Games were held as part of the 1900 World’s Fair.

One thousand competitors took part in 19 different sports. Women took part in the games for the first time and Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic champion. The decision to hold competitions on a Sunday brought protests from many American athletes, who travelled as representatives of their colleges and were expected to withdraw rather than compete on their religious day of rest.

At the Sorbonne conference of 1895, Baron de Coubertin proposed that the Olympic Games should take place in 1900 in Paris. The delegates to the conference were unwilling to wait five years and lobbied to hold the first games in 1896. A decision was made to hold the first Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens and that Paris would host the second celebration.

Most of the winners in 1900 did not receive medals, but were given cups or trophies. Professionals competed in fencing and Albert Robert Ayat (France), who won the épée for amateurs and masters, was awarded a prize of 3000 francs.

Some unusual events were contested for the only time in the history of the Games including automobile and motorcycle racing, ballooning, cricket, croquet, Basque pelota, 200m swimming obstacle race and underwater swimming.

The Organisation of the Paris Olympics

The 1900 Games were held as part of the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The Baron de Coubertin believed that this would help public awareness of the Olympics and submitted elaborate plans to rebuild the ancient site of Olympia, complete with statues, temples, stadia and gymnasia. The director of the Exposition Universelle, Alfred Picard, thought holding an ancient sport event at the Exposition Universelle was an “absurd anachronism”. After thanking de Coubertin for his plans, Picard filed them away and nothing more came of it.

A committee was formed for the organization of the Games, consisiting of some of the more able sports administrators of the day and a provisional program was drawn up. Sports to be included at the games were track and field athletics, swimming, wrestling, gymnastics, fencing, French and British boxing, river and ocean yacht racing, cycling, golf, lifesaving, archery, weightlifting, rowing, diving and water polo.
British and Irish sports associations announced a desire to compete, as did a number of powerful American universities and sports clubs. Competitors from Russia and Australia also confirmed their intentions to travel to Paris.

On November 9, 1898 the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (“Union of the French Societies for Athletic Sports” or USFSA) put out an announcement that it would have sole right to any organised sport held during the World’s Fair. It was an empty threat but Viscount Charles de La Rochefoucauld, the nominated head of the organizing committee, stepped down rather than be embroiled in the political battle. The Baron de Coubertin, who was also secretary-general of the USFSA, was urged to withdraw from active involvement in the running of the Games and did so, only to comment later, “I surrendered – and was incorrect in doing so.”

The IOC ceded control of the Games to a new committee which was to oversee every sporting activity connected to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Alfred Picard appointed Daniel Mérillon, the head of the French Shooting Association as president of this organization in February 1899.

Mérillon proceeded to publish an entirely different schedule of events, with the result that many of those that had made plans to compete in concordance with the original program withdrew, and refused to deal with the new committee.

Sporting Events at the Paris Olympics

20 disciplines, comprising 19 sports, were part of the Olympic program in Paris. Weightlifting and wrestling had been dropped since the 1896 Summer Olympics, while 13 new sports were added. Swimming and water polo were considered to be two disciplines within a single sport of aquatics in the Olympic context.

The standard of competition at the Games was variable. Despite a poor quality track, a strong contingent of top-class American collegiate athletes ensured the track and field competitions were of the highest quality. The tennis gold medalists were all former Wimbledon champions, swimming and fencing events were of a good standard and even polo, a minority sport for the social elite, was well represented by some of the best players in the game. Other sports were noticeably weak in both quality and depth. Only athletics, swimming and fencing had competitors from more than ten nations.

The history of the archery competition at the 1900 Olympics is extremely confusing. The International Olympic Committee currently list six events as having full Olympic status but a case could be made that as many as eight other events as equally as deserving to be considered as part of official Olympic history. About 150 archers competed in these six official events but as many as 5,000 were involved in archery competition in conjunction with 1900 World’s Fair.Belgian Hubert Van Innis took two gold medals and one silver and would add to his tally twenty years later in Antwerp.

The track and field events were held at the home of the Racing Club de France at the Croix-Catelan stadium in Bois de Boulogne. No track was laid and races took place on an uneven field of grass littered with trees. Additional events were held for professionals and a series of handicap races also took place. These are not considered official Olympic events.

In the seven events contested over 400 metres or less, the United States took 13 out of a possible 21 medals. Athletes from Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania all won gold medals. Indeed, two would-be dentists from the University of Pennsylvania were amongst the stars of the Games. Alvin Kraenzlein won 4 individual gold medals, a feat that has never repeated, while Walter Tewksbury took five medals including two golds. The hurdles in the 400 m hurdle race were 30-foot (9.1 m)-long telegraph poles arranged on the track and the race, uniquely in Olympic competition, had a water jump on the final straight.

United States dominance in sprinting was matched in the longer track races by United Kingdom. Only George Orton, who won Canada’s first Olympic title in the shorter of the twosteeplechases, ruined a perfect record for the British. Orton won his title less than an hour after placing third in the 400 metre hurdles.

The most contentious of all the events in these Games began and ended in the Bois de Boulogne. Intended to follow the track of the old city wall, the course was poorly marked out and runners often got lost and had to double back on themselves before continuing. On some parts of the course, runners had to contend with distractions from cars, bicycles pedestrians and animals. Arthur Newton of the United States finished fifth but stated he had not been passed by any other runner during the race.

Another American, Richard Grant, claimed he was run down by a cyclist as he made ground on the leaders. French honour seemed to have been satisfied when Michel Théato crossed the finish line and a military band struck up La Marseillaise. However, modern research has revealed that Théato was born inLuxembourg and maintained Luxembourgian citizenship throughout his life.

After the withdrawal of teams from the Netherlands and Belgium, only two teams played in the cricket tournament. A team made up of players from the Albion Cricket Club and the Standard Athletic Club, two Paris clubs consisting almost exclusively of British expatriates, played a touring team from the southwest of England. The Devon and Somerset Wanderers were no more than a team of competent club cricketers (made up from Blundells School old boys and members of Castle Cary Cricket Club), and only Montagu Toller and Alfred Bowerman were deemed good enough to play at county level for Somerset.

The game was played before a small crowd at the Vélodrome de Vincennes. An emphatic second innings bowling performance from Toller captured victory for the visitors as time appeared to be running out for them. If the French had held out for five more minutes the game would have declared a draw. Knowledge of the game would have been lost but for the forethought of John Symes, a member of the victorious team, who kept a scorecard in his own writing.

The croquet tournament was notable as it marked the first appearance of women at Olympic level. Madame Després, Madame Filleaul Brohy and Mademoiselle Ohnier were eliminated in the first round of competition along with Marcel Haentjens of Belgium, the only entrant from outside France. A single paying spectator attended the tournament, an elderly English gentleman who travelled from Nice for the early stages. An unofficial two-ball handicap competition was also held.

Nineteen nations were represented in the fencing competition, which was held in a field near the cutlery exhibit at the 1900 World’s Fair. French fencers dominated the proceedings but both Cuba and Italy also took titles. The early rounds of the foil competitions were judged on style rather than the actual result of the contest. This meant that some fencers were eliminated without losing a contest whilst others were defeated and still progressed to the next rounds.

Competitions for rowing were held on the River Seine. The coxed fours descended into farce when officials changed the qualifying criteria for the final several times. The first final was held without any of the original qualifiers, who had withdrawn as a protest against the decision to run six boats on a course laid out for only four. The officials then decided to run another “final” for the boycotting crews. Both events are considered official Olympic competitions. In a number of events crews saw the advantage of having ultra-lightweight coxswain and recruited local boys for the period of the Games. Most of these remain a mystery but some could have been under ten years old

Three teams competed in the Rugby tournament. A French representative team defeated a team from the German city of Frankfurt and Moseley Wanderers from England. The Moseley team had played a full game of rugby in England the day before they made the journey to Paris. They arrived in the morning, played the match in the afternoon and were back in their home country by the next morning. The proposed game between the British and German sides was cancelled and both are credited as silver medallists. The Franco-Haitian centre Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera become the first black gold medallist. Three months earlier he had competed in the tug of war.

The 1900 sailing regatta differs from every other Olympic regatta in a number of ways. In most classes there were two distinct “finals”, boats were assigned time handicaps according to their weight within each class and cash prizes were handed out to the winner of each race.

The IOC currently recognizes the winner of the first race in each class as Olympic champion except in the case of the 10-20 ton class, which was decided on aggregate time over three races. Races were held at both Meulan and Le Havre and medals shared amongst five nations. France and Great Britain were the most successful of the countries involved. A number of people named as members of medal-winning crews by the IOC have been proved not to have competed; others have their participation seriously questioned by historical research.

Switzerland’s Konrad Stäheli was the outstanding marksman of the Games, taking a trio of titles and leading his country to the top of the shooting medal table. The medals were shared between six different nations. There is a debate as to whether the live pigeon shooting event was a full Olympic event, Belgian Leon Lunden shot twenty-one birds on his way to the championship. Up to thirty unofficial shooting events were also held.

The muddied waters of the Seine hosted the swimming events in 1900. Run with the current, the races produced very fast times by the standards of the day. John Arthur Jarvis of Great Britain, Frederick Lane of Australia and the German Ernst Hoppenberg each won two titles. Lane received a 50-pound bronze statue of a horse as a prize. A couple of unusual events were held. The obstacle race required both swimming underneath and climbing over rows of boats whilst Charles de Venville stayed submerged for over a minute to win the underwater swimming event.

A high quality men’s tennis tournament saw three past or future Wimbledon champions reach the semi-finals. Lawrence Doherty reached the final when older brother Reggie stepped aside and let his sibling advance to the final. The two refused to play other in what they considered a minor tournament. On the 11th of July a landmark was reached in the history of the Olympic Games. Charlotte Cooper, already three times Wimbledon champion, took both singles and mixed doubles championships to become the first female Olympic champion.

In conclusion, the 1900 games were not governed by a specific Olympic organizing committee, but instead held as an appendage to the 1900 World’s Fair. An enormous amount of events were held, though many fall short of the standards later required for Olympic championship status. Decisions as to which Olympic events are termed “official” and which are have “unofficial” or “demonstration” status are usually left to the Olympic organizing committees and/or the IOC.

In the absence of any overall authority capable of making an official distinction of this kind, no decision as to the official status of any event was made at the time of the Games. A document from 1912 exists, listing results from the 1900 Games, but the reliability of this paper is questioned by Olympic historians. This document forms the basis of the results of the Paris games in the IOC database.