Paris 1900: Games at the centre of the world
In 2024, Paris will play host to the Olympic Games for the third time in its history. We take a look back at the previous two occasions when the Games came to the French capital. The Games of the II Olympiad were unique insofar as they took place over a period of five months in conjunction with the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) of 1900, which took place in Paris.
Many of the athletes who took part in the so-called “International Contests of Physical Exercise and Sport” which took place in and around Paris, did so unaware that they were in fact competing in the Olympic Games. The Paris 1900 Games also represented a historic watershed in Olympic history in that they saw the inclusion of female athletes for the first time.
The 1900 edition of the Olympic Games was awarded to Paris during the first Olympic Congress, which took place in the French capital on 16-23 June 1894, and which also saw Athens confirmed as the host city for the 1896 Games. It was during the congress that the International Olympic Committee was officially founded by Pierre de Coubertin, and to this day the date of 23 June is celebrated around the world in the form of Olympic Day.
Coubertin underlined the challenges facing the organisers of the Games: "At the time nothing was more difficult than attracting large numbers of spectators to watch a sporting gathering,” noted the IOC’s founder and first president. “Interest levels remained weak. Only the velodromes attracted occasional crowds.” The Exposition Universelle was regarded as far more important than the recently revived Olympic Games, and even though the inaugural edition in Athens four years earlier had proved a real popular success, Coubertin had to battle with the organisers of the Exposition Universelle to have the “International Contests of Physical Exercise and Sport”, which took place in and around the French capital, accorded the title of Olympic Games. Some of the events were granted official Olympic status so late in the day that many of the participating athletes never actually realised that they had competed in an Olympic Games.
Kraenzlein and Ewry make their mark
A total of 24 NOCs sent delegations to compete at Paris 1900, with almost one thousand athletes taking part. The programme featured 19 sports, and a total of 95 events, many of which have remained regular fixtures on the Olympic programme ever since (such as athletics, rowing, cycling, fencing, football, gymnastics, swimming, equestrian, tennis, shooting, archery, sailing and water polo), a couple more which have subsequently made their return after a long absence (golf and rugby), and some that were never to feature again (e.g. cricket, croquet, jeu de paume, pelota) or which were not recognised by the IOC as official competitions in the first place (including fishing, boule lyonnaise, petanque, kite-flying, pigeon racing, hunting and hurling!).
There was no official opening ceremony per se, but rather a procession of gymnasts into the Vélodrome de Vincennes, which took place during the national festival of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France on 3 June 1900. Throughout July, Pierre de Coubertin himself was on hand to preside over the athletics events – or “running, jumping and throwing” competitions as they were called – in the Bois de Boulogne, where two American athletes hogged the limelight. Alvin Kraenzlein won the 60m sprint, the 110m hurdles, the 200m hurdles and the long jump in the space of three days – a feat unparalleled in Olympic history. Meanwhile, Raw Ewry, won all three jumping events – the high jump, the long jump and the triple jump – to earn himself the nickname of “Rubber Man”.
The swimming competition, which took place on the River Seine between Courbevoie and the bridge at Asnières, proved a success, attracting plenty of interest and athletes from a wide spread of countries. The Australian contingent caused a stir by introducing a new swimming style – front crawl – or in modern Olympic parlance, freestyle. The other big hits with the public were the gymnastics and cycling, both of which took place at the Vélodrome de Vincennes, built specially for these Games. However, the sport that attracted the biggest international field was fencing, with the épée alone drawing 155 competitors.
In many sports, including polo, sailing, athletics, rowing and tennis, medals were won by mixed nationality teams. Among the winners in the rowing competition was a mystery French boy who was drafted in by the Dutch team to cox for them in the final of the coxed pairs event; he appears in the photo of the medal ceremony, where his age is estimated at “seven to 12 years”, but nobody ever discovered his name. Another oddity of Paris 1900 was the inclusion of the pole vault as a gymnastics event. The gymnastics programme also included more obscure tests such as lifting a 50kg stone and rope climbing. While these have not surprisingly disappeared, the pole vault is, of course, very much an Olympic fixture, but as part of the athletics programme!
Women make their mark for the first time
The host nation dominated the podium places, claiming no less than 94 medals, including 25 golds. This was hardly surprising, as in several competitions they were the only nationality competing! Overall the Paris Games took place in front of sparse crowds, in an era when recreational sport and competitive sport were still light years away from assuming the importance that they would go on to assume over the following decades. Perhaps the most notable aspect of these Games was the fact that they were the first to involve women athletes. The honour of becoming the first ever female competitors on the Olympic stage went to two Frenchwomen, Madame Brohy and Mademoiselle Ohnier, who took part in the croquet competition.
One name that has gone down in Olympic history is that of Charlotte Cooper, who was the best female tennis player of her generation. On 11 July 1900, on the courts of the Ile de Puteaux in the middle of the Seine, the Briton defeated France’s Hélène Prévost, 6-1 6-4 to win the women’s singles final. In doing so Cooper became the first woman to win an individual Olympic title! A few days earlier she had teamed up with R.F. Doherty, himself a winner of three medals in Paris, to claim the mixed doubles title.
Then there was Margaret Abbott, the young arts student from Chicago (USA), who came to Paris with her mother Mary to visit the Exposition Universelle. Both mother and daughter signed up to take part in the international golf tournament which took place on the course at Compiègne. On 4 October, Margaret recorded the best round (47) on the nine-hole course to win the gold medal. In doing so she became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold, and also the reigning women’s golf champion for the following 116 years, but she remained unaware of her feat right until her death in 1955.
The first decade of the 20th century was an age of remarkable technological progress, with the early years of the automobile, aviation and cinema offering promise of a brave new world. It was against this backdrop that the modern Olympic Games established themselves as part of the new landscape, and the 1900 Games played no small part in helping to write a glorious page in the annals of Olympic and world history, despite struggling to emerge from the shadow of the Exposition Universelle.