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Cheering on America in the Olympic Games

July 26, 2012

Tomorrow Lolo Jones, Miranda Leek, Lisa Uhl, Gabby Douglas, and other athletes with ties to Iowa will walk through the London Olympic Stadium as part of the parade of athletes of the XXX Olympiad. I found it especially interesting that in 1900, athletes were competing similarly at the II Olympiad. The 2012 Olympics will host more Olympians in more diverse sports from more countries by far. But the spirit of the Modern Olympic Games that will permeate our lives (or at least our TV consoles) for the next two weeks, has origins dating back to when farmers were plowing with horses in Iowa.

It’s hard to imagine the Olympics without the fervor that media has placed on the games. Thanks to TV and Twitter we can now see results in real time halfway around the world. Billions of dollars are spent by host countries and cities bid 7 years in advance to host the games (In case anyone was concerned, the 2018 games will be held in South Korea). When considering those numbers, it is hard to conceive that once the Olympics were more of an afterthought, accompanying the 1900 World’s Fair. Held over the course of 5 months in Paris, France, and with only 997 athletes from 24 countries, the games probably did not reach into the parlors of rural Iowa. I could find no records of Iowans competing in those games–in fact, most of the athletes were French, and some sports had ONLY French competitors.

There was no Olympic flame–that tradition began in 1928–and no grandiose opening ceremony. One change for the II Olympiad, not to go unnoticed, was that women were first allowed to compete. This change came about tentatively at first; there were only 22 women out of the total 997. This year in London, over half of the USA Olympic team will be female, including the four Iowans mentioned above (269 women to 261 men). All countries participating this year (205) intend to send at least one female athlete, setting a new precedent for some countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Women wouldn’t have competed in the gymnastics events in 1900, whereas today, women’s gymnastics is one of the most highly anticipated events. Instead, they were participating in croquet, golf, and lawn tennis. While tennis remains, there are no more croquet Olympians (in fact, 1900 was the only year this sport was part of the games). Still, when Miranda Leek picks up her bow in the archery competition, she will be participating in an event that also took place during the Olympics over 100 years ago. Lolo will run for the gold the same way that Alvin Kraenzlein did (in 1900, he brought back four gold medals to Wisconsin).

The Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t adopted as our national anthem until a Congressional Resolution in 1931 (signed by an Iowan, Herbert Hoover!), so it may not have been heard at the medal ceremony for Mr. Kraenzlein or other American gold medal winners. But still, there was national pride in the fledgling competition that has grown to become the Olympic Games we know today. As you cheer on Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and the other 527 Americans competing, think back to what elite athletics must have looked like 112 years ago, before photo finishes and electronic start clocks. Come out and celebrate the spirit of the Olympics with us on the 1900 farm: play a round of croquet, or find out who won the 6 on 6 tug of war competition. Who knows, maybe those sports will one day make an Olympic return.

For more information about the history of the Olympic games visit http://www.olympic.org/.

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