As the world stands ready to watch the start of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London later today, it is interesting to look at Theodore Roosevelt’s slight association with the modern version of the Games. The Modern Olympic Games were revived by a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin. Though initially met with lackluster enthusiasm for his ideas, Coubertin persisted and finally managed to get the world on board with his scheme. The first modern Olympics, which were summer games, were held in Athens in 1896. These were followed by Games in Paris in 1900. Both of these events were successes and presided over by the current leaders of the host countries, George I, King of Greece in 1896 and President Loubet of France in 1900. Coubertin understood he needed the host country’s leaders on board for successful Games so when Chicago was settled upon as the host city for 1904, his relationship with Theodore Roosevelt began.
Detail, Letter from Pierre de Coubertin to Theodore Roosevelt, December 23, 1901. From the Library of Congress Manuscripts division.
In the above letter, Coubertin is trying to convince President Roosevelt to attend the Games and preside over them. Apparently, in an earlier letter, Roosevelt had said he was uncertain he would be able to attend. A later letter in our collections shows Roosevelt’s support for the Games but still no sign that he would attend them. Instead, Roosevelt urges Coubertin to contact Caspar Whitney, a sport enthusiast and one of Roosevelt’s good friends.
The 1904 Olympics were eventually held in St. Louis, Missouri to coincide with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or St. Louis World’s Fair). Because of that, the event was nothing more than a side show to the Fair’s other, often more exciting, events. It is however the first Olympic Games to award gold, silver, and bronze medals to the first, second, and third place competitors for each event.
Sadly, Theodore Roosevelt did not attend the 1904 Olympics, nor did Coubertin in the end, sending two International Olympic Committee officials in his place. Roosevelt’s daughter Alice does however figure in the record books for the 1904 Olympics. The supposed winner of the marathon had his picture taken with her before it was discovered he’d taken a car for part of the marathon and was therefore disqualified from the event.
We wish all the athletes in London the best of luck!