I contend that 1900 saw the single most horrific victory in modern Olympic history, surpassed only by the ancient standard for horror when King Oenomaus was killed in an Olympic chariot crack up , followed by the race winner Pelops throwing competing driver Myrtilus, off a cliff. What could have surpassed such gore and horror, committed in the name of the purity of athletic endeavor? Simply, the Paris games of 1900 when Leon de Lunden from Belgium murdered 21 birds to win the "Live Pigeon Shooting" event.
In order to make the sport even “less sporting” for the birds, the little sacrifices were released one at a time, and each human contestant was allowed to keep blasting away until he missed – twice. Sports historian Andrew Strunk has described the event as “…a rather unpleasant choice. Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping…”. In all 300 unlucky pigeons were sacrificed for the Olympic ideal. Just think of it; Dick Cheney could have been an Olympic athlete! If maiming competitors counted, he might have won gold.
Those Paris games of 1900 almost didn’t happen, since the French considered Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin, who was pushing the modern Olympic concept, as "too English”, what with his alien ideas about exercise producing a healthy mind and body. In fact it wasn’t until Coubertin resigned from the French Athletic Associations that other French sportsmen agreed to back his idea.
Unfortunately, with Coubertin out of the way, the French Government stepped in and things went down hill very quickly from there. First the government decided not to award medals for first place, but "valuable artwork" instead. It must have been quite a sight to see Msr. Aumoitte, winner of the “one ball” croquet championship, standing on the victory podium with a Monet hanging around his neck.
Then there was the marathon, where two American runners, Arthur Newton and Dick Grant, lead from the start. But when they reached the finish line together they discovered two heretofore unnoticed French runners, Michel Theato and Emile Champion, rested and waiting for them, and already wearing their winner’s artwork. The Americans pointed out that all the other contestants were splattered with mud while Theato and Champion looked like they had not even broken a sweat. But this being France, the American protests were worst than meaningless.
In fact, because they protested the Americans were awarded sixth and seventh place, instead of third and fourth. Well, as Albert Camus noted in one of his lighter moments, "Pauvre de moi, du cognito tricherie, ergo se donner la mort”, or, “Please excuse me but I think you cheated so I am now going to commit suicide". The International Olympic Committee took the American protests under consideration for twelve years, before finally rejecting them; proving once again the Jerry Lewis rule about sports rulings; timing is everything.
The Games of 1900 were the longest in Olympic History, running between 14 May and 28 October, and including such extravagant events as "Cannon Shooting", "Life Saving", "Kite Flying", "Tug of War" and "Fire Fighting". The Croquet Tournament took 21 weeks to play out in front of a paying audience of exactly one, an elderly Englishman living in Nice, France.
Curiously the strongest protest in that the 1900 Olympics was between two Americans. The born-again coaches from Syracuse University felt that competing on a Sunday would be a sin. So they talked their student Myer Prinstein (above), the world record holder in the long jump, into going along with them. Myer was a nice Jewish boy, and he finally agreed to skip the Sunday competition out of “team spirit”. Besides, his qualifying jump on Saturday – his actual Sabbath - had been so impressive he thought it would be good enough for the victory. And it almost was. Almost.
That Sunday afternoon (14 July, 1900), while Myer was soaking in the Parisian culture, his Catholic teammate Alvin Kraenzlein(above) broke his own sabbath and beat Myer’s long jump mark by exactly...one centimeter. That Monday, when Myer noticed that Alvin was carrying an extra Van Gough around, he started pounding on Alvin. And Alvin pounded right back. But, since they were both track stars with no upper body strength, nobody got seriously injured.
The nineteen hundred games also featured a controversial final in the “Underwater Swimming” competition. This may sound like a fancy name for drowning, but the drowners, er, the swimmers, were actually awarded 2 points for each meter they swam under water and one point for each second they were able to remain submerged. But despite having stayed under for far longer than anyone else, Peder Lykkeberg of Denmark was disqualified because it was alleged that he “swam in circles”. Just read the rules, I say.
Also in the river (during this Olympics all the water sports were held in the river Seine, which was not nearly as clean a sewer then it is today), were the exciting finals of the “Swimming Obstacle Course”, involving swimming, pole climbing, more swimming, boat boarding and de-boarding, more swimming, followed by swimming under a boat, followed by more swimming.
The winner was Freddy Lane from Australia, in 2:38, who climbed over the stern of the boat as opposed to clambering across the boat's wider middle. For his efforts Freddie received a 50 pound bronze horse. I presume the equestrian winners received statues of fish. Oddly enough neither of the water events were repeated at any future Olympics.
But the sport from the 1900 Paris games I am most glad having missed was the "Equestrian Long Jump". Now, try to picture this: four spindly legs holding up a big muscular body, and with a human wearing riding garb and hat balanced on their back. Horse and rider gallop up to the jump line and then fling themselves into the air.
The winner was a British stallion named “Extra Dry”(above), with a soaring leap of 20 feet and one quarter of an inch. Can you image the excitement that must have gripped the crowds, watching this equrestian suicidal display? A horse leaping twenty feet and one quarter of an inch; that’s just nine feet short of the current human long jump record. And we've only got two legs.
It makes me wonder if the X Games are really all that original.
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