‘Milwaukee Meteor’

Good morning, it’s May 14, 2020. On this date 116 years ago, the Olympic Games opened in St. Louis. This was the third Olympiad of the modern era, the concept having been revived in Athens in 1896. The first time the United States hosted, however, was not a success.

Few foreign athletes bothered to make the trek to the U.S. heartland, meaning that with one notable exception, the events tended to be dominated by average American performers. A big part of the problem was that the Games, which were originally supposed to be in Chicago, became a side show to the St. Louis World’s Fair.

The nascent International Olympic Committee originally awarded the Games to Chicago. In hopes of pressuring the committee to change its mind, some of Missouri’s leading burghers persuaded the AAU to run the world track and field championships in St. Louis at the same time. The Olympic Committee promptly back downed, although members later rued their capitulation.

Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman generally recognized as the father of the modern Olympic movement, didn’t even bother to make his way to St. Louis. “I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town,” he explained.

It’s not news that a Frenchman would look down his nose at a Midwestern American city, even one that billed itself as the “Gateway to the West.” Coubertin’s dig would have carried more sting, however, if France hadn’t botched the 1900 Olympics — by also operating it as a kind of adjunct of the Paris World’s Fair.

Still, each Olympiad — 1900 and 1904 — had its highlights.

The 1900 Paris Olympics featured shooting events that used live targets (pigeons), along with dubious events ranging from ballooning to firefighting. The winners didn’t even receive medals. What redeemed it, you ask? Well, the athletes, of course. And not just any athletes. Female competitors, as well as athletes of color, participated in the Paris Games. Women were allowed to compete in various team sports, including sailing, and individually in golf and tennis.

The first woman to win gold in any individual Olympic event was star British tennis player Charlotte Cooper, who by 1900 had been in the Wimbledon finals six times. In Paris, she defeated hometown heroine Hélène Prévost, 6-1, 6-4. Cooper also won the mixed doubles with fellow Brit Reginald Doherty.

Four years later, among the general debacle of the St. Louis Games, it was an American sprinter who epitomized the Olympic spirit of excellence. His name was Archie Hahn, a Wisconsin native who ran track at the University of Michigan.

Christened the “Milwaukee Meteor” by sportswriters, Hahn had set the world’s record in the 100-yard dash in 1901 with a time of 9.8 seconds. In St. Louis, he won the 60-yard dash, the 100 and the 200 — three gold medals in all.

To try and jump-start the fledgling Olympic movement, organizers staged Games two years later in Athens. Few Americans from the 1904 team made the trip to Europe in 1906, but the Milwaukee Meteor was one of them. He won the 100-yard dash again. His 1904 time of 21.6 in the 200 in St. Louis was an Olympic record that stood for 28 years until it was broken in Los Angeles by another Michigan Wolverine, the great Eddie Tolan.

By then, Archie Hahn was embarked on a career as track coach at the University of Virginia. He wrote a book, “How to Sprint,” which was considered a classic, and lived out his life in Charlottesville, passing away in 1955. By then his medals were all but forgotten, his book out of print, and his name beginning to disappear into the mists of memory. But when the sport of track and field needed him most, the Milwaukee Meteor answered the bell.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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