After the success of the Olympic revival in 1896, Greek leaders believed Athens should become the permanent host city of the Games. They held it was important to keep the Olympics near its historical birthplace and spiritual heart. However, the International Olympic Committee decided to rotate the host city each Olympiad. Since Paris was already hosting the popular World Fair in 1900, it seemed like the perfect choice.
But the move backfired and the Games were a disaster of planning and execution. Although there were four times more competitors and double the number of sports than in Athens four years earlier, the 1900 Games struggled. IOC President Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, later remarked, “It’s a miracle the Olympic movement survived these Games.”
The best outcome of the Paris Games was that women first competed in Olympic events, with 22 women taking part. British tennis player Charlotte Cooper is credited as the first woman to win an Olympic title. France, with 26 gold medals, topped the medal table, the only time in Olympic history it has done so.
The events of Paris 1900 were spread over five months and in some cases their Olympic status was de-emphasised to the point that many athletes died without knowing they had once participated in the Olympic Games. This is true of Australia’s Donald Mackintosh, whose shooting victory was not confirmed as an Olympic event until 1992. The word ‘Olympic’ failed to appear on a single event program and spectators had little idea they were watching Olympic events. Many venues were unsuitable and it was years before there was an accurate medal tally for the Games.
The star of the Games was US track athlete Alvin Kraenzlein, who still holds the Olympic athletics record with his four individual wins at a Games. In three days he won the 60m, the 110m, the 200m hurdles, and long jump. He used what was then an innovative technique of going over hurdles with an outstretched leg.
Despite its flaws, the Games’ many intrigues attract much interest from historians. Most curious is the tale of the boy coxswain, a young spectator who was roped into acting as cox for a Dutch duo who rowed to victory in the coxed pairs. Photographs have aged him as young as seven, which would make him the youngest Olympic champion in history. But no confirmation of his identity or age has ever been found. He remains one of the Games’ many mysteries.
Cricket, croquet, golf and tug-of-war all made their debuts in Paris, but all were soon to exit the Olympic stage.