By Chrös McDougall | April 23, 2019, 1:30 p.m. (ET)
Deena Kastor runs past the Missouri Arts Museum and Grand Basin at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women's Marathon on April 3, 2004 in St. Louis.

 

As Fred Lorz turned off North Meramec Street onto Forsyth Boulevard, the Gateway Arch was but a figment of the imagination, a monument still six decades in the future. He wouldn’t have run past the Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks that now line Forsyth Boulevard, either.

But make no mistake, Lorz, a 20-year-old New Yorker, and the rest of the field ran right through downtown Clayton, Missouri, as they embarked on the final 1.5-mile stretch back to Francis Field to finish the 1904 Olympic marathon.

Though later U.S. editions of the Olympic Games would be remembered more vividly — think those in Los Angeles and Lake Placid, both times — St. Louis is forever the answer to the trivia question: Which U.S. city was the first to host an Olympic Games?

Of course, the reasons for overlooking those 1904 Games can be somewhat justified.

Originally awarded to Chicago, the third edition of the modern Olympics only ended up in St. Louis because the 1903 World’s Fair was delayed a year, and organizers of the nascent Olympic Movement were wary of going head to head with the more established global festival.

The oddities only added up from there.

Still predating such Olympic staples as the Opening Ceremony (1908) or even the Olympic rings (1914), the St. Louis Games hardly resembled the spectacle we know today. Held over nearly five months, from July into November, the sporting competitions largely went on as a sideshow to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition taking place in Forest Park.

Venues lacked the uniform precision we know today, with a 1/3-mile running track, an open lake (and imperial distances) for swimming and a rowing course that included a turn.

And St. Louis, though the nation’s fourth largest city at the time, was still a mighty trek for much of the world in an era before commercial aviation, resulting in a field of 651 athletes who were overwhelmingly Americans — and those athletes dressed in their club uniforms, not Team USA gear, for their competitions.

Ultimately the third Olympiad was fraught with quirks, distractions and shoddy record keeping, with even the International Olympic Committee’s website now describing the Games as “lost in the chaos” of the World’s Fair.

And that brings us back to the marathon, the most infamous event of those St. Louis Games. Although Lorz indeed arrived as the leader at Francis Field — a stadium that still stands on the Washington University campus — his illegal stunt was quickly uncovered.

Tired of racing in humid 90-degree temperatures that St. Louisans know all too well, Lorz had hitched a ride in a car and skipped more than half of the race. In fact, he might not have even run through the stretch of downtown Clayton, but Thomas Hicks certainly did. The English-born runner competing for the United States became the official champion when crossing the finish line next, although his effort was not without controversy of its own, as he was aided by what might have been the first case of Olympic doping — in this case, a concoction of strychnine, egg whites and brandy.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that those St. Louis Games have largely faded into history, a product of the times and of an Olympic Movement that was still figuring itself out.

Nonetheless, the Movement did sort things out — starting with a successful 1908 edition in London — and St. Louis has never veered too far from the Olympic rings.

That was reinforced on Tuesday, when USA Gymnastics announced St. Louis as the host for the sport’s 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

In fact, in both 2012 and 2016, the road to the Olympics for U.S. gymnasts ran through Chaifetz Arena on the St. Louis University campus, with the national championships held there in 2012 and the women’s nationals and men’s Olympic trials being held in 2016.

So it was there in 2012 where first-year senior Kyla Ross cemented her place among the eventual “Fierce Five” (and where Shawn Johnson ended her attempted comeback for a second Games). Four years later, Chris Brooks’ self-described “career of almosts” secured a fairytale ending when the emotional soul of the U.S. men’s program finally made an Olympic team.

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Before that, St. Louis played host to the 2004 Olympic women’s marathon trials, where favorite Deena Kastor was upset by Colleen De Reuck, though Kastor made up for it by winning the bronze medal in Athens, becoming the first American woman in two decades to win an Olympic marathon medal.

In an earlier era, St. Louis also held Olympic marathon trials in 1908 and 1912.

Other major events have stopped by in between, including the short track speedskating world championships in 1988 and the team version of the event in 1999. Two other major events have also had Olympic implications.

The 1948 water polo trials were held at Marquette Park in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis, south of downtown, although the U.S. team went on to finish tied for ninth that summer in London. Water polo, coincidentally, made its Olympic debut in 1900 and has been held at every Olympics since — except 1904. (A water polo event was held that year in Forest Park, with three U.S.-based club teams, though the IOC doesn’t consider it an Olympic event).

Four years later, in 1952, Olympic soccer tryouts were held in St. Louis. Rich in soccer tradition, St. Louis provided five players to the U.S. team that stunned England at the 1950 World Cup in one of the sport’s all-time great upsets, and two of those players — Charles Colombo and Harry Keough — made that 1952 team. Unfortunately, they fell to Italy 8-0 in the preliminary round, and that was the extent of their experience in Helsinki.

Colombo also competed in the 1948 Olympics, and Keough in 1956. They’re among 32 people born in St. Louis who have represented the U.S. at the Olympics in soccer. In more recent years, Becky Sauerbrunn (2012) and Lori Chalupny (2008) have upheld St. Louis’ soccer tradition, having each won a gold medal with Team USA.

Any discussion of athletes from the St. Louis area, though, must include Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Born and raised just across the river in East St. Louis, Illinois, Joyner-Kersee was one of the first superstars of the Title IX generation, making her Olympic debut in 1984 before winning back-to-back heptathlon gold medals in 1988 and 1992. Among her six medals over four Olympic Games were three golds, one of them coming in the long jump. It was a stretch of all-around dominance that led Sports Illustrated to name her the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century.

In total, 164 Olympians were born in the St. Louis area, including East St. Louis.

Boxing brothers Leon and Michael Spinks, who each won Olympic gold medals in 1976 in Montreal, were raised in the infamous Pruitt-Igo housing projects in St. Louis. More fame followed for the brothers in the pro ranks, where each became an undisputed champion in a given weight class. Leon achieved that in the heavyweight division when he famously beat Muhammad Ali in 1978, marking the beginning of the end of “The Greatest.”

Another family affair involved cyclists Chester Nelsen Sr. (1924), Chester Nelsen Jr. (1948) and Don Nelsen (1964), who became the first three-generation family among American Olympians.

Marshall Wayne, a double-medalist in diving at the Olympic Games Berlin 1936, was born in St. Louis, as was Peter Westbrook, a saber fencer who competed in five Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in 1984 in Los Angeles.

And then, of course, St. Louis was well represented as its home Olympics. Among the stars was Harry Potter (no, not that Harry Potter), who won a silver medal in men’s team golf, alongside brothers Art and Stu Stickney. Another set of brothers, William and George Passmore, helped win a lacrosse silver medal, while a third set, George and Tom Cooke, won bronze medals in soccer.

And two other groups of brothers also competed. Joseph and Arthur Wear took part in the tennis competition, while Edward, Richard and William Tritschler represented the U.S. in gymnastics.

Now a new generation of St. Louisans is ready to take over.

Two-time Olympian Sauerbrunn, 33, is aiming for her third FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer in France, after playing a pivotal role for the Americans in their winning 2015 run.

Colleen Quigley, a former Missouri high school state champion, finished eighth in the steeplechase in Rio, and she’s still just 26 years old.

And maybe, just maybe, gymnastics fans will have a local angle next summer in the form of national team member Aleah Finnegan. Though the 16-year-old now trains in the Kansas City area, she was born in St. Louis.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.