It was the first time that the Olympic Games were held outside of Europe and the first time they were held in an English speaking country. It was heralded as a monumental step in the internationalisation of the Olympic spirit and it was prompted as such.
Unfortunately, the reality of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics proved to be anything but. Owing both to the Russo-Japanese War and the sheer difficulty in sending athletes to the United States from Europe, the 1904 Games were largely bereft of elite athletes. Nevertheless, perhaps owing to the determined attitude of the organisers, the Games continued regardless.
Whether this was a blessing or a curse for the sport of weightlifting is up to the reader to decide.
Today’s post examines the re-emergence of weightlifting at the 1904 Olympic Games. The sport had been part of the inaugural games in Athens in 1896 but had failed to appear at the Paris showing four years later. As a sport still in its infancy, weightlifting depended on international showings to improve its popularity. While the first international weightlifting competition was held in London in 1891, the Olympic games five years later had seen significantly more media interest in the event.
Weightlifting in many ways needed genuine Olympic interest to attract more to the sport.
Setting the Boundaries
Given that the 1896 games were somewhat shrouded in controversy about which lifts were to performed and in what manner, you would be forgiven for thinking that the 1906 iteration would have resolved this issue. This was not the case. Somewhat bizarrely the decision was taken to include two events. An all-round dumbbell lift and a two-hand lift.
All-Round Dumbbell Lifts
Rather than a single lift such as the snatch or clean and jerk, the all round dumbbell contest demanded that competitors compete a series of exercises with heavy dumbbells to determine the best overall athlete. Based on the idea that lifters should be functionally strong in all senses, the contest was split between two days, with 5 lifts to be performed on each day.
On the first day the following lifts were examined:
- Holding out one dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length, the bells to be started with the arms perpendicular above the head an dropped down from there to straight out at arm’s length from the shoulder horizontally
- Curling one dumbbell in one hand
- Tossing one dumbbell in one hand from the ground to arm’s length above the shoulders in one motion without stopping at the shoulder.
- Jerking up one dumbbell with one hand from the shoulder to arm’s length above the shoulder
- Pushing up slowly one dumbbell in each hand from the shoulder to arm’s length above the shoulder.
Day two would see the competitors face the following lifts:
- Curling one dumbbell in each hand at the same time
- Tossing up one dumbbell from the ground to the shoulder with one hand
- Pushing up slowly one dumbbell with one hand from the shoulder to arm’s length above the shoulder
- Jerking up one dumbbell in each hand from the shoulder to arm’s length above the shoulder
- A free style section composed entirely of original feats at the option of the contestant.
For the first nine lifts, competitors were awarded 5 points, 3 points and 1 point if they came first, second or third. The final event was up to the judges’ discretion with the caveat that no more than 25 points could be divided between 3 competitors. The idea that bicep curling was once an Olympic event will undoubtedly give hope to all those ‘suns out, guns out’ trainees in the weights room.
Thankfully the other component of the competition, the two-handed lift, was much simpler to understand.
The Two-Handed Lift
Similar to the 1896 games, the two hand lift was comparable to the modern day clean and jerk, although admittedly with a less smoother technique. Competitors would attempt to outlift one another and points would be judged accordingly.
Lifters were given three attempts to hit their target weights, with the top three athletes given three addition attempts to best their previous lifts.
Owing to the logistical and political issues outlined in the introduction, only 5 athletes competed in the 1904 weightlifting competitions. Four from the host country, the United States, and one from Greece.
For some reason that is not immediately clear, the Greek athlete, Pericles Kakousis, declined the opportunity to compete in both events. Instead he focused his energy solely on the two-handed lift. A decision that paid dividends for the foreign lifter.
The All-Round Dumbbell Lift
Held on the 1st and 3rd of September 1904, the first all-round dumbbell lift were dominated by the American athlete Frederick Winters, pictured below during one of the lifts.
Remarkably Frederick finished first in six of the ten events and only achieved a silver medal. It was the American gymnast and football player Oscar Osthoff who took the gold medal. Oscar managed to clinch the medal in the final lift of the contest, the ‘freestyle round’, which saw him secure 15 points compared to Winters’ 7. Given the skewed nature of the points system, it was a somewhat cruel end to the competition for Winters who many tipped as the best lifter of the games.
Gold Medalist Oscar Osthoff
The Two-Handed Lift
Absurd as it may seem, the two-handed lift event took place on September 3rd, the same day that the all-round dumbbell lift entered its final stages. While it is difficult to say just what effect this had on the athlete’s strength, one would assume it impacted their performances. This may explain why Frederick Winters, the nearly ran from the dumbbell lift, decided not to compete in the two-handed event.
In the end 4 lifters took to the two-handed lift, with the gold medalist Oscar Osthoff performing admirably given his prior lifting engagements. Nevertheless, it was the Greek lifter pictured below, Perikles Kakousis, who came away with the gold medal.
It was a remarkable victory for the Greek as he bested Oscar Osthoff’s lift by some thirty kilos, something that was no mean feat. Nevertheless, question marks were raised about the standard of competition when Perikles finished 6th at the 1906 Intercalated games, which were closer to an Olympic standard. In any case, Perikles gained the distinction of being Greece’s first modern gold medal weightlifter, which in itself is a laudable achievement.
A Rousing Success or Failure?
Although weightlifting appeared at the 1906 Intercalated games, it’s survival at the international level did not last. Weightlifting was omitted from the 1908 and 1912 games before finally returning for the 1920 games in Antwerp. By that time the event had been completely restructed with weight classes introduced and a great emphasis placed on barbell lifts as opposed to dumbbells.
This would suggest that although important in gaining a foothold for weightlifting at the Olympics, the early games were something of a non-sequitur in terms of advancing the sport. That the weightlifting event in 1920 bore little resemblance to its predecessors was testament to that.
Regardless, from an American point of view, the 1904 event was a success. Aside from one pesky Greek athlete, the Yanks came away with 5 medals, thereby kickstarting the American weightlifting phenomena at the games.