Note: This article is divided into two parts.
The American gymnastics program is best known for the overwhelming success of its women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program. Meanwhile its men’s artistic gymnastics program (MAG) has failed to live up to the same standards of success. It has led to frequent debate as why this is the case. But one ironic piece of trivia that this debate misses is that American MAG actually has more Olympic medals than American WAG.
In fact, the American MAG program actually emerged as the all-time medal leader after the 1904 Olympics and it wasn’t until the 1952 Olympics that the Americans would be surpassed by another nation. Counting disputed Olympic medals the Americans could claim they had the most decorated MAG program up until the 1968 Olympics.
So how did this happen?
The long answer is a combination of geography, home field advantage, questionable nationality rules, emigration trends, two competing styles of gymnastics, a world fair, the Great Depression, an abnormally high number of Olympic events and three wars. The short answer is that the United States hosted the Olympics and few nations bothered to show up. This allowed the Americans to keep most of the medals for themselves.
Before I begin, I first want to say that the early Olympians were real athletes who were masters of the sport. During this article I will touch base on these events having weak fields and low participation rates. I want to emphasize that this shouldn’t be a slight against the actual competitors who attended.
The year is 1904. The modern Olympics movement isn’t even a decade old and is already on life support. The 1900 Paris Olympics were rather disastrous after being held as a sideshow to the 1900 World Fair. Some athletes didn’t even realize they were participating in an Olympics. And things were about to get a whole lot worse for the IOC.
The 1904 Olympics were slated to be held in Chicago only to get strong armed into being moved to St. Louis by the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The Olympics would again serve as another sideshow to a world fair. Even under the best of circumstances the Olympics weren’t prestigious enough back then to attract the strong competitive fields that we see today.
But the 1904 Olympics would be held under the worst of circumstances as the United States was geographically isolated from Europe. The fastest ocean liner of the day took five and a half days to cross the Atlantic Ocean. And that is just to sail from the West Coast of Europe to the East Coast of the United States. Factor in train times and most European athletes needed a week to a week and a half just to get to the Olympics.
Things were made even worse when 1904 was the year Japan and Russia went to war. This made things especially tense in Europe as the positions of France (an ally of Russia) and the United Kingdom (an ally of Japan) threatened to greatly expand the conflict. It further diverted attention away from what was seen as a minor sporting event on another continent. The end result was the Olympics being attended almost entirely by Americans.
Before we can proceed, I first have to explain the two major databases for Olympic medals. The first database is the IOC’s official results that can be taken directly from its website. The second database is a collection of Olympic historians/researchers that are known as “Madmen.” Their research can be described as the finest that has ever been done on Olympic history.
Madmen is in many ways superior to the IOC results and is the database I preference for this blog. One of Madmen’s members has a highly prestigious Olympic Order for his contributions to documenting Olympic history. If you don’t know what that an Olympic order is, I talk about it extensively in this article. Every stat in this article comes from Madmen and the only IOC stats I will use are the ones I specifically cite as coming from the IOC.
At the 1904 Olympics 80% of all competitors were from the United States, another 8% were Canadian, and a sizable minority of the remaining field were athletes who competed for European nations, but had actually been living in the United States at the time of the Olympics. At the time gymnastics was culturally a European sport and was hit rather hard by the low participation rates of European athletes.
In the All-Around (AA) at the 1904 Olympics, Madmen lists only 12 non-Americans which made up just 10% of the entire field. Of which five of them were already living in the United States. Another gymnast traveled to the United States for the Olympics and opted to move to the country permanently. Many of these athletes are interpreted as American by the IOC database and that database puts the American field as accounting for 94% of all competitors.
The foreign field dominated the AA. Non-Americans listed in the Madmen database took the top seven spots. Three more finished 9th, 13th, and 20th. All but one of them finished in the top half of the overall standings. While the Europeans dominated the AA, there was one catch.
In this era of gymnastics there were actually two competing gymnastics disciplines and both disciplines were hosted at the Olympics. They were held in two separate competitions that took place almost four months apart (early July and late October). This resulted in a staggering number of 12* MAG events being held making 36 medals available. But eight of those events (24 medals) would be contested at the second competition in October. And every single contestant at the October competition was an American. And just like that, the Americans automatically won 24 medals on top of the 5* medals they won in the first competition.
Like other sports at the 1904 Olympics, some competitions were simultaneously being held as both an Olympics and the National Championships. The second October MAG competition was one of these examples. Madmen describes the quality as “marginal Olympic caliber.” But because there were technically no rules excluding foreign athletes, both Madmen and the IOC count all 24 medals for the Americans.
The 1900 Paris Olympics had 50 contested events in MAG in its official report. But because they were “not open to all possible competitors” all but one of them have been tossed from both the IOC and Madmen databases. This technicality is what allowed the Americans to win and keep a truckload of medals in 1904, whereas the same could not be said for the French in 1900. The Americans won 5* medals in the July competition and 24 medals in the October competition for a total of 29* medals.
The United States would host the Olympics again in 1932. Again geography worked to the advantage of the United States as the long travel times discouraged participation. Whereas the 1904 Olympics were held at an inconvenient time with the Russo-Japanese War, the same could be said for the 1932 Olympics. They were being held not only during the Great Depression, but in the very worst year of the Great Depression.
The 1932 Olympics had the smallest number of athletes of any Summer Olympics since last time the United States hosted them in 1904. Of the 46 competitors in MAG, 20 of them (43%) were American.
The four highest ranking teams from the 1928 Olympics all declined to attend the 1932 games. Only one gymnast from any of those four nations (Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and France) would travel to the 1932 Olympics as an individual. Swiss gymnast Georges Miez was the defending Olympic All-Around champion and decided to attend the 1932 Olympics on his own.
Miez was allowed to participate on his favorite event (floor exercise) only after a vote was held among the other nations to let him into the competition. During the floor competition Miez became infuriated with the way he was scored. He was described as “loudly confronting the judges” and then proceeded to withdraw from the Olympics entirely after having participated in just one event.
With 11 events being contested there were 33 medals available. Of which the Americans won 16 of them. Italy finished second with seven medals. Italian gymnast Romeo Neri was the highest ranking gymnast from the 1928 games that participated in the 1932 Olympics. He won the AA. But it wasn’t just a weak field that made the medal count so high for the Americans. It was a series of podium sweeps in events that had very low participation rates.
Tumbling: 4 total competitors
Club Swinging: 4 total competitors
Rope Climbing: 5 total competitors
Most of the events had low participation rates. Of the nine individual events, eight of them had 15 or fewer competitors. The United States was able to use home field advantage and low participation rates to win an abnormally high number of medals. But there was also one last advantage.
Club swinging was exclusively an American event being held only in the two times the Americans hosted the Olympics (1904 and 1932). If not for the United States hosting the Olympics, it wouldn’t have ever been contested. Rope climbing and tumbling were also events that hadn’t regularly been part of the Olympic program. While tumbling is designated as a separate from MAG under modern rules, under 1932 rules it was under the umbrella of MAG.
The Americans were able to add non-standard events that they excelled in to the Olympic program. The two Olympics the Americans hosted featured 12 events (1904) and 11 events (1932). With the exception of the 1924 Olympics which had nine events, every other Olympic games had eight MAG events or less. No host nation was as successful as the Americans in getting non-standard Olympic events into the lineup to the betterment of themselves.
That’s the story of how the United States excelled in early Olympic history. This article is not an attempt to bash the Americans, but to retell the history. It should be noted that these athletes were the pioneers of the sport and these early Olympics were fundamental to building the modern Olympics. I do not believe in tearing down these accomplishments because USAG and the media never tried to prop them up in the first place. My only intent was to recite the fascinating story behind these medals and to explain how a MAG program managed to win 29 medals in a single Olympics.
Currently, American MAG has 66 Olympic medals compared to the 48 medals in its WAG program. The 45 medals the American MAG program won at these two Olympics account for 68% of all Olympic medals it has ever won. Up until the 2016 Olympics it would be accurate to say American MAG won more medals in these two Olympics than American WAG won in the entirety of its history.
But American MAG could claim even more medals and Part II of this article will cover the disputed medals within the American medal count, which are quite fascinating. It involves an event that blurs the line between track and field and gymnastics. It also covers an Olympic AA champion who had Austrian citizenship but competed for the American City of Philadelphia.
Thus, you will find the answer as to why I have asterisks on some of the numbers in this article.