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St. Louis Sports Commission celebrates city's heritage as America's first Olympic city

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 30, 2013: When it comes to celebrating the area’s Olympic legacy, the St. Louis Sports Commission and its partners always have a Plan B. And C. And D.

The group recently learned that it lost its bid to host the 2016 Olympic swimming trials, finishing second to the incumbents in Omaha, Neb. The day before, though, it was named Sports Commission of the Year for the third time since 2002, thanks to its ability to work with its partners in staging events such as the 2012 USA Gymnastics Visa Championships, the 2012 NCAA Midwest Regionals, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Wrestling Championships.

You don’t win anything three times by resting on your laurels, so, wasting no time either to celebrate or lick its wounds, the group announced that it would pursue the 2016 gymnastics trials, as soon as the bidding process opens, and bid again for the 2020 swimming trials. But hosting Olympic events is just one prong of the sports commission’s mission to celebrate St. Louis’ position in Olympic history.

“It’s a brand: America’s First Olympic City. There’s a lot we can do with that,” Sports Commission President Frank Viverito said.

Originally something of a sideshow to the World’s Fair, events around the 1904 Games would be viewed as preposterous by modern Olympic standards. One of the competitors in the marathon stopped to pick peaches in an orchard along what is now Manchester Road. Another took strychnine, the performance-enhancing drug of the day, to make it to the end of the 26.2-mile race.

Tug-of-war was a medal sport. Competing on a wooden leg, American George Eyser won five medals in gymnastics.

“They were of their time, and while the stories are fascinating, the legacy is priceless,” Viverito said.

Though quirky, the Games also left an indelible stamp on the Olympic movement with the debuts of diving, boxing, weightlifting and wrestling. But perhaps the 1904 event’s most lasting legacy can be summed up in three little words: gold, silver, bronze. St. Louis was the first to award the medals that are synonymous with the Olympics.

Marking an Olympic heritage trail

Given the city’s tradition, the sports commission wants to expand beyond its role as an event host to celebrate the five venues of the Games that remain in use today:

  • Creve Coeur Lake, site of the rowing events, now the home of the St. Louis Rowing Club.
  • Forest Park, site of diving, swimming and water polo.
  • Francis Field, site of the opening and closing ceremonies, archery, gymnastics, cycling, soccer and track.
  • The roads of the marathon route, loosely construed as a venue. Most of them were dirt and dust in 1904. We know them as Manchester, Ballas, Clayton, Lindbergh, Olive, Meramec, Brentwood and Forsyth.
  • Glen Echo Country Club, which hosted golf. The sport disappeared as a medal event following the 1904 Games but will return in Rio in 2016.

The sports commission has designed interpretative signage for each of the sites, which could form an Olympic heritage trail. The commission hopes to include the Olympic rings in the signage but must secure permission from the IOC and USOC, which zealously protect the symbol. It took the first step by attending the gathering of the World Union of Olympic Cities during the Games in London. After telling the stories of the 1904 Games, Viverito met IOC President Jacques Rogge, who said, “St. Louis is a very important part of Olympic history.”
The group is waiting for final approval to include the Olympic rings, which would be the crowning touch to the signage project. No timetable has been set.

“The commission is cheered by comments, commands and the urging of IOC president Jacques Rogge that the cities continue to celebrate their Olympic legacy,” Viverito said. “We’re America’s first Olympic City. That has a good ring to it, pun intended.”

Beyond signage

A stop along the trail could be just the first step at Francis Field, which also has hosted the 1986 AAU/USA National Junior Olympic Games, the 1987 and ‘89 National Senior Olympics, the 1994 Olympic Festival and has been part of the route for Olympic torch relays in 1984, 1996 and 2004. Among the ideas for reinforcing the relationship is renaming the field to include “Olympic” and perhaps constructing a cauldron.

“The St. Louis Sports Commission’s proposal to highlight the city’s Olympic legacy would provide a great opportunity for St. Louis and for Washington University,” said Susan Killenberg McGinn, a spokesman for Washington University. “We are more than willing to engage in continued discussions to spotlight St. Louis’ and Washington University’s important and enduring Olympic history.”

And because of golf’s return to the Games in 2016, Glen Echo is especially well positioned to celebrate and expand its Olympic legacy. The Olympic flag hangs proudly at the club, the only one in the world with the distinction.

Rob Stewart, general manager and COO at Glen Echo, has proposed several ideas to bridge past and present. Stewart hopes to stage an exhibition between U.S. and Canadian PGA players, dressed in 1904 garb, to recreate the gold-medal final between American Chandler Egan and George Lyon of Canada. He also would like to present the host club in Rio with a replica of the gold medal handed out here and to host the U.S. Olympic Golf team with a black-tie gala.  

“What better place to send off the team than from Glen Echo?” Stewart said. “We cherish and take pride in what this club is and are just fine with letting the entire world find out how special it is, too.”

An Olympic hall of fame?

The sports commission also is thinking long-range, exploring the possibility of an Olympic plaza on the Arch grounds. That project would pale, though, in comparison to the group’s pie in the sky: building a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame here. The U.S. has hosted eight Olympics, won more medals than any other nation, and the USOC has inducted athletes into a virtual Hall of Fame since 1983. Yet no building exists to house the athletes’ memorabilia or to honor the U.S. Olympic legacy.

“This is a very exciting concept. Allow your imagination to consider that it’s not something now and what could it look like and what could it mean to St. Louis and the Olympic movement,” Viverito said.  “We love the idea, but the operative word is idea.”

Preliminary discussion has centered on two sites. The first is the UMSL campus, close to Glen Echo. The museum would be part of the Great Streets project that aims to turn Natural Bridge Road into a Loop-like destination.

“I know that the project is just in the earliest stages and at this point is just a vision; however, we think it is a great idea,” Stewart said.

The second is the vacant Municipal Courts building, situated between City Hall and Scottrade Center. The advantage would be location, nestled in St. Louis’ sports triangle: Scottrade, the Edward Jones Dome and Busch Stadium.

A study conducted by Washington University’s Olin School of Business weighed the pros and cons of each site and suggested that the museum could attract roughly 400,000 visitors a year, similar to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

“It’s just an idea. It’s an initiative, but it’s exciting,” Viverito said.

Such a project in either location would require years of planning and fund-raising; the Washington University report suggested a $60 million bond issue, paid for with a sales tax increase or hotel tax. So, as Viverito suggested, at this point, the museum probably is best left as “just an idea.”

In the shorter term, the group is working on ways to celebrate the Olympic legacy at the city’s 250th birthday party, Feb. 14, 2014, smack dab in the middle of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Picture Art Hill transformed into the downhill course reminiscent of Lillehammer, Vancouver or Lake Placid, replete with homages to the slopes that have made heroes of Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Picabo Street and Bode Miller.

“We want to find a fun, educational way to tie the Olympic legacy to St. Louis’ birthday and raise the region’s profile,” Viverito said. “There’s so many ways that this legacy can benefit us. It’s a remarkable piece of history. And it’s ours.”