Hyde Park’s Olympic history

William Rainey Harper and a committee of University luminaries led the city’s winning bid for the 1904 Games—only to suffer the agony of defeat.

By Jason Kelly

Photography courtesy The Image Works

John MacAloon pushed play, and Chicago’s future appeared on the auditorium screen, a three-minute video “flyover” that provided a gleaming electronic peek at the 2016 Olympic bid committee’s ambitions. The video offered a helicopter-pilot’s perspective heading south along the lakefront, then west to Washington Park, swooping past the proposed Olympic Stadium and aquatics venue there, and back up north.

From the cycling and beach-volleyball complexes on Northerly Island to the marathon starting line at Buckingham Fountain to the tennis center in Lincoln Park, the video depicted familiar sites made new to accommodate international competition. For Chicago—both the city and the University—hosting the Olympics is, in fact, a very old ambition. William Rainey Harper pursued it first.

Chicago lost the 1904 Games, but J. D. Lightbody, PhB 1912, won the 1,500-meter dash.

The University’s founding president, a strong supporter of the modern Olympic movement revived in the late 19th century, assembled a committee to pursue the Games at the urging of civic leaders. The roster reads like a modern campus map: Swift, Harper, Noyes, Hutchinson, Stagg, Ryerson, Abbott, Bartlett. “This was the first-ever Olympic bid committee,” MacAloon said—and a successful one. On May 21, 1901, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) named Chicago the 1904 host city.

MacAloon, AM’74, PhD’80, a professor and academic dean in the social sciences and a member of the 2016 bid committee, noticed some puzzled expressions during his April 16 Women’s Board lecture at the Arts Club of Chicago. “Wait a minute. Did we have Olympic Games here before?” he said. “The answer is no, we didn’t have them.”

Those Games were held in St. Louis. Officials there convinced the IOC to move them from Chicago to coincide with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Although Chicago’s plans never came to fruition, they were almost as grand as today’s, including a stadium in what would become Grant Park. “A magnificent stadium, planned by Holabird & Roche, 70,000 seats, a movable roof, an extraordinary neoclassical construction, the kind of wonder of the time,” said MacAloon, an Olympic historian and the author of This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (1981). “Never built, of course.”

Housing for athletes, many events, and much of the ceremonial pageantry would have been held in Hyde Park. The idea thrilled the student body. When Chicago won the Games, MacAloon said, “hundreds—by some accounts thousands—of students snake-danced all the way from campus to city hall in celebration.” News of the move to St. Louis in early 1903 sparked another outburst. “Those students very nearly rioted, such that they caused extreme consternation among the fire marshals on the South Side by having a huge bonfire on Marshall Field that threatened to get out of control.”

The current bid process also has inflamed passions for and against the Games. Supporters like MacAloon envision a city transformed as an international microscope prompts improvements to facilities and infrastructure that otherwise might not happen. Although many structures would be temporary to keep costs down, plans call for some permanent construction. The Olympic Village living quarters for the athletes on the near South Side, for example, would become mixed-income housing.

Some critics fear unforeseen costs, both to public finances and resources like parks, where much of the activity would be concentrated. A questioner at the lecture expressed concern about historic Washington Park, which would become the site of the 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium. Plans call for it to be pared to a multiuse amphitheater with possibly 3,500 seats after the Games. The existing armory would be converted into a multisport community facility, and an Olympic-sized pool devoted to Chicago Public Schools competition would remain from the aquatics venue. “The commitment of 2016 is not only to mitigate any damage to the parks, but in fact improve the parks,” MacAloon said, acknowledging the ongoing debate about what constitutes improvement.

With the October 2 decision approaching, the bid committee’s focus is on convincing the IOC. In April Chicago 2016 made its case to visiting evaluators. It was their first stop on a tour of the final four contending cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Madrid. “We gave them 285 presentations” over six days, MacAloon said. “We gave them Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor too. That helped.”

In a sense, the committee’s leaders measure themselves against Chicago’s 1904 visionaries—many of them from the University, MacAloon hastens to note. “As I like to remind Patrick Ryan, the CEO of Chicago 2016 and the board of trustees chair at Northwestern, he’s really doing a great job ably following in the path laid down by Harper and the trustees of the University of Chicago.”

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