An extract from Margaret Molloy's new book "Martin Sheridan: Mayo’s Famous Son" - The story of the nine-time Olympic medalist from Mayo, a forensic account of an Irish N.Y.P.D. officer’s sporting success.

Martin Sheridan’s first foray into Olympic Games was at St Louis, Missouri in 1904. These Olympic Games would come to be remembered, for a series of weird incidents, which very nearly became their undoing. The location of the Games, initially, was to be Chicago, which was chosen by the IOC, but a series of events happening in St Louis were to dictate otherwise:

St Louis had been planning a mammoth World Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the biggest real estate deal in history. Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte were the principals signing the treaty, that transferred one million square miles of land from France to the United States for a cost of $15 million. St Louis was the capital of the territory annexed by the purchase. The exposition was planned for 1903, and it was organized to include a broad range of sporting events, as part of its Department of Physical Culture. The cost of such a huge event forced a delay until 1904, but with Chicago Games scheduled for the same year, the St Louis organizers felt it would be prudent to combine the two events. Chicago, however, did not desire to give up its Games.

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However, the hand of fate intervened in the form of Olympic Games director, James E. Sullivan. Sullivan had a huge influence, both in the IOC and the A.A.U.  Of Irish descent, he was born on November 18, 1862, in New York City. He was one of the founders of the A.A.U. in 1888, serving as its Secretary from 1889 until 1906, and then as its President from 1906 to 1909. Sullivan also served as the chairman of the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association in 1903. He also was one of the most influential people in the early Olympic movement, although his relationship with IOC president Pierre de Coubertin was tense. Sullivan was hailed as the greatest Athletic power in America.

The following appeared in the Sequachee Valley News:

He is the greatest athletic power in America and the world’s greatest athletic authority. In recognition of his directorship of the St Louis Olympic Games in 1904, the IOC conferred upon him a special medal. Only fourteen such medals ever have been awarded. President McKinley being the only other American to be so honored.

James E. Sullivan

James E. Sullivan

Sullivan was also chief of the Department of Physical Culture at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Martin et al writes:

As a result of Sullivan’s joint involvement, the United States National Track and Field Championships which were organized by the A.A.U. had been awarded to St Louis as well. Having an Olympic Games in Chicago, with no American team participation due to a conflicting National Championships in St Louis, would have been inappropriate. The St Louis organizers thus aggressively, sought to have the Olympic Games moved. In an attempt to resolve the impasse between the two cities, the ultimate decision for the Games venue was eventually given back to the IOC. Interestingly, despite IOC member preference to keep the Games in Chicago, de Coubertin himself decided otherwise, and the Games were moved to St Louis.

De Coubertin, however, did not attend the Olympic Games:

He felt St Louis lacked originality and beauty and was only a mediocre city. He was also concerned that the athletic festival would be an adjunct to the exposition. Racially mixed competition was an anathema to him, and two South Africans, members of the Tswana tribe ran in the grueling Marathon. For the first time, a pair of African American sportsmen Joseph Stadler and George Poage won medals in track and field. But visitors to St Louis were strictly segregated throughout.

Poster advertising Olympic Games and World’s Fair St Louis 1904

Poster advertising Olympic Games and World’s Fair St Louis 1904

The Exposition organizers built a permanent gymnasium and a stadium, at Francis Field on the campus of the University of Washington in St Louis, with enough seats to hold some 35,000 spectators. The entire event lasted from 1 July - 23, November 1904. Thirteen nations were represented at the Games. The Games were opened by David R. Francis, President of the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Stadium, Francis Field at St Louis 1904

The Olympic Stadium, Francis Field at St Louis 1904

Martin Sheridan was just 23 when he made his debut into Olympic competition at St Louis in 1904, and his first Olympic victory was in the discus. The discus competition was expected to be tightly contested with Nikolas Georgantas, the Greek champion, and, Ralph Rose, in contention. 

In the throwing of the discus freestyle, yesterday Sheridan of New York, and Rose of Chicago tied for first place.

The Baltimore Sun reported:

The keenest competition of the entire week’s program developed in the discus throw. Martin J. Sheridan of the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association, and Ralph W. Rose of the Chicago Athletic Association tied for first place with throws of 128’ 10½” breaking the Olympic record by more than 10 feet. As splitting points in an Olympic competition is not allowed, the men were forced to throw off the tie. The best that Rose could do was 120’ 6¾.” while Sheridan, although beating him, also showed a reversal of form, and the distance that gave him first place was 127’ 10¼”  

John Flanagan, Martin Sheridan, James Mitchell, St Louis Olympic Games 1904.

John Flanagan, Martin Sheridan, James Mitchell, St Louis Olympic Games 1904.

Martin Sheridan broke the world’s record in the discus handicap event:

J. Sheridan of the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association throwing from scratch in the discus handicap broke the world’s record in the discus throw with a throw of 132.’ The discus throw attracted little attention until the announcer’s called the result of Martin Sheridan’s first throw. It came within a few inches of equaling the world record made by him of 127’ 9½.” When Sheridan again stepped into seven-foot ring, the crowd waited breathlessly while the steel discus whirred through the air. The discus was thrown 130’ 9.” The result of the next throw was 132’ even. The discus used by Sheridan was weighed and found to be 1/8 ounce overweight. 

Felix Carbajal the Cuban marathoner

Felix Carbajal the Cuban marathoner

Results at the Olympic Games in St Louis 1904

Putting the 16-lb shot-handicap:

  1. Ralph Rose C.A.A. Chicago 48’7.”
  2. W.W. Coe Jr. Somerville, Mass. (scratch) 47’ 3.”
  3. L. E. Feuerbach N.Y.A.C. (2’)                                                   43’ 10½.”
  4. Martin J. Sheridan G.N.Y.I.A.A. (3’)                43’ 8½.”                               

Discus throw –handicap:

  1. Martin Sheridan. G.N.Y. I.A.A. (scratch) 132’ (world’s record)
  2. John Flanagan G.N.Y.I.A.A. (6’) 123’ 11”
  3. John A. Biller Newark N.J. (24’) 104’ 3”
  4. J.S. Mitchell New York A.C. (10’)        109’ 4.”

Discus throw-freestyle:

  1. Martin Sheridan 127’ 10¼

(Martin Sheridan & Ralph Rose had tied for first place with throws of 128’ 10½.”

  1. Nikolas Georgantas, Athens, Greece  123’ 7½.”
  2. John Flanagan 118’ 7½.”

It was the first time in the history of the Olympic Games that there was a tie for first place.

You can purchase Martin Sheridan: Mayo’s Famous Son by Margaret Molloy here.

Read more: Five of the most important females in Irish history

Martin Sheridan St Louis Olympic Games, 1904.