The Rio Deal

The Olympic hosting fraternity adds a continent

If you haven’t heard already, Bob Costas will likely reiterate more than once over the next two weeks that the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics are the first to be held in the South Americas. An international fan base that could have been fighting unruly Cubs and White Sox fans for space on the elevated Red Line train in Chicago (the U.S. host candidate knocked out in the first round of balloting in 2009), will instead have the opportunity to witness aquatic sports contested in Brazilian waters fetid enough to put the Flint River to shame. The ’16 Games are just the latest in a series of continental hosting firsts for the IOC. A look at the previous land mass debuts:

Europe — 1896 Athens Olympics

The inaugural European Games coincided with the rebirth of the Modern Olympic Games themselves. The 1896 event, held from April 6–15, began humbly enough, with just 241 athletes from 14 nations competing in 43 events. The U.S. won the battle for gold, with 11 first-place finishes, but the host country of Greece won the overall medal war with the Americans by a 46–20 count. James Connolly (USA), a Harvard student at the time, earned the honor of becoming the first Modern Olympic champion, following his victory in the triple jump. Greek runner Spyridon Louis won the marathon, whose course originated, appropriately, in the municipality of Marathon. But it was Carl Schuhmann of Germany who claimed the distinction of being the most decorated competitor at the debut Games, clinching three gymnastics and one wrestling gold.

North America — 1904 St. Louis Olympics

The natural reaction to this tidbit would be, understandably — how could a city that lost an MLB franchise (Browns), an NBA team (Hawks) and two NFL properties (Cardinals and Rams) have possibly hosted the Olympic Games? The answer can be found with a look at the 1900 census numbers. At the turn of the last century, St. Louis was a much more prominent city; the fourth-largest in the U.S., with more than 575,000 residents. The area was substantial enough in that era to accommodate hosting both the Olympics and the World’s Fair at the same time. The Games ran in conjunction with the Fair from July 1 — November 23, with 651 athletes from 12 countries contesting 95 events. The U.S. kept the lion’s share of precious metal from leaving the country. Its 78 golds eclipsed the sum total of medals awarded to all other nations combined. American Anton Heida led the way with five first-place finishes in gymnastics.

Australia — 1956 Melbourne Olympics

South America came within a single bribe of breaking through the continental glass ceiling 60 years earlier. Melbourne won the right to host the ’56 Games by just one vote over Buenos Aires. To further insult the Argentineans, the IOC awarded the equestrian events to Stockholm, Sweden that year, since stringent Australian restrictions on undocumented alien horses kept them from clearing quarantine. The Aussies, with their flip-flop seasons and backwards-swirling toilets, forced the Games to be an autumnal affair, held from November 22 — December 8, involving 3,314 athletes from 96 nations competing in 151 events. The USSR buried the competition, outpacing second-place USA by five golds and 24 overall medals. The Maiden of Melbourne was Hungarian gymnast Agnes Keleti, whose father had died a decade earlier in Auschwitz at the hands of Nazi Germany. Keleti, by that time an astounding 35 years old, topped all Olympic competitors with four golds and two silvers.

Asia — 1964 Tokyo Olympics

A mere 19 years after being decimated at the end of World War II, Tokyo was ready for its international close-up. The city paid homage to its past with the selection of local college runner Yoshinori Sakai to light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1945; the day the world’s first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. The Tokyo Games ran from October 10–24, inviting 5,152 athletes from 93 countries to compete in 163 events. The U.S. claimed six more golds than the second-place Soviets, but trailed them in the overall medal count, 96–90. American swimmer Don Schollander took home four golds, winning three of his races in world-record time. Four years later, as a Skull and Bones invitee of Yale’s Class of 1968, he graduated with a fellow alumnus who would demonstrate a similar penchant for winning races a quarter-century later — 43rd President of the United States George W. Bush.

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