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The third edition of the Summer Olympic Games, which in their early years were anything but a profitable event, was meant to be held for the first time in the United States. Initially, Chicago was the chosen city. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, an important world’s fair, was scheduled in St. Louis in 1903. The aim was to celebrate the first centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, but the event would be staged in the following year, as the organisers were facing severe delays.
As long as the fair was planned in the same year of the Olympic Games, St. Louis was proposed as the hosting city for both events. Indeed, the organisers threatened the establishment to plan alternative Games in case of confirming the original ones in Chicago, which later renounced to stage the event.
Differently from the 1900 edition, where 21 countries were present, only 15 nations competed among each other in St. Louis. The water polo tournament was affected, too, and as a consequence only three teams, all of them representing the United States, took part. A fourth team from Germany was meant to participate as well, but they were subsquently kept out of the tournament as the players did not belong to a single club. Despite being particularly unusual, this event has been officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee.
Therefore, the 1904 edition can be considered that with the lowest number of participating teams and, consequently, of scheduled matches – only two. The encounters were played in just two days, like in Paris, on 5 and 6 September. The Life Saving Exhibition Lake, an artificial pond located inside Forest Park, was the chosen venue and hosted also some agricultural exhibits of the fair involving cattle.
The tournament began with the game between the New York Athletic Club and the Missouri Athletic Club, while the Chicago Athletic Association were directly qualified for the final match. The New Yorkers smashed their opponents 6-0 and the day after they won 5-0; they are still nowadays the only Olympic gold medal winners who have not conceded goals to their opponents. The comfortable victories by the New York Athletic Club should not be regarded as surprising, for the team won all but one AAU indoor and outdoor title between 1898 and 1911.
A major role in that side was played by Louis “Lou” Handley (pictured right), reportedly the oldest participant in the 1904 competition. He was born in Rome on 14 February 1874 of an American father and an Italian mother and was registered as an Italian citizen with the name of Luigi de Breda. According to Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, his father Francis Montague Handley was the private butler of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X. de Breda could speak Italian, English, French, Spanish and also Latin and Greek. He was a brilliant sportsman and used to swim in the River Tevere.
He moved to the United States at the age of 22 and added to his name his father’s surname. He relocated in New York, where he worked in a firm imports and, above all, practised swimming. Historian Bill Mallon maintains he triumphed in a race which comprised walking, running, horseback riding, cycling, rowing and swimming. de Breda Handley contributed to the development of the crawl style and was also an outstanding water polo player, with his personal technique of the “salmon leap” shot.
He later became the first head coach of the United States female olympic swim team – he served Antwerp 1920 medalist Ethelda Bleibtrey and Gertrude Ederle, who was coached by another ex-poloist, Thomas William Burgess – and also a journalist, who wrote five books about the sport and created the “swimming” entry on the Encyclopædia Britannica. He also won the Olympic gold medal in the 4 x 50 yard freestyle relay in 1904. Allowed to participate just as American citizen, he is still considered the only Italian who competed in the St. Louis Games.
The leading scorer of the tournament was Leo Joseph “Budd” Goodwin, who netted five times in the semi-final and scored a hat-trick in the final match. He was another gifted swimmer, as he won the gold medal in the 4 x 50 yard freestyle relay and the bronze in the plunge for distance. He also took part in the 50, 100 and 440 yard races, but he folded. His bright career came to an end as he almost lost an arm because of blood poisoning a few years later.
Two of their team-mates, David Bratton and George Van Cleaf, were definitely more unlucky. They both died of typhoid fever a few months after the Games, because of the poor conditions of the water of the swimming pool. Another gold medalist, James Steen, served during the Spanish-American War with the 22nd Regiment of the New York National Guard.
The two other clubs comprised prominent figures, too. Chicago’s Rex Beach started to work as a lawyer but he later gained fame as a popular novelist. Nicknamed “The Victor Hugo of the North”, he wrote 14 books, the first of which, “The Spoilers”, inspired five different film adaptions.
Team-mate Frank Keohe was the protagonist of a controversial episode. He competed in the springboard diving event and tied for third place with German Alfred Braunschweiger, who refused to take part in a dive-off. Consequently, Kehoe won the bronze medal, but the Germans protested and two years later the official result was announced as a tie. The verdict has not never accepted by the Americans.
The Missouri Athletic Club boasted relevant athletes as well. One of them was Manfred Toeppen, son of wrestler Hugo Toeppen, whereas Bill Orthwein became the first Yale graduate to win an Olympic medal in swimming races. The latter was also an attorney in St. Louis and candidated himself for the elections of governor of Missouri. His son William junior was the owener of football giant New England Patriots in the early 1990s.
New York Athletic Club (USA) 6-0 Missouri Athletic Club (USA) – 5 Goodwin, 1 Hesser
Chicago Athletic Association (USA) bye
New York Athletic Club 5-0 Chicago Athletic Association – 3 Goodwin, 1 Hesser, 1 de Breda Handley
New York Athletic Club (USA): David Bratton, George Van Cleaf, Leo Joseph “Budd” Goodwin, Luigi Louis “Lou” de Breda Handley, David Hesser, Joseph Ruddy, James Steen.
Chicago Athletic Association (USA): Rex Beach, Jerome Steever, Edwin Swatek, Charles Healy, Frank Kehoe, David Hammond, William Tuttle.
Missouri Athletic Club (USA): John Meyers, Manfred Toeppen, Gwynne Evans, Amedee Reyburn, Fred Schreiner, Augustus Goessling, William Orthwein.