Olympic Artifacts, Olympic Stories, part 1

Athletes from over 200 nations are gathered in London tonight to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. This year’s games will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of its predecessors, providing not only thrilling moments of international competition for millions of viewers, but also exposing symbolic narratives of individuals and nations, of politics and propaganda, that will be used to mark this particular era of history. The Olympics are a wonderful conduit for understanding broad stories about the history of America, its people, and its place in the world. The National Museum of American History collects artifacts to research, interpret, and share these stories for the benefit of the public, helping to create a better understanding of the American experience.

OK. That’s all very good, but kind of boring. “Exposing symbolic narratives?” “Conduit for understanding?” You keep that up and we might as well stop reading now. Why don’t you just tell us what cool Olympics stuff the museum has?

Well, a good place to start would be this participation medal from the first modern Olympics. The games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. They were based on the original incarnation of the games, believed to have first begun at a festival held in Zeus’s honor at Olympia in 776 B.C. The 1896 Olympics arose from a variety of interests, spearheaded by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France who …

Great, anyway, how did the Americans do?

Excellent, especially considering they had to pay their own way. Comprised primarily of Ivy League and amateur club athletes from the East Coast, the American team won 8 of the 12 track and field events.


You must consider that only 13 countries participated. The games were a far cry in popularity from what they are now. That said, the United States was considered an upstart, and surprised a lot of people with their success. Each participant at the games was given a bronze medal such as this one in our collection.


So, whose medal was this?

We don’t know.

What’s your job again?

Of course medals are an important part of the Olympics, with each nation eagerly adding to its totals. The United States is first in all time medal standings, winning 2,302 in all, 929 of them gold.


We do have a gold medal in our collection, given to us by sprinter Bobby Morrow. He won three events at the 1956 Melbourne games, the 100 and 200 meter sprints and 4×100 meter relay. Morrow went on to be named Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.”


You know who else was a “Sportsman of the Year?” Terry Bradshaw!

Well, yes, that’s true, and the museum is fortunate to have a uniform from Mr. Bradshaw in its collections. However, he was not in the Olympics. Try to meet me half-way here.

Olympics03The museum has many items from Olympic athletes, including the uniforms they wore in competition. These items tell not only the diverse stories of the individual contestants, but also how their efforts have created shared memories that have inspired the nation.One interesting item comes from the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, a sweater worn by lacrosse player Louis S. Nixdorff. Nixdorff’s national team was simply his Johns Hopkins University squad, which had to win a tournament in order to be selected.


Lacrosse was a demonstration sport that year, and each of the three teams participating went 1-1. Our Archives Center has his diary about the experience.

See more artifacts in part 2 of this post.

Eric Jentsch is Deputy Chair of the Division of Culture and the Arts.