Olympic Artifacts, Olympic Stories, part 2

[This is the second part of a conversation Curator Eric Jentsch had with himself about the Olympic artifacts in our collection.]

Olympics04Female athletes have long been important catalysts for social change in the United States, and the museum is dedicated to preserving their stories. We have three uniforms from the 1996 Atlanta Games that together reflect the great diversity of female athletes in this country. First we have a jersey belonging to Mia Hamm, star of the gold-medal winning U.S. soccer team.

I remember! She took off her shirt!

Sorry, that was Brandi Chastain, and that was the Women’s World Cup. Hamm scored more goals in international competition (158) than any player in soccer history. In her career, Hamm won two FIFA World Cup Championships and three Olympic medals, as well as four NCAA titles for the University of North Carolina. Her success popularized women’s soccer in the United States, encouraging many young girls to take up the sport.

The museum also has the leotard worn by Dominique Dawes when she became the first African-American of either sex to earn a gold medal in gymnastics, as well as a basketball uniform worn by Rebecca Lobo. (now Lobo-Rushin,) the 6-foot-4 star from the University of Connecticut who helped lead the women’s team to the championship.

leotard worn by Dominique Dawes (left) and a basketball uniform worn by Rebecca Lobo (right)

Some of the success of such modern female athletes has been attributed to the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that allowed greater opportunities and equity for American women in high school and college sports.

I know about Title IX, but what’s Title X?

I don’t know.

What a surprise.

Of course the Olympics are more than just a competition; they are an international gathering of athletes, fans, diplomatic corps, and media outlets. The museum has collected artifacts from coaches and committees, volunteers and hostesses. We have flags, ceremonial banners …

You can also buy stuff …

Yes, commerce plays an important part in the Olympic Games. Tellingly, the games themselves usually lose money, but they have no shortage of corporate sponsorship. It seems that …

You are doing it again. Just tell me what you could buy.

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is this ashtray from the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. It is in the shape of Memorial Coliseum, which was first built in 1921 and is home for the USC Trojans.


Collector pins, ticket stubs, programs, and other merchandise related to the games are kept within our holdings. Such items include sponsored tie-ins, such as this egg carton from the 1984 games.


Seriously… egg cartons? Come on, how lame are you?

Not every object in our collection is related to a famous person or is incredibly valuable. Enterprise and merchandising are vital components to the story of this country. We acquire a diversity of artifacts to tell rich, complex histories.

Fine, but when I think of the Olympics I don’t think of egg cartons, I think of things like torches. You got a torch?

Olympics10Yes, we have a torch from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Olympic flame continues the tradition of the ancient Greeks, who kept a fire burning during the original Olympiads to commemorate Prometheus’s theft of fire from the god Zeus.

That seems like a bad idea.

It was. Zeus had an eagle peck out Prometheus’s liver once every day.


Returning to the subject at hand, since 1936 the torch has been relayed from Athens to the opening ceremony of the games. In 1984 the final torch runner was 1960 gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson. This year’s games are in London, where they call flashlights “torches.”

Do you have any cool flashlights at the Smithsonian?

How about this one?

You know, they hold the Olympics in the winter too.

Of course they do, and the museum has collected a number of great artifacts from the winter games.


The next winter games will be held in 2014.

So you’re not going to talk about them now?



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


Posted in Women's History