by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s one of the smaller of the 30,000-odd artifacts in the Homestead’s collection, but the highlighted object in today’s “Games People Play” post is an interesting one from Los Angeles sports history. It is a ticket stub from the Olympic regional trials in track and field, held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on this day in 1924.
That year’s summer games were held at Paris, which hosted the second Olympiad in 1900, and, though the opening ceremonies were on 4 May, the events continued until 27 July and the trials for track and field were held nearly three weeks after the onset of the games.
The competition at the Coliseum, which had only been open for a little more than a year, was for athletes from southern California, Arizona and New Mexico and consisted of nineteen track and field events, held from 2 to 5 p.m. There was, however, more to the program than the qualifying events, from which selected athletes were to go on to the national trials in Boston in mid-June and, if chosen, to Paris the following month.
For example, famed heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey agreed to fight a three-round exhibition and donated his appearance to the committee which organized the trials. The Los Angeles Times explained that “instead of getting a fortune for his efforts . . . the champion will be presented with a cup in appreciation of his generosity in appearing.” Additionally, a dozen amateur fighters from the Los Angeles Athletic Club competed in a half-dozen (naturally) bouts. Beyond this, there were four wrestling matches and “tumbling and acrobatic stunts by the best gymnasts in Southern California.”
Another notable sidelight was a “special 100-yard dash” involving Bill Robinson, described as a “dusky [black] stage comedian, who is appearing at the Orpheum [Theatre] this week.” Noted as “a famous dancer,” Robinson was to compete in the race in a highly unusual fashion in that “whereas, most of the dash stars run facing the tape, Robinson is a bit more original and does all of his running back first.” It was noted that “the surprising part of it all is that he makes good time, being able to cover the century in a shade over 14 s[econds].”
He would later become much more famous that he was in 1924 as a featured tap dancer on the Orpheum theater circuit and “Bojangles” Robinson achieved most of his fame from numerous film appearances, including dance numbers with child star Shirley Temple in the 1930s. What is not as well known was his renown as a sprinter who ran backwards!
The big name in the trials was Charley Paddock, a 23-year old sprinter originally from Gainesville, Texas, but who was raised in Pasadena. He served in the American Expeditionary Force as a field artillery lieutenant during the First World War and, on returning home after being mustered out, attended the University of Southern California. He became a sprint star as a Trojan and competed in the 1919 Inter-Allied Games at Paris, capturing both the 100 and 200 meter crowns and was hailed as “the fastest man alive.”
At the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, Belgium, Paddock captured three medals, grabbing the gold in the 100 meter final, securing a silver in the 200 meter race, and winning a gold in the 4×100 meter relay. His best 100 meter time was 10.4 seconds at a race at Redlands in 1921, a time not bested for nine years (the current world record is 9.58 by the amazing Usain Bolt of Jamaica.)
Paddock was able to secure a spot on the 1924 Olympic roster in both the 100 and 200 meters. though it was reported that an ankle injury might keep him from competing in Paris despite being just a tenth of a second off the world record in the latter race. The Times reported, however, that Paddock intended to continue training and to contend at the national trials.
In all, twenty-five local athletes were selected to go to Boston for the trials at Harvard Stadium, with another sixteen who qualified provided they could secure funding from their institutions to get them to the East. In addition to Paddock, two other former Olympians moved on to the national meet, including Charles Daggs and Otto Anderson, hurdlers in the 110 meter and 400 meter races, respectively. Eugene Nixon, the athletic director at Pomona College, was to be the coach for the competitors who began practicing on 28 May at the Coliseum to prepare for the nationals.
A majority of the qualifying athletes came from U.S.C. with a substantial representing the Los Angeles Athletic Club. There were others from Occidental College, Pomona College, Cal Tech and a few local high schools. Only two athletes came from outside greater Los Angeles, a pole vaulter from San Diego and an alternate high jumper from the University of Arizona. The winning high jump competitor was Hank Coggeshall from Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, who cleared 6’2″ (the world record is 8’0 1/4″ set by Javier Sotomayor of Cuba twenty-five years ago–a very durable record in track and field.)
At the Paris games, over 3,000 athletes from 44 countries (there were 29 in 1920) participated in 126 events. The best known medal winner was long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi of Finland who took home five golds to add to the three he won in the Antwerp games. On 10 July, he won the 1500 meter race and then, less than an hour later, took home the gold in the 5000 meters.
Another standout was American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who won three golds and then added two more in the 1928 games at Amsterdam. Weissmuller went on to achieve fame appearing as Tarzan in a dozen movies. Paddock was able to qualify for Paris, finishing fifth in the 100 meters, but taking the silver medal in the 200 meters (he sat out the 4×100 meter relay). Meanwhile, the Paris games were also remembered in the popular 1981 film Chariots of Fire. which told the story of two British runners at the 1924 Olympics.
The total medal count had the United States winning 99, including 45 golds, while France was second with 38 overall medals, including 13 golds. Finland finished with 37 total and 13 golds and Great Britain took 34 medals, with 9 golds.
Notably, Paris will be the host of the 2024 Games, exactly a century after its last go-round as host city. Then, of course, Los Angeles will follow in 2028 with its third stint, following the 1932 and 1984 games. The Coliseum, site of the regional trials and used for both Olympic games, will be once again hosting events when the games return to this area decade from now!