Paris 2024 will be the third Olympics in the French capital but nothing will beat the first chaotic 1900 Games where birds were slaughtered, swimmers almost drowned and athletes swapped countries, reports Senior Correspondent Mike Osborne.
Before Australia was even a country, three of its athletes – a swimmer, sprinter and shooter – became champions at the catastrophic 1900 Paris Olympics.
Live pigeons were used as targets in the shooting for the first and only time at the Games, held in conjunction with the 1900 World Fair.
Enter Melbourne’s Donald Mackintosh, who was considered the finest shot in the world despite being blind in his left eye.
While travelling through Europe to compete in a series of professional events, Mackintosh stopped in Paris for a day of live pigeon shooting as part of the World Fair.
With no inkling he was competing in the Olympics, he won one event with 22 successive kills, and was equal third in another.
No other birds have knowingly been killed at the Games apart from the famed 1988 Seoul Olympic incineration, when the just-released white doves of peace landed atop the Olympic cauldron moments before it ignited. There were no winged survivors.
An unashamed professional in the era of amateur Olympics, Mackintosh collected cash prizes, just as he did as a two-time winner of the Monte Carlo shooting grand prix and three-time champion at the London Gun Club Challenge Cup.
His professionalism, prize money and pigeon kills left Mackintosh’s Olympic status shrouded in controversy. He was belatedly awarded gold and bronze medals by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1992, only to have them subsequently taken away.
Only months before Australia’s federation, swimmer Freddie Lane dived into the murky and fast-flowing River Seine and won the 200m “Olympic” obstacle race by swimming under punts and clambering over row boats. This event was never held again.
Earlier that day Lane won the 200m “freestyle” employing the trudgen stroke where he swam on his left side using a scissor kick and alternate arm sweeps out of the water. Lane favoured this sidestroke style while the Australian Crawl was still being developed.
As no medals were awarded at these Games, Lane took home two statues for his victories. It was much later when the IOC conferred gold medal status on the Paris 1900 winners.
Regarded as probably the worst Olympics of all time, despite 22 nations competing in 18 sports, the first Paris Games were held over more than five months from May 14 to October 28.
After the success of the Olympic revival in Athens 1896, the IOC decided to rotate the host city and since Paris was already hosting the popular World Fair, it seemed like the perfect choice for 1900.
But the move backfired with the Games becoming a planning and organisational disaster. Many athletes, including some winners like Mackintosh, were unaware they had even competed in an Olympics.
Then IOC President Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, later remarked: “It’s a miracle the Olympic movement survived.”
Sydney sprinter Stan Rowley, who was belatedly awarded a gold and three bronze medals, was even more scathing, according to the “Official History of the Australian Olympic Movement” compiled by the late, great Harry Gordon.
“To treat these events as world’s championships would really be an insult to the important events they are supposed to be,” Rowley said. “They are treated by the competitors as a huge joke – and when one has to come all the way from Australia to compete in them – it really seems ridiculous.”
Bizarrely, Rowley won his gold medal as a member of Great Britain’s five-man team in the 5km cross country race.
Persuaded by English friends to join the team as they were a man short, Great Britain won with the Americans withdrawing because they objected to the race being held on the Sabbath – Sunday July 22.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Rowley’s cross-country gold medal for Australia was officially recognised by the IOC.
But Rowley did win the three bronze medals in his own right – finishing behind American winners in the 60m, 100m and 200m sprints to remain the only Australian male runner to place among the medals in both the Olympic 100m and 200m.
In keeping with the strange spirit of these 1900 Games, some sports were contested for the first and only time in Olympic history, including car and motorbike racing, ballooning, croquet and cricket (which is set to return at the 2028 LA Games).
Despite all the chaos, there were some positives recorded at the Paris 1900 Games. Four times more competitors and double the number of sports were held than four years earlier at the first modern Olympics in Athens.
And women took part in the Olympics for the first time in various sports including tennis, croquet, golf, yachting and equestrian events.
Britain’s three-time Wimbledon champion Charlotte Cooper was the first female to win an individual Olympic event taking out the women’s singles, and later adding the mixed doubles title with Reginald Doherty.
Cooper went on to win Wimbledon two more times including in 1908 as a mother of two.
Michael Osborne has been a journalist for more than four decades including 35 years with the national news agency Australian Associated Press, rising from junior reporter to Editor.
He was AAP Editor for 11 years and served four years as Head of Sport and Racing. He was also posted to London and Beijing as AAP’s Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent.