Penn put on a show at the 1900 Olympics

Thirteen Quakers competed in the Games, which were held in Paris, and returned with 20 medals in track & field events.

Alvin Christian Kraenzlein jumps over a hurdle while wearing a sweat suit circa 1900.
Alvin Christian Kraenzlein (1876-1928), D.D.S. 1900, running the hurdles, practice on the field circa 1900. (Image: University Archives and Records Center)

The 1900 Olympics in Paris, the second in modern history, were a subdued affair, so much so that many of the athletes in attendance were not even aware that they were participating in the Games.

Commenced on May 14, 1900, as part of the Paris Exposition, there was no opening ceremony, very little marketing, no Olympic flame (until 1928), and few journalists or spectators. A July 16, 1900, article in The New York Times references the ongoing “world’s amateur championships in Bois de Boulogne,” and a kerfuffle between American and French officials vis-à-vis American athletes objecting to competing on Sunday, but does not mention the word “Olympics.”

Swimming events were held in the raging Seine River. (Image: International Olympic Committee)

Overseen by the French government, which wrestled control from the nascent International Olympic Committee, the Games themselves were a poorly organized mess. Track-and-field events were held on uneven grass fields that were often wet. Broken telephone poles were used to make hurdles. Swimming events were held in the raging Seine River.

Nine-hundred-and-ninety-seven athletes—975 men and 22 women—competed in the Games, including, for the first time, competitors from Penn and women. Thirteen Quakers took part in the Olympics and returned with 20 medals (which were actually cups, trophies, or a plaque). Both are still school records.

Alvin Christian Kraenzlein, a student in the School of Dental Medicine and a record-breaking athlete on Penn’s track & field team, took home four gold medals in the 60m, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles, and the long jump. The International Olympic Committee calls him the “star of the [1900] Games.”

Irving Knott Baxter, a student at the Law School, won five medals, including gold in the pole vault. (Image: International Olympic Committee)

Kraenzlein, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin before Mike Murphy, the Red & Blue’s track & field coach, convinced him to join the Quakers. He set world records in the 120m high hurdles and 220m low hurdles while at Penn, and developed a new form of gliding over the hurdles, clearing the hurdles with the lead leg extended, which became the standard technique for modern hurdlers.

John Walter Beardsley Tewksbury, an 1899 graduate of the School of Dental Medicine, won five medals: gold in the 200m dash and 400m hurdles, silver in the 60m and 100m, and a bronze in the 200m hurdles.

A native of Ashley, Pennsylvania, Tewksbury won the intercollegiate 100- and 200-yard championships in 1898 as a member of Penn’s track & field team.

Utica, New York’s Irving Knott Baxter, a student at Penn Law School, also won five medals. He placed first in the high jump and pole vault, and second in the standing high jump, standing triple jump, and standing long jump.

In high school, Baxter won the 1891 national high jumping championship. While studying at Trinity University, he set a new world record in the high jump at the New England Championship. When he retired from competitive track & field a few years after the 1900 Olympics, he was undefeated in every high jump contest he had entered.

Undergraduate student Josiah Calvin McCracken competes in the shot put. He placed second. (Image: International Olympic Committee)

A member of Penn’s football team, track & field team, and gymnastics team, Josiah Calvin McCracken won two medals in Paris, a silver in the shot put and a bronze in the hammer throw.

An undergraduate student from Lincoln, Tennessee, McCracken set intercollegiate records in the shot put and the hammer throw, and was an All-American guard on the football team. In 1901, he graduated from the School of Medicine.

From Toronto, Canada, George Washington Orton won gold in the 3000-meter steeplechase and bronze in the 400-meter hurdles.

Following his graduation from the University of Toronto, Orton came to Penn in 1893 for his more advanced studies. He received his master’s in romance languages in 1894 and his Ph.D. in 1896. He was captain of the Penn track & field team and won two intercollegiate one-mile championships. In 1895, he helped devise and manage the first Penn Relays.

Undergrads Meredith Bright Colket and Thomas Truxtun Hare, both from Philadelphia, each won a silver medal at the Paris Olympics. Colket, better known on campus for his tennis exploits than his track accomplishments, placed second in the pole vault. He later graduated from the Law School.

Hare finished second in the hammer throw. He was a four-time All-American on the football team and won a bronze medal at the 1904 Olympics in the decathlon. He, too, studied at the Law School after graduating.

With the exception of the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled because of World War II, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Penn athletes have competed in every subsequent Summer Olympics.