An Olympic Tug of War

I love the Olympics. I love the competition, the ceremonies, the sportsmanship. My earliest personal experience with a festival of games was on a pretty small scale: the annual Field Day in grade school. My favorite event wasn’t the water balloon toss or the three-legged race. It was the ultimate battle between classes, Tug of War, and it looked something like this:

Boys' tug of war, Fourth of July celebration. Vale, Oregon. Photo by Russell Lee, July 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a30297

Imagine my surprise when I learned Tug of War used to be an Olympic event! Sadly, I’ve missed my chance to compete in London – the only time Tug of War was contested there was in 1908, when London first hosted the games.  (Tug of War was a medal event for four Olympics, from 1904 to 1920.)

Matt McGrath. Photo by Bain News Service, 1911. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.09314

The American Tug of War team at the 1908 games was made up of athletes from the discus, shot put, and hammer throw events. They didn’t win a medal, but there was certainly no shortage of size and strength!

One contestant was Matt McGrath, pictured at right, in a pose that leaves no doubt about his power. McGrath competed in the hammer throw in four Olympics.  The 1912 Stockholm games were his most dominant performance: his shortest throw was almost 15 feet longer than anyone else’s longest throw. His gold medal distance stood as an Olympic record for 24 years.

Matt McGrath. Photo by Bain News Service, 1914. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.22285

McGrath, and many of the American competitors at the time, epitomized the amateur athlete the Olympic games celebrates. An Irish immigrant, McGrath was also a New York City police officer, as shown at left, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The Bain News Service took both photos, clearly intrigued by his life on and off the field. His police career matched his athletic career in success, with two Medals for Valor to go along with his one gold and two silver Olympic medals.

So, as I sit down to watch the Summer Olympics this year, I won’t get to see the Tug of War, unfortunately. Reading over the slate of events, I do spot another fun game from my childhood: table tennis. Maybe I’ll tune in and see how it compares!

Learn More:

  • Explore photographs related to the Olympic games that the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog displays at their largest size whether you’re in Library of Congress buildings or not.
  • See a few images of early Olympics gathered from published books and journals in the Library’s General Collections, including a photo of the 1904 Tug of War.
  • For the curious: examples of other discontinued Olympic events include: croquet, cricket, polo, motorboating, and underwater swimming. (Points for both staying under the longest and swimming the furthest!)
  • Many of the Library of Congress blogs will be posting about the Olympics from their perspectives over the coming days.  This post will be edited to link to those posts as they appear.
  • Update:  Enjoy the posts from other blogs at the Library below:

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