Monday 24 July 2023

One Olympian, Multiple "Firsts"

NOTE: Research is never-ending. The information in this article is accurate on the date of publication. New information which is discovered after this date may alter or replace some of the details.

The Paris 2024 Olympic Games begin a year today with the start of the football and rugby sevens tournaments, several days before the actual opening ceremony. To celebrate, here’s the second of my three Olympic firsts in the lgbt+ community. In fact today we look at someone with multiple firsts.

This man who is not only the first identified lgbt+ competitor at the Olympics (as far as research currently reveals), but he is also the first black American and first lgbt+ Olympian to win a medal, as well as several others. His name is George Coleman Poage (1880-1962).

George Poage

One of my favourite sayings is “history is always changing”. By that I mean that our concept and understanding of what happened in the past changes when new information or new interpretations are applied to history.

When I began my Olympic research in 2010 George Poage was not a name anyone would have put on any lgbt+ list. His family only revealed he was gay in 2016, to someone who had been researching Poage’s life since the 1980s. He included the fact in a biography of Poage in 2017. That biography is available to download here. For our purposes today we’ll just concentrate on Poage’s Olympic achievements and his sexuality.

It is easy to claim that Poage was “erased from history” because he was black. He and his racial background are clearly recorded several times in the official report of the 1904 Olympics, and in many other publications produced at the time, including newspapers, and school, college and athletics club records. He is one of hundreds of Olympians who drift out of public memory all the time. Everyone probably knows who Usain Bolt is. But who remembers Carl Lewis or Allan Wells? Just because you don’t learn about something in school doesn’t mean it has been erased or covered up.

The 1904 St. Louis Olympics at which George Poage competed is notorious among we Olympic historians (I’m a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee – the IOC) as being one of the “messiest”.

The games were originally awarded to Chicago. The organisers of the 1904 St. Louis World Fair (the one featured in the Judy Garland musical “Meet Me In St. Louis”) were already planning their own international multi-sport festival that would take place at the same time. The World Fair asked Chicago to cancel their games or move them to St. Louis. This caused some conflict, and the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, stepped in and cancelled the Chicago Olympics and re-awarded them to St. Louis.

The IOC then had to decide which events organised by the St. Louis World Fair where to be considered Olympic. It wasn’t until 2021 that the list of official 1904 Olympic events was established – 117 years afterwards!!! There are still debates about other events. There’s even debates over which nations were represented. Most US athletes, George Poage included, competed under their sports club’s team name, not their nation. In 2021 ten Olympians were removed from Team USA and listed among their actual national teams. Poage competed as a member of the Milwaukee Athletics Club

So you can see why the 1904 Olympics were messy. And I haven’t even mentioned what happened in the marathon. But I digress. Let’s get back to George Poage.

First of all, let’s clear up several points. George Poage was NOT the first black Olympian (that was French rugby player Constantin Henriquez in 1900). Nor is Poage the first black medal winner (also Henriquez, who won a gold medal). George Poage WAS the first known black Olympian to compete as an American, and the first black American medallist. There are other “firsts” that can be attributed to Poage, which I’ll mention as we go along. Poage was registered to enter five events – the 60 metres, the 100 metres, the 400 metres, the 200 metre hurdles, and the 400 metre hurdles. As mentioned earlier, US athletes competed under their club name.

The track events began on 29th August 1904, and George Poage took part in the very first event, the first heat of the men’s 60 metre sprint. Unfortunately, this is one of the events which suffer from lack of full documentation. There’s no record of Poage’s finishing position or time, but he was not one of the first two finishers who progressed to the final. However, this does make George Poage the first black American to compete in a track event at the Olympics, as well as the first ever lgbt+ track athlete, two more “firsts” he holds.

Poage’s next event was the 400 metres later that day. There were no heats as there were only 12 entrants and they started on the line together like modern long-distance races. Poage spent the first half of the race behind the lead group. He quickly progressed into second place and spectators assumed he would win. On the last bend he was overtaken by several others and crossed the finish line in 6th place. Again, no time was recorded for him.

George Poage’s next event was two days later, the 400 metres hurdles. Again, there were no heats, as this time there were only four entries, all American. This is the race in which Poage won his first Olympic medal, a bronze. Being the first black American Olympian, this also made him the first black American Olympic medal winner. He also became the fist black athlete of any nation to win an individual Olympic medal (Constantin Henriquez won a team gold). All of this as the first lgbt+ Olympian in each case. That’s two more “firsts”.

The next day Poage competed in the 200 metres hurdles, wining his second bronze medal (out of a field of 5 entries). Even though there is no recorded time, it is recorded that just 2 metres (6 feet) separated the first three, with the last two athletes well behind them.

Poage was listed as an entry in the 100 metres on 3rd September, but is listed as a non-starter. This was a common occurrence in these early days of competitive athletics.

As mentioned before, no-one knew about George Poage’s sexuality until his nephew, Rev. Lawrence Jenkins, told Poage’s biographer of the fact in 2016. At the time Poage was being celebrated as an outstanding athlete in La Crosse, Illinois, where he had lived and taught. A statue was unveiled in his memory. Actually, it’s four statues, showing Poage in the various stages of a race – starting position, setting off, running the race, and crossing the finishing line. Rev. Jenkins and other family members were present at the unveiling.

There’s very little that can be said for definite about Poage’s sexuality other than he was gay. He left no personal testimony, and there’s no inference of sexual behaviour with another man. The only incidence of any sexual nature at all came in 1914 when he was teaching at Sumner High School, though it was not of a homosexual nature. Some students had falsely accused Poage and two other teachers of inappropriate relationships with young female students. An investigation cleared all three. Even though the other teachers were reinstated, despite criticism from the local press, Poage had decided to resign and move away.

So, the only evidence we have to go on is the word of his family. But does it matter if there’s no evidence of a gay relationship? George Poage was a trailblazer no matter what his sexuality. Whatever obstacles he encountered because of his race, and there were not as many as other black Americans at the time received, he reached the level of an elite athlete. He was lauded in his own lifetime, disappeared from public memory, and is returning slowly to take his place in the record books.

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