clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The United States says it has won 1,000 Olympic gold medals, but it may only have 999

New, comments

The United States doesn't actually know how many gold medals it has won because it has been taking credit for two gold medals won by an Austrian gymnast since 1904.

Olympics: Swimming-Evening Session Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The United States won its 1,000th summer Olympic gold medal in Rio. This is an unbelievable achievement, one that might never be repeated given that the next closest active nation, Great Britain, entered the Olympics with 236. (The Soviet Union is technically second at 395, but it’s not winning any more medals any time soon).

There is a debate as to when the U.S. won that medal, however. You see, at some point along the course of history, the count got screwed up. Bill Mallon, the leading Olympic historian for the United States Olympic committee, found out that Team USA had counted its gold medals incorrectly and, by his calculations, still has it wrong. When the USOC announces that Team USA has won its 1,000th gold, he believes it will actually be the 999th.

What’s extra strange is that, by another estimation, the United States’ "1,000th" gold will actually be its 1,001st. The discrepancy centers on a man named Julius Lenhart, who won two gold medals in gymnastics at the 1904 St. Louis games that were credited to the U.S. despite the fact that he was an Austrian citizen and very much not American.

Despite what seems like an impediment to winning an "American" gold medal, Mallon discovered that another respected database, Infostrada/Gracenote, was crediting Lenhart’s golds for the United States. And for that, we can blame St. Louis.

The 1904 Games were supposed to be held in Chicago, but were moved to St. Louis because it was hosting the World’s Fair and wanted the Olympics to be an exhibition. Many other nations didn’t want to pay for travel to the American midwest, however, so the games were mostly made up of club teams from the United States. Of the 651 participants, 526 were American. Not surprisingly, the U.S. won 239 of the 280 medals handed out at the Games, which were held sporadically over five months.

(For a good indication of just how stupid the St. Louis Olympics were, watch Jon Bois’ story about the 1904 marathon. It’s pretty good.)

Lenhart was a member of a sports club called Philadelphia Turngemeinde, and won gold medals in the men’s gymnastics individual all-around and team all-around. This is where counting diverges. By Mallon’s estimation, the individual medal should be credited to Austria and the team medal should be credited to a mixed squad. Infostrada/Gracenote refused to budge when Mallon brought up the issue, however, because Lenhart had initially been credited as an American.

The impasse became a problem for the USOC, according to the Guardian. It wanted to mark the occasion of the 1,000th gold medal, but heading into the Olympics, Mallon was insistent that the United States had 976 gold medals while Infostrada/Gracenote held fast on 978. The USOC deferred to Mallon, but out of respect to differing opinions he decided to split the difference and call it 977 -- crediting the U.S. for gold on the 1904 team all-around because five of the six members were American and letting Austria have the individual all-around.

If Mallon could fully have his way, however, the United States would have one fewer gold medal. The difference, of course, isn’t big in the grand scheme. Team USA will win its 1,000th gold and then some in Rio. Austria, meanwhile, has 25 gold medals ever at the summer games, and that’s including Julius Lenhart, the most decorated Austrian Summer Olympics athlete ever.

* * *

Simone Manuel's historic gold medal