The Olympic Champion Who Never Knew It
For most athletes, playing in the Olympics is a lifelong goal — and winning a medal is a lifelong dream. You train for years, honing your craft and playing against increasingly more and more difficult completion. You plan your training schedule and, really, your life around the calendar of the major events in your sport. You compete at the highest level as often as possible, qualifying (or failing) to advance at every step.
Becoming an Olympic athlete is a big deal; winning an Olympic event is an even bigger one. Your life revolves around your sport. You don’t simply just show up, win, and go home like nothing happened.
Unless you’re the first American woman to win an Olympic event. Because that’s exactly what happened. But you can’t really blame her for not celebrating her achievement, for a really simple reason: no one ever told her she was an Olympic champion. She didn’t even get a gold medal.
The modern Olympic Games have been around since 1896 and, in the first few decades of the Games, things weren’t like they were today. As previously recounted in these pages, tennis players sometimes played in fancy shoes, marathoners grabbed cabs and took naps mid-race, and athletes competed in a tug-of-war tournament. In other words, things were a bit weird. The Paris Olympics in 1900 was no exception. Live pigeons were used in one of the shooting events. Underwater swimming was one of the competitions. The now-standard gold, silver, and bronze medals weren’t awarded; each sport gave out its own award. And the Games were largely overshadowed by the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world’s fair which took place roughly simultaneously with the Olympiad.
Golf was one of those sports in the shadow of the World’s Fair. An October 1900 issue of Golf Illustrated magazine described the event as “the international golf competition [ . . . ] in connection with the Paris Exhibition,” without any mention whatsoever of the tournament’s affiliation with the 1900 Summer Olympics. And if you wanted to participate in the golf tournament, all you really needed to do was sign up. That’s what Margaret Abbott, a 22-year-old American art student then living in Paris did. As the Olympics’ official website summarizes, that October, “Abbott learned of an international golf tournament to be held in Compiegne, some 80km north of Paris. Both she and her mother entered the competition.”
And Abbott won. Per the Olympics’ website, “Margaret shot a 47 in the nine-hole tournament, claiming the title over her compatriots Pauline Whittier (49) and Daria Pratt (53), while her mother finished tangled for seventh with a score of 65.” She was given a porcelain bowl as a prize and, basically, went on her way. The Chicago Tribune reported on her victory, as seen here, but — like the Golf Illustrated story — does not mention the Olympics. It’s almost certain that Abbott left the golf course that day not knowing she had just won an Olympic competition, becoming the first American woman to do so.
And it’s also likely that Abbott never knew what she had accomplished. She continued playing golf here and there — it’s a lifelong sport, after all– and won another international competition in 1902. But she did not attend the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis (and in any event, golf was a men’s-only sport in those Games), and didn’t have any opportunity to try for Olympic gold thereafter. Golf was discontinued as an Olympic event after the St. Louis Games and was not reinstated until 2016. Further, at no point in her lifetime was her name among the lists of Olympic champions commonly available to the public.
But it wasn’t entirely lost to history. In the 1970s, as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum recounts, Abbott’s name “was etched on a plaque in the MacArthur Room at the previous headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee (as it was known then) in New York City, which bestowed this honor on the nation’s Olympic gold medalists. Paula Welch — a professor at the University of Florida with a strong interest in Olympic history who was also a U.S. delegate to an upcoming International Olympic Academy meeting — saw Abbott’s name – (misspelled Abbot) and wondered who Margaret was and why Welch had never heard of Abbott.” And like any other diligent academic, Welch began researching. She determined that Abbott, as articulated above, had won the women’s golf event at the 1900 Paris Games.
Unfortunately, Abbott passed away in 1955, well before Welch’s discovery. Welch and the Olympic Committee informed Abbott’s children of their mother’s achievement, though.
From the Archives: Pulling for Gold: The tug-of-war story.