Wash. U. celebrates St. Louis Olympic legacy
Thirty years ago, Jackie Joyner-Kersee donned red, white and blue but shone gold. The East St. Louis, Ill. native had captured the world’s attention in Seoul, South Korea with a still-standing heptathlon record in the Summer Olympics.
Monday, with the world ready to turn its focus back to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Games, Joyner-Kersee returned to her roots, helping to unveil plans to forever keep St. Louis in the Olympic spotlight.
At a news conference held Tuesday in the Francis Field House, the St. Louis Sports Commission announced a multi-phase project to re-energize pride in the city’s Olympic history, including the installation of an Olympic Rings “Spectacular” on Danforth Campus. The sculpture, slated for display this fall, will stand adjacent to Seigle Hall at the end of Olympian Way, marking the spot where the 1904 Olympic Marathon started and finished.
“My long-term vision is that St. Louis would be a destination place,” Joyner-Kersee said. “The Gateway to the West, yes, it’s the gateway to the beginning of the Olympic Games.”
Joyner-Kersee—who received an honorary degree from Washington University in 1992—and National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Costas—TV host of 12 Olympic Games—will serve on the newly formed St. Louis Olympic Legacy Committee. Chairman Michael Loynd said that the goal is to embrace the region’s stature among its counterparts.
“We’ve never properly embraced our status as an Olympic host city,” Loynd said. “Every two years, for 16 days, the Olympics are the biggest thing on the planet—and we’re part of that.”
Most importantly, the project comes with the International Olympic Committee’s approval. Until now, St. Louis—the first American host city—was not allowed to display the iconic rings because the symbol was not introduced until 1912.
The spectacular will feature an Easter egg of sorts: Its base will be designed to look like an Olympic medal podium, since St. Louis was the first host to award gold, silver and bronze medals for the top three finishers. In addition to the one at Wash. U., a second sculpture will be built at a location yet to be decided.
The project will also add commemorative signs at venues used in 1904, including Forest Park, Creve Coeur Lake and Glen Echo Country Club. Those memorials, along with facilities used in the original games—Francis Field and the gymnasium within the Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center—will offer plenty of tangible reminders of the region’s rich Olympic history.
Michelle Venturella, 2000 softball gold medalist and now head coach of the Wash. U. softball team, hopes that those visible reminders will spur dialogue and, in turn, ambition.
“The fact that you have physical things, like the rings, on campus will spark conversation,” Venturella said. “When you start to learn about the history, then you will be potentially inspired…it just takes some kind of story to trigger that. And so, my hope is that as people talk about it, it’s not about what we did…it is about what can happen here. And this is such an amazing group of students here at Wash. U. I have no doubt that they could just take off with this concept.”
Joyner-Kersee agreed that the rings are only significant if students understand the meaning behind them.
“Sometimes, we can get too involved with the commercial, which is fine, but [it is] really [about] the human spirit, the stories of people you don’t even know about. And the Olympics have a way of bringing those stories to life,” Joyner-Kersee said.
Supporting St. Louis’ youth was a theme among the Olympians in attendance. While Joyner-Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis to work with young people and their families, Venturella and 2008 women’s soccer gold medalist Lori Chalupny, a St. Louis native, do their part through coaching. Chalupny, currently head coach at Maryville University, got her start in 2011 as an assistant coach with the Bears.
“I guess that’s the hard part, is to relate the journey that I went through to the kids that I’m coaching now,” Chalupny said. “But I think there’s so much of becoming an Olympian that’s off the field as well, just in terms of putting your all into something, something that you’re passionate about and living your dreams.”
Venturella added that regardless of the path any student takes—as an athlete or otherwise—the history of excellence in the community is a reminder that any dream is attainable, and that they have help behind them to make it happen.
“If the kids can just have the idea that, maybe I can do this—it starts with a thought, and it did for most of us at some point,” Venturella said. “That’s what we want to do, let them know that…there are people like us, their coaches, their teachers, their parents that are going to support them. You really don’t ever get to the top on your own…It always takes a little bit of help along the way.
“Maybe they won’t become Olympians, but they might take those same principles and apply it after they graduate…It’s always hard, I’ll tell you that. But they can do it. If they really want it, they can do it.”
Joyner-Kersee summed it up by emphasizing that the project, while backward-looking, is for future generations: “This is not for us, it’s for you.”
Chancellor Mark Wrighton joked that the rings will quickly become a hotspot on campus.
“I am sure that ‘Meet me at the rings’ will quickly become part of the Washington University vocabulary,” Wrighton said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Chalupny serves as head coach of Maryville, not as an assistant.