Washington University Athletic Complex

Site of first World Olympics in Western Hemisphere and the first nationally televised three-candidate presidential debate

In 1904, Washington University in St. Louis hosted the Third World Olympiad — the first Olympics ever held in the Western Hemisphere. On Oct. 11, 1992, the much-expanded Athletic Complex hosted another first — the first nationally televised three-candidate presidential debate among Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot. In 1992, Washington University had only seven days to transform the Field House’s hardwood-floor gymnasium into a red-carpeted debate hall, because St. Louis was a last-minute choice acceptable to all three candidates. Since then, the university has been asked to host debates in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 — an unprecedented record.

Field House: Site of athletic competitions, presidential debates, speeches

The Washington University Field House was the site of the first 1992 presidential debate. After a major renovation of athletic facilities, the Field House is considered one of the nation’s finest and largest athletic facilities at an NCAA Division III institution.

Originally constructed eight decades ago, the Field House was completely renovated in the mid-1980s when a new athletic complex was built around it. The Field House, which has a floor size of 17,250 square feet, can accommodate seating for 3,000 fans. During the 1992 debate, it could only seat 600 people due to the requirements of four television network platforms, additional camera sites and a three-level stage for the candidates.

In 1996, the university was again selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to host a debate, but a last-minute decision by the Clinton campaign reduced the number of debates to two and it was decided to not hold one in St. Louis.

In 2000, the university had nine months to prepare for the last presidential debate of the campaign season between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” moderated the debate.

The format of the Oct. 17, 2000, debate was a “town-hall meeting” in the university’s Field House, where the candidates sat on stools facing an audience of about 140 St. Louis-area voters. These town hall participants, who had been selected by the Gallup organization because they were undecided voters, asked the candidates questions.

Some 900 persons — media, dignitaries, invited guests and more than 150 Washington University students — viewed the debate from the Field House’s upper bleacher seats. Millions more worldwide watched the televised debate.

In 2004, President George W. Bush debated Sen. John Kerry on Oct. 8 during a nationally televised town-hall forum from the Field House. It was the second debate of three in the 2004 campaign. Charles Gibson of ABC News moderated that debate.

The candidates sat on stools at the north end of the Field House, while the 140 town-hall participants sat on tiered rows of seats surrounding the candidates.

For the 2004 debate, workers laid 53 miles of fiber-optic cables throughout the Danforth Campus and installed 80 high-speed computer lines and 20 video feeds in the Athletic Complex as well as 1,500 temporary telephone lines and 4,000 electrical outlets.

Since its renovation in the mid-1980s, the Field House has provided a new home for Washington University’s successful men’s and women’s sports. It is home of the 2007 NCAA Division III National Champion women’s volleyball team — nine-time national champions since 1989 — as well as the four-time NCAA National Champion women’s basketball team and the 2008 NCAA National Champion men’s basketball team. The men’s tennis team captured its first NCAA Division III National Championship in 2008. The teams’ mascot is the Bears.

The Field House has a rich and storied past. It was the site of several NBA games and outstanding Missouri High School state championships, not to mention numerous Bears games with Illinois, Missouri, Princeton, Harvard, Purdue, Arkansas and others.

The Field House also has been host to speeches by then President George Bush in February 1989, former President Jimmy Carter in February 1991, Jesse Jackson in September 1991, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet in September 1993, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in March 1994, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in October 1998.

Francis Field & Gymnasium: Home to America’s first Olympic Games

Washington University’s Francis Field and Francis Gymnasium, registered historical landmarks, were the site of the 1904 Olympic Games — the first Olympics ever held in the Western Hemisphere. David Rowland Francis, a former ambassador to Russia, a one-time secretary of the interior and an 1870 graduate of Washington University, brought the event to St. Louis. Francis also forged the plans for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and argued that the games should take place in the same city. The Olympic Committee agreed, and Washington University was named the site.

The 1904 games made use of the university’s castle-like Francis Gymnasium, constructed of Indiana limestone and Missouri red granite. For the debates, the building’s gymnasium is divided up into 20 x 20 workspaces for network affiliates and radio operations.

Built in 1902, Francis Field’s permanent stands represented one of the first applications of reinforced concrete technology. Francis Field also featured a third-of-a-mile track (660-yard) — a track that was used through the early 1980s.

During the university’s halcyon days of pigskin — the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — the Bears played major college football. There were even flood lights back then, an innovation quite revolutionary at the time. At the height of its day, Francis Field seated close to 19,000 fans with a large section of wooded stands erected on the north side of the field. After World War II, athletics shifted to a non-scholarship NCAA Division III program.

In 1984, Francis Field underwent its first major renovation in nearly 80 years, and the seating capacity was reduced from 19,000 to 4,000. In 2003, Francis Field underwent another facelift and the seating capacity was further reduced to 3,300. Additionally, the press box was expanded, new seating surfaces were put in place and the stadium was made handicapped accessible. A new track surface was laid in 1994.

Francis Field also has been the home for the 1986 AAU/USA National Junior Olympic Games, the first and second National Senior Olympic Games, and the 1985 NCAA Division III National Men’s Soccer Championship.

In July 1994, Francis Field served as a centerpiece for the U.S. Olympic Festival as 3,000 athletes were housed on Washington University’s Danforth Campus for the country’s top amateur sporting event. After a 4,000-mile torch relay, the Olympic Festival torch was stationed and remained lit just inside the Francis Field gates throughout the 10-day event.