Before Now – Running in the New Year
When I think of the Olympic Club of San Francisco I think of golf, money and high society. My lower-middle-class roots are showing here, but I imagine membership to require a tolerance for, if not love of, exclusivity and all the clichés that go with old private clubs: leather club chairs, no women or minorities or poor people, and stuffed shirts about to get their noses tweaked by Groucho Marx or Rodney Dangerfield. Line up the cream pies and cue the Caddyshack gopher-dance music.
I admit I am speaking from a position of ignorance, but I’m unlikely to become better informed until someone nominates me for membership or my application for on call dishwasher is accepted.
To dismiss some of these stereotypes, the Olympic Club does have some minority members and has admitted women for almost two decades now — and members are in considerably better shape than typical cartoon depictions of fat-cat capitalists. Founded in 1860 as the United States’ first athletic club, the Olympic Club’s activities once dominated the local sports pages. Boxers, shot-putters, bicyclists and swimmers set world records and won Olympic medals with the club’s “Winged O” logo on their chests. With a mission to foster excellence in amateur athletics, the organization embodied the spirit of the Olympics three decades before the modern games were invented.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Olympic Club was well known for an annual New Year’s Day member run on Ocean Beach. Noncompetitive, the event sort of resembled the party atmosphere of today’s Bay to Breakers race without the elite Kenyans or naked people. Members ambled through Golden Gate Park from Baker Street, changed into bathing suits – and, en masse, splashed through the waves. After their horseplay in the brisk Pacific Ocean, the club retreated to the Cliff House or one of the other beachside cafes for lunch and libations.
In later years, the club publicized the New Year’s Day run as having been started in the early 1890s, but its seems it actually was inspired by a Christmas Day romp in 1903. In glorious sunshine, the “wearers of the winged O” bobbed in the waves and “skylarked” on the beach while hundreds of San Franciscans, drawn out by the holiday and some unseasonably fine weather, watched the cavorting athletes wrestle, sprint and swim. The San Francisco Call reported that photographs of the event would be sent to the World’s Fair in St. Louis to “advertise the equable climate of California” because “Easterners will hardly believe that residents of this city were able to swim on the ocean on Christmas day.”
Delighted with the event, the Olympic Club held the first organized New Year’s Day run on Ocean Beach the next week, and a tradition was born. Every year after, local newspapers featured photos of dripping-wet men skipping in the waves, to go alongside reports of goggling Easterners amazed at such ample proof of California’s mild and pleasing climate. (Writing as one who has gotten his feet wet at Ocean Beach, I suspect the reporters conspired to suppress the hypothermia cases.)
When San Francisco had its own fair planned — the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in today’s Marina District — the San Francisco Call’s Jan. 2, 1912 headline made clear the promotional quality of the beach run: “Olympic Clubmen Lure Easterners, Annual Run Pictured to Draw the ‘Oh, So Colds’ Westward.” By then the run drew thousands of onlookers, and long-distance swimmer Walter Pomeroy entertained the crowd with a swim around Seal Rocks just before noon.
As true road races began attracting the athletes — the Bay to Breakers race began as the “cross city run” in 1912 — the Olympic Club’s New Year’s Day run became even more a jaunt for middle-aged members. The tradition lasted at least into the 1930s, and it still continues under the media radar. An investigative trip to Ocean Beach on Jan. 1 might be in order, just in case I don’t get my membership invite or that dishwasher job.
Trivia answer: Last column’s question, “What organization was famous for a huge New Year’s Day run on Ocean Beach every year?” has been answered, I hope, with this column.
New Trivia Question: What alternative name for the Oceanside Water Treatment Plant (just south of Sloat Boulevard) was proposed in a 2008 ballot initiative?
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”
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- New Year's Day cross-city run to finish at Ocean Beach | The Ocean Beach Bulletin