America’s first Olympics were likely its worst and most definitely its most bizarre. The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis and were tied to the World’s Fair. The games were home to all sorts of oddities including gymnast George Eyser who earned six medals, three of which were gold, despite having a wooden leg. Athletic events were also held at the nearby fair including a group of “savages” who competed in a variety of events including greased-pole climbing and mud slingning. Pierre de Coubertin disapproved of the antics:
“As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
Little did he know…
The marathon was the 1904 Olympic’s central event. Conceived to honor the Olympic heritage of Greece. Unfortunately, it was more of a freakish spectacle than a true showing of competition.
A few of the marathon participants were recognized in the sport as having placed in Boston or having competed in previous Olympic games. The majority of the field, however, was a mish-mash of middle-distance runners and people that didn’t fit in at all. There were 10 Greeks who had never even ran a marathon. Two men from the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in town as part of the World Fair and who arrived at the starting line barefoot. There was Félix Carbajal a Cuban national and mailman who raised money in Cuba by walking the length of the island. Upon arrival to New Orleans he lost all his money on a dice game, hitchhiked to the games, and showed up to the marathon with a beret on his head and in a long-sleeved shirt and long dark pants which he turned into shorts with a pair of scissors.
The 24.85-mile marathon was set to begin at 2:30 p.m., August 30. The first mistake, as St. Louis summers are some of the hottest and most humid in the country. The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity was too.
“The course through St. Louis County was the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over,” wrote Lucas, who happened to be a trainer of the eventual winner. “The roads . . . were frightful.”
After five laps around Francis Field, the runners exited out onto heavily driven roads for the majority of the race. A team of horses was enlisted to run ahead of the runners to clear the course, but they quite literally left the marathoners in their dust. Runners were left to dodge bicycles, cars — before any type of regulation on emissions, and reporters.
“Had it not been for the automobiles, the race would have been run under three hours,” Lucas wrote.
The runners battled a hilly course with a few brutal ascents. Road conditions were poor and they often found themselves with perilous footing over cracked stone, free rocks, and railroad tracks. Apparently, hydration wasn’t much of a concern either in fact it was purposely restricted, there were only two places on the course where runners could get a drink, a water tower at mile 6 and a well at mile 12. James Sullivan, the organizer, thought minimizing fluid intake would be a fun way to test the limits of the human body.
The cars along the route kicked up so much dust that runners had fits of coughing and difficulty breathing. William Garcia was hospitalized due to hemorrhaging from the dust that had coated his esophagus and ripped open his stomach lining. Len Tau, one of the South African’s, was chased by dogs and ended up a mile off course.
Félix Carvajal had a more enjoyable race stopping to chat with spectators in broken English and on one notable occasion he even stole two peaches from a car after they refused to offer him one. Later in the race he stopped at an orchard to eat some apples realized they were rotten and the resulting stomach ache convinced him to lay down and take a nap.
Thomas Hicks, an American favorite, received aid from a two-man support crew. Though he begged them for a drink they refused and instead sponged out his mouth with warm distilled water. Which I’m sure was very refreshing, but it gets better. At seven miles to go his helper offered up a compounded concoction of egg whites and strychnine — in small doses it’s a stimulant.
Meanwhile, Fred Lorz was riding in a car. Yes the American rode 11-miles of the course in an automobile. Lorz eventually got out of the car and finished the course in under three hours. The crowd was decidedly excited and chanted wildly as Alice Roosevelt — daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt — placed a wreath upon his head. She was about to give him the medal when witnesses informed her of the cheating. He later claimed it was all a “joke.”
Upon hearing that Lorz had been disqualified, Hicks picked up his pace a bit. His trainers gave him a second dose of the strychnine concoction and this time allowed him to wash it down with a swig of brandy.
“Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.”
Hicks won the marathon with his trainers carrying him while his feet shuffled back and forth beneath him.
Only 14 of the 32 starters completed the dusty, hilly, and largely unpaved course. Lorz and Hicks met again the following year for the Boston marathon. Lorz won with aid only of his legs.
- The Marathon From Hell by Eileen P. Duggan from the July/August 2004 issue of Marathon & Beyond
- “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal
- “Marathon Captivated Crowd at 1904 Olympics.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- Wikipedia: 1904 Olympics