1904 Olympics

The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, was undoubtedly a bizarre spectacle. No event was more exciting or divisive than the men’s marathon, which took place on August 30. With the goal of running 24.85 mi, 40 km, thirty-two athletes represented seven nations. However, only fourteen managed to complete the race.[1]

The marathon should have been a historic event. It included the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics, two Suwanee men named Jan Mashiani and Len Taunyane, both of whom were in St. Louis as part of South Africa’s exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair because they had served as long-distance message runners during the Boer War.[2] Nevertheless, the race itself was a mess, disorganized, dysfunctional, and mishandled.

The marathon began at three o’clock in the afternoon. At the time of the race, the temperature was about ninety degrees Fahrenheit, thirty-two degrees Celsius. The course itself was not cleared of obstacles and was in poor condition. Runners had to “constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs.”[3] To make matters worse, many officials rode in vehicles ahead and behind the runners, which created dust clouds and made an even hotter day worse.

John Lordan, the 1903 Boston Marathon champion, became violently ill after ten miles and retired. Sam Mellor, the 1902 Boston Marathon champion, was overwhelmed by dust and dropped out after sixteen miles, even though he led the field at the halfway mark. William Garcia was found lying in the middle of the road along the marathon route. He had severe internal injuries caused by breathing in the clouds of dust.[4]

Fred Lorz was declared the winner after three hours and thirteen minutes. The first to arrive at the finish line, Lorz had a photograph taken with Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and was about to be handed the gold medal when it was discovered that he was a fraud. According to several sources, Lorz had severe cramps and dropped out nine miles into the race. He then hitched a ride back to the stadium in a car. The car broke down at the nineteenth mile, so Lorz decided to jog the rest of the way. As soon as he was asked, he admitted to his deception. The Amateur Athletic Union, AAU, initially banned him for life. However, it was later decided that he did not intend to defraud the race, and his band was reduced to a year.[5]

Andarin Carvajal, a Cuban postman, joined the race at the last minute. He had recently been in New Orleans, Louisiana, and had to hitchhike to St. Louis because he had lost all of his money gambling. He ran the race in street clothes that he had cut at the knees to make them into shorts. As it turns out, he had not eaten in over forty hours. During the race, he saw a spectator eating peaches and asked if he could have them, but the spectator declined. He then stole the peaches and ran away. Later in the race, he stopped in an orchard to eat some apples, but they turned out to be rotten. The rotten apples caused him to have stomach cramps, and he had to lie down and take a nap. He ended the race in fourth place.[6]

Len Taunyane ended the race in ninth place, a disappointment to many. It was believed that he could have done much better if wild dogs had not chased him for almost a mile.[7]

In the end, Thomas Hicks was the winner. However, to cross the finish line, he went through measures that would not be outlawed after the 1960s. He led the race when he was ten miles from the finish, but his trainers had to stop him from lying down and quitting. From then on, Hicks was given several doses of strychnine, a common rat poison, mixed with brandy and an egg white. He finished the race despite hallucinating and barely being able to walk for much of it. When Hicks entered the stadium, his support team helped carry him over the line and then carried him off the track. He might have died if doctors had not been in the stadium to treat him. Hicks is recorded as having lost eight pounds throughout the course of the race.[8]

[1] Jeré Logman, “The Marathon’s Random Route to Its Length”, The New York Times, April 20, 2012.
[2] Karen Abbott, “The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been The Strangest Ever”, Smithsonian Magazine, August 7, 2012.
[3] Karen Abbott, “The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been The Strangest Ever”.
[4] David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics, (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 44–45.
[5] Karen Abbott, “The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been The Strangest Ever”.
[6] David E. Martin; Roger W. H. Gynn, The Olympic Marathon, Human Kinetics, 2000, p. 50.
[7] Brian Cronin, “Sports Legend Revealed: A marathon runner nearly died”, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, August 10, 2010.
[8] Aliya Whiteley, “The Strange Story of the 1904 Olympic Games Marathon”, Mentalfloss, 2015.

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