The first Olympic Games held in the US might have been the worst and most bizarre. In 1904, St. Louis hosted the Olympics as part of the World’s Fair to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Although there were moments of genuine triumph, they were largely overshadowed by the fair.
The classic Olympic event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the original Greek games and draw a connection between the ancient and modern periods. However, the 1904 marathon was more of a spectacle than a showstopper. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was almost eliminated for good. Here’s what happened.
Four Nations, 32 Athletes
At the 1904 World’s Fair, the Olympic marathon quickly turned into a side spectacle connected to the fair rather than a nod to its classic roots in Greece. Thirty-two athletes from four nations (the US, South Africa, Cuba, and Greece) gathered at the starting line on that hot August day.
The temperature soared to a scorching 92 degrees, causing many competitors to drop out of the race. Only 14 runners crossed the finish line, which is rather impressive given those conditions. Most of them were amateurs, besides a handful of experienced marathon runners. It was nothing like the games we know today.
A Ragtag Bunch
A few of the runners previously competed in prestigious marathons like the Boston Marathon. Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring, and Thomas Hicks were the favorites to win because they had all raced before, unlike some of their competitors. They were thought to have the stamina to finish.
Another American, Frederick Lorz, was a bricklayer who trained for the race at night. He earned his spot in the Olympic race by placing in a five-mile race sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. There were practically no qualifications to participate in the race like there are for current athletes.
A Long Journey
The athletes representing Greece in the race had never run a marathon before. Meanwhile, a mailman from Cuba named Felix Carbajal de Soto did everything he could to get to the games. Carbajal raised money to come to the States by showing off his running talents to anyone who would watch.
However, when he got to the US, Carbajal lost all his money gambling in New Orleans. He had to walk and hitchhike to get to St. Louis. By the time he got to the marathon, Carbajal was exhausted; he arrived at the starting line in pitiable attire. He didn’t look ready to run.
A Helping Hand
Carbajal arrived at the race in a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and street shoes. One of his competitors helped him cut his pants at the knee so that he could have an ideal outfit. His fellow Olympians were sympathetic to him because he looked disheveled and unprepared.
Two competitors, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, were South African Tswana tribe members. They came to St. Louis to represent their country, and the historical importance of their participation was mostly unknown. They were the first Black African athletes to compete in the modern Olympic Games. It was a unique group of runners.
Ready, Set, Go!
The marathon began on an unpaved course in the sweltering heat. As the 32 runners took off, a thick cloud of dust was kicked up, making it difficult for the athletes to breathe. They ran across the Missouri plains in horrible conditions.
If the race wasn’t hard enough, organizers made a huge mistake by only having one water stop throughout the whole race at the 12-mile mark. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of dehydration.
Not Well Planned
The course was 24.85 miles, which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run.” It didn’t seem like there was much planning because runners had to go over seven hills varying from 100 to 300 feet high.
In some areas of the course, cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, and the men had to dodge traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars, and people walking their dogs. Officials decided not to close the course to people not in the race to avoid disturbing daily life.
Due to the sweltering heat and limited water, cars carrying physicians and coaches rode alongside the runners. The cars kicked up extra dust, causing the runners to have coughing spells. While 32 participants started the race, only 14 crossed the finish line because of these hazardous conditions.
William Garcia of California was almost the first fatality of the marathon. He collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging. The dust coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. If Garcia had gone another hour untreated, he would have bled to death.
Leading the Pack
During the first six miles, A.L. Newton took the lead with Sam Mellor behind him. Halfway through the race, Mellor led the pack. He was a pre-race favorite because he won the 1902 Boston Marathon and podiumed in 1901 and 1903.
Mellor was a favorite to win because he had previously raced in similar conditions. He won the Pan American Exposition in 1901 in 104-degree heat, but that was nothing compared to the 1904 marathon’s conditions. He thought he lost his way at some point.
Dropping Like Flies
As the race continued, participants started dropping out, one by one. After Garcia, John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and quit. One of the South African runners, Len Taunyane, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. It was unorganized and chaotic.
Meanwhile, Feliz Carvajal was making good time as he trotted in his street shoes and billowing shirt. He paused to talk to spectators and stopped a car because he saw the occupants eating peaches. Carvajal asked for one, but they refused, so he snatched two and ran off eating them.
He Had to Stop
A bit further along the course, Carbajal stopped in an orchard to snack on some apples. They turned out to be rotten, causing him stomach cramps. He tried to continue but eventually had to stop. He lay down and took a nap.
Mellor took the lead over Fred Lorz and Thomas Hicks. Mellor thought he took a wrong turn and tired himself out by running backward on the course. By mile 16, he started cramping and had to drop out. It gave Hicks a chance to get in front of him.
They Refused to Help
At the nine-mile mark, Lorz also experienced cramps. However, instead of stopping, he decided to hitch a ride from one of the accompanying vehicles. Lorz waved at spectators and fellow runners as he passed. Meanwhile, Hicks was also struggling with dehydration.
He was one of the early leaders but needed help around the 10-mile mark. Hicks begged the officials for a drink, but they refused, instead sponging warm distilled water into his mouth. Seven miles from the finish line, his coach fed him a mix of strychnine and egg whites.
The Drugs Were Illegal
Hicks’ use of strychnine, a commonly used stimulant in small doses, was the first recorded use of drugs in the modern Olympics. However, there weren’t rules against performance-enhancing drugs at the time. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy, withholding it to assess his condition.
While there were no rules against what Hicks was doing, his coaches called another runner out for cheating. After riding 11 miles in the car, Lorz rejoined the race. Hicks’ team ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running.
Lorz crossed the finish line with a record-breaking time of just under three hours. The crowd roared because an American won the race. A wreath was placed over his head, but before the gold medal was lowered around his neck, a witness said he cheated.
The ceremony was halted, causing the cheers to quickly turn into boos. Lorz smiled, claiming he never planned to accept the medal. He said he only crossed the finish line for the sake of a “joke.” So, officials waited for someone else to cross the finish line.
Motivation to Finish
Hicks continued running with the strychnine coursing through his veins. He started to go limp, but hearing Lorz had been disqualified gave him the motivation to continue. His trainers gave him another dose of the drug and egg whites with some brandy to wash it down.
Although strychnine is a stimulant in small doses, larger doses are used as rat poison. Hicks now had two doses of the drug in his body, which had a negative effect. His coaches doused him in warm water, and Hicks quickened his pace.
Carried Over the Finish Line
In the last two miles of the race, Hicks ran like a well-oiled machine, but the drugs took a toll on him. His eyes were dull, and his face got paler than before. His arms felt like weights, and he could barely lift his legs because his knees were so stiff.
The drugs caused Hicks to hallucinate, thinking he had 20 miles left in the marathon. He begged for something to eat, so they gave him brandy and egg whites. Hicks walked up the last hills, approaching the stadium, barely able to stand. His coaches carried him across the finish line.
The Toughest Course
Hicks was declared the winner, but it took four doctors to make him feel well enough to leave the grounds. He lost eight pounds during the race, saying, “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.”
Lorz and Hicks would compete against each other again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without cheating. Although Hicks won, the race continued as spectators waited for others to finish. Despite napping, Carvajal came in fourth.
A Slow Finish
Although wild dogs chased South Africa’s Taunyane, he got back on course and finished ninth out of the 14 finishers. It was a slow marathon, with Hicks being the slowest winner in Olympic history. He finished after three hours, 28 minutes, and 53 seconds.
It was a fitting end to the bizarre race, the likes of which we will probably never see again. Albert Corey of France and A.L. Newton finished second and third, and Dimitrios Veloulis of Greece, who had never run before, finished in fifth place.
More Like an Experiment
The 1904 marathon might have been part of the Olympic games, but it was more of an unethical human-limitations experiment than a practical race. The effects of dehydration were a common area of research at the time, so they used the race to further research.
The participants didn’t know they were being used as lab rats. The dangerous levels of heat and humidity would have postponed the marathon today. It’s no surprise that so many competitors didn’t finish the race due to the severe conditions.
It Was Almost Banned
Following the marathon in St. Louis, the controversial race was almost banned from future Olympics. The director of the 1904 Olympics, James Sullivan, said that a run of that distance was “indefensible on any ground, but historic.” Sullivan used the race to prove his thoughts on racial superiority.
Although it was stacked with mostly white runners, author Charles P. Lucas wrote that the marathon established the “stamina” of the Caucasian race and its superior distance running powers. His book didn’t mention that Tauyane and Jan Mashiani of South Africa finished before their white teammate.
It Went Down in History
The infamy of the race set in quickly, and two days later, the newspapers dubbed it a “man-killing event.” Olympic committee members called for its removal from future games, and Sullivan jumped on the bandwagon. He said the 25-mile race was too much for human endurance.
It went down in history as the worst Olympic event with the worst ratio of entrants to finishers. The marathon also had the slowest winning time, 30 minutes slower than the second slowest winning time. Luckily, no one died during the race, even though a few came close.
The Event Continued
Despite Sullivan’s bid to end the Olympic marathon, the event continued at the 1908 London Olympics. Only one runner from the 1904 games, Sidney Hitch, ran in the 1908 race. Although Sullivan couldn’t cancel the race, he abused his power as the head of the US Olympic Committee.
Sullivan barred American women from competing in the 1908 games. Much to his disappointment, the 1908 games marked the first Olympic gold medal won by a Black athlete, John Taylor, who ran on the winning US distance medley relay team.
Some Ran Again
Besides the 1905 Boston Marathon, Hicks never ran another race. Like Tauyane and Mashiani, he disappeared from racing history. Albert Corey raced annually in an early iteration of the Chicago Marathon, winning in 1908. He didn’t compete in the Olympics again.
Newton competed in three events at the 1904 games, winning a gold medal in the four-mile team race with only two competing teams. And Lorz’s lifetime ban for his practical joke only lasted a year because he competed and won the 1905 Boston Marathon.
He Kept Traveling
Carvajal kept traveling for races after taking fourth place. In 1905, he returned to St. Louis to win third place in the All-Western Marathon. The following year, the Cuban government sent him to Greece to compete in an Olympic-style marathon, but he disappeared on his way there.
Carvajal was presumed dead, and newspapers published his obituary. However, in a mysterious turn of events, he reappeared in Havana months later and continued racing. Many thought he was robbed in Italy and killed, but no one asked where he disappeared to during those months.
Not the Only Strange Race
Although the 1904 marathon went down in history as the strangest Olympic event, it wasn’t the last time something strange happened at the Olympic marathon. At the 1908 race in London, Dorando Pietri started the race at a slow pace but sped up during the second half.
Pietri was four minutes behind South African Charles Heffron, who made a “mistake” two miles before the finish line. He accepted a drink of champagne, which gave him a cramp. Pietri noticed Heffron was in pain and sped up to get in front of him.
A Strange Finish
The extra effort took its toll on Pietri, who started to feel tired and dehydrated. As he ran into the stadium, he took the wrong path, and officials redirected him, but Pietri fell. They helped him up in front of all the spectators.
Pietri fell four more times, with officials helping him back to his feet. Despite complete exhaustion, he finished in first place. American Johnny Hayes finished second, and the US team complained because Pietri received assistance. The complaint was accepted, and Pietri was disqualified.
The marathon saw its first fatality at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Francisco Lazaro collapsed during the race and died in the hospital the following morning. Meanwhile, Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri disappeared during the race. Officials didn’t know what happened, and he was declared missing.
In reality, Kanakuri dropped out of the race midway and returned home to Japan without notifying race officials. Although he was still considered a missing person in Sweden, Kanakuri competed in the marathon at the 1920 games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Exhausted and Slow
Like the ordeal with Pietri, Belgium’s Etienne Gailly entered the stadium at the 1948 games in London in first place. He was exhausted and running slowly, allowing others to pass him. He was passed by Argentina’s Delfo Cabrera and Great Britain’s Tom Richards.
Gailly managed to cross the finish line in third place despite his slowing pace. Although he dealt with the same problem as Pietri had 40 years later, he managed to stay on his feet and finish the race without help from officials. He earned the first marathon medal for Belgium.
He Wasn’t a Runner
At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Emil Zatopek entered the marathon for Czechoslovakia. He had never run a marathon before but took home gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races. Zatopek entered the marathon because of his success in other events.
Despite not being a marathoner, Zatopek won the marathon, setting a new Olympic best with a finishing time of 2:23:03. He completed a long-distance triple that has never been matched. He came in sixth place at the following games because he was recovering from hernia surgery.
Lorz wasn’t the last person to cheat in the marathon event. At the 1972 games in Munich, Norbert Sudhaus ran into the stadium dressed in a West Germany running uniform, right in front of the genuine winner. The crowd cheered, thinking he was a participant.
The true winner, American Frank Shorter, watched in confusion as Sudhaus crossed the finish line. Sudhaus kept going, running into one of the tunnels. Officials quickly realized what had happened, crowning Shorter the winner. But he was denied his moment of glory.
Pushed Off the Course
Exactly a century after the 1904 marathon, the race in Athens was interrupted by outside interference. Neil Horan, an Irish priest, tackled Brazilian runner Vanderlei de Lima, who was leading the event with only seven km to the finish line.
Greek spectator Polyvios Kossivas helped de Lima break away from Horan to continue the race. De Lima lost about 15 to 20 seconds of time, causing him to finish third instead of first. He won a bronze medal but was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
The Race Was Moved
Unlike the race in 1904, officials had to move the 2021 marathon north of Tokyo to Sapporo because it was 7 degrees cooler in August. On the morning of the race, the temperature was about 78 degrees Fahrenheit, but felt hotter with 80 percent humidity. The change of venue didn’t help racers much.
On the day of the event, 30 athletes broke down during the race due to poor physical condition and dropped out. The runners were not used to the humid conditions of Sapporo, and others suffered heatstroke. Officials tried to avoid this, but they couldn’t change the weather.
An Inspiration to Many
Although the 1904 marathon proved to be disastrous and almost got the event scrapped from the games, it survived. It eventually became one of the most popular events of the track & field competitions. The marathon has also been a source of inspiration for amateur runners.
Millions of people tune into the Summer Olympics to watch runners race to the finish line in the 26-mile race. While there have been other outrageous events during the marathon, none of them have topped what happened during the bizarre race of 1904.