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The (Not So) Great Summer Olympics of 1904

The Summer Olympics of 1904 remains the strangest of all time
The Summer Olympics of 1904 remains the strangest of all time

The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis took the gold medal for being the quirkiest in history. These games, which ran alongside a World’s Fair celebrating the 100th birthday of the Louisiana Purchase, unintentionally championed American imperialism. It was an event where gymnast George Eyser, who sported a wooden leg, leaped and vaulted his way to six medals, including three golds. However, the Olympics played second fiddle to the fair’s own eccentric sports roster.

Among these was the bizarre Anthropology Days, where participants, labeled as “savages” from the fair’s global exhibits, engaged in off-the-wall contests like greased-pole climbing, “ethnic” dance-offs, and professional mudslinging, all for the entertainment of the white audience. Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman with a flair for history and the brains behind the International Olympic Committee, couldn’t help but scoff at the spectacle.

He wryly noted that the day would soon come when athletes of all hues would outrun, outjump, and outthrow their white competitors, turning the tables on this absurd charade.

The Summer Olympics of 1904

The marathon, a centerpiece of the Olympics, was originally intended to pay homage to Greece’s ancient heritage and link it with the modern era. Yet, the 1904 marathon in St. Louis was more of a bizarre circus act than a prestigious athletic event.

It aligned more with the fair’s carnival vibe than the dignified spirit of the Olympics. The race was so riddled with controversy and absurdity that it almost led to the marathon being permanently dropped from the Olympic lineup.

The 1904 Olympic marathon was more of a wacky race than a world-class event. You had a few serious marathoners who probably wondered if they took a wrong turn and ended up at a circus instead. These seasoned runners like Sam Mellor and Thomas Hicks were ready for glory but got a comedy show. Then there was Fred Lorz, the bricklayer who only ran under the moonlight, probably because that’s when the bricks slept. He sprinted into the Olympics thanks to a five-mile race, which must have felt like a sprint compared to marathon distances.

The marathoners line up at the start

The marathoners line up at the start

But wait, there’s more! The marathon’s cast of characters would make even a seasoned carnival barker do a double-take. Picture ten Greeks who probably thought a marathon was a dance marathon, a pair of Tsuana tribesmen from South Africa who showed up barefoot (because who needs running shoes?), and a Cuban mailman named Félix Carbajal.

This guy ran across Cuba to raise travel money, then gambled it all away in New Orleans. His journey to the starting line involved more hitchhiking than running, and he showed up in street clothes, looking like he was ready for a casual stroll rather than a race. His fashion statement was completed when another runner played impromptu tailor, snipping his trousers into stylish shorts. That 1904 marathon? A comedy gold medalist, for sure!

The Marathon of the 1904 Summer Olympics

On the sweltering afternoon of August 30th, at 3:03 p.m. sharp, David R. Francis, the big boss of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, whipped out his pistol and bang! The marathon runners took off. It was a scorcher of a day, with the mercury dancing in the 90s. The 24.85-mile track was no walk in the park. A fair official probably had a chuckle calling it “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over.” It was like a dusty obstacle course with roads buried under inches of dust.

The route was peppered with seven hills, not the rolling kind, but the 100-to-300-feet tall monsters with inclines that felt more like cliffs. If that wasn’t enough, there were patches of treacherous loose stones scattered all over, making it a twisted ankle waiting to happen. The runners had to zigzag around everyday traffic, dodging delivery wagons, trains, trolley cars, and even the occasional leisurely dog walker.

The 1904 Olympic marathon, designed by James Sullivan, was not just a race but also his personal exercise science experiment. A big believer in “purposeful dehydration,” Sullivan was convinced that eating or drinking during exercise was a recipe for an upset stomach. Thus, the 24.85-mile course (marathons didn’t hit 26.2 miles until 1921) had a single water station near the halfway mark.

To top it off, cars filled with coaches and doctors followed the runners, churning up clouds of dust and turning the race into a choke-fest. It was less of a marathon and more of a survival of the fittest (or the most hydrated).

Félix Carvajal of Cuba, running in modified street clothes.

Félix Carvajal of Cuba, running in modified street clothes.

Early in the race, Newton, fresh off a bronze in the steeplechase, held fifth place, matching his 1900 Olympics marathon finish. Hicks, known more for his antics than his athleticism, lagged behind in seventh. Meanwhile, Albert Corey, a French-born Chicagoan who worked in a slaughterhouse, was hot on their heels in ninth.

Close behind were two marathon newbies, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani. These pioneers were the first Black Africans in the Olympics and South Africa’s sole Black representatives until the end of apartheid 86 years later. With no formal racing experience, they were in St. Louis as part of the World’s Fair’s Boer War Exhibition. Taunyane and Mashiani, who served as message runners in the Second Boer War, were part of a large cast that reenacted battles from the war, thrilling thousands of spectators daily.

Hicks, one of the American front-runners, hit a rough patch at the 10-mile mark and fell into the hands of his two-man support crew. Thirsty and desperate, he pleaded for a drink, but instead of quenching his thirst, they gave him a sponge bath for his mouth with warm distilled water. Talk about adding insult to injury!

It gets better. Seven miles shy of the finish line, his team decided it was time for a special snack: a zesty mix of strychnine and egg whites. Yes, you heard that right. This was the first ever recorded “performance enhancement” in the modern Olympics. Back then, strychnine was the go-to pick-me-up (in teeny-tiny doses, of course), and there weren’t any pesky rules about doping.

His crew also had a flask of French brandy tucked away. They probably thought, “Let’s hold off on the brandy and see if he makes it a bit further.” Just another day at the 1904 Olympics, where hydration was a sponge and performance enhancement came with a side of eggs!

Meanwhile, Fred Lorz, who had taken a little 11-mile detour in a car due to cramps, decided it was showtime again. He hopped out of the car and back onto the course. One of Hicks’ team spotted him and tried to shoo him away, but Lorz was on a mission. He crossed the finish line with a time just shy of three hours, and the crowd went wild, chanting “An American won!”

Len Taunyane, left, and Jan Mashiani of the Tswana Tribe of South Africa.

Len Taunyane, left, and Jan Mashiani of the Tswana Tribe of South Africa.

The scene was straight out of a movie. There was Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, ready to crown Lorz with a wreath and drape the gold medal around his neck. But just as the medal was about to touch Lorz, someone in the crowd played spoiler, shouting that Lorz was a faker. The cheers turned to jeers.

Lorz just flashed a grin and shrugged, saying he was only kidding and never planned to accept the medal. He claimed he finished the race for laughs. Talk about a prank gone too far – or perhaps the earliest recorded instance of “just doing it for the jokes” in Olympic history!

The Thomas Hicks Story of 1904 Summer Olympics

As Hicks continued on, fueled by strychnine and determination, he was practically a walking chemistry experiment. His complexion had turned ghostly, and his body was limp. But upon hearing that Lorz, the jokester, was out of the race, Hicks found a spark of energy and shuffled into a trot. His support crew, doubling down on their unconventional methods, administered another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time spicing it up with a dash of brandy.

They also decided Hicks needed a warm water spa treatment right there on the course. Post-bath, Hicks seemed to get a second wind and picked up his pace. Charles Lucas, a race official, described Hicks’ final stretch as something out of a sci-fi novel. Hicks was moving like a rusty robot, his eyes dull and lifeless, his skin a deeper shade of pale. His arms hung heavy as if weighed down, and his legs seemed to barely lift, with his knees stiff like they were on the verge of rusting shut. It was less of a triumphant final dash and more of a mechanical, strychnine-fueled stagger to the finish line.

Hicks’ final stretch was more hallucination than a marathon. He imagined the finish line was a whopping 20 miles further. In his last mile, Hicks transformed from runner to philosopher, first requesting a snack, then contemplating a nap. More brandy was on the menu, but he turned down tea – a runner with standards. Downing two more egg whites, he walked up a hill, jogged down, and then staggered into the stadium with the elegance of a newborn giraffe.

Thomas Hicks, assisted by his trainers.

Thomas Hicks, assisted by his trainers.

His final attempt at running turned into a shuffle that wouldn’t win any style points. His trainers, doubling as puppeteers, hoisted him up and carried him across the finish line, his feet twitching in a ghostly semblance of running. Declared the winner, it was a victory lap like no other.

Post-race, Hicks was a medical marvel, requiring four doctors and an hour to even think about leaving. He shed eight pounds during his ordeal and summed up the experience with the understatement of the century: “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.”

Post-1904 marathon, Thomas Hicks called it quits on marathon running. Like many competitors, including Taunyane and Mashiani, he faded into obscurity. Albert Corey, however, went back to Chicago and became a regular in the early Chicago Marathon, even clinching victory in 1908. Newton, not done with the Olympics, snagged gold in a four-mile team race just four days later, while Corey added another silver to his collection.

Thomas Hicks, 1904 Olympic marathon champion.

Thomas Hicks, 1904 Olympic marathon champion.

Fred Lorz, initially slapped with a lifetime ban for his car-riding antics, found himself back in the game in less than a year, triumphantly winning the 1905 Boston Marathon.

Then there’s the adventurous Félix Carvajal, the Cuban marathoner with a flair for drama. In 1905, he returned to St. Louis, bagging third in the inaugural All-Western Marathon. The next year, en route to Greece for an Olympics-related marathon, Carvajal vanished in Italy, sparking rumors of his death complete with newspaper obituaries. But, like a character in a mystery novel, he resurfaced in Havana months later, casually resuming his racing career.

Fun times.

Next, read about the Buffalo Soldiers who fought the Second World War, and then, the Mad Bomber of the NYC!

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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