America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism.

Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (George Eyser, a gymnast with a wooden leg, earned six medals, including three gold), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats for the amusement of white spectators. 

The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start, the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, an absurdist spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. After seeing how the event played out, officials nearly abolished it for good.

Group photo
Some of the athletes competing in the marathon pose for a group photo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The contenders

A few of the runners were recognized athletes who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or in previous Olympic marathons. Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites.

But the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted oddball characters. Fred Lorz, an American who trained at night because he worked as a bricklayer by day, earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a special five-mile race sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Other noteworthy contenders included two men from the Tswana tribe of South Africa—the first Black Africans to ever participate in the modern Olympics— who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit. They are fabled to have arrived at the starting line barefoot, though photos show that at least one was wearing shoes.

Len Tau and Jan Mashiani
Len Tau and Jan Mashiani were the first Black Africans to participate in the modern Olympics. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Then there was Félix Carvajal, a Cuban national and former mailman who raised money to come to the United States by demonstrating his running prowess throughout Cuba, once trekking the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he reportedly lost all his money in a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. A 5-foot-1 man, he presented a slight but striking figure at the starting line, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt; long, dark pants; a beret; and a pair of street shoes. Legend has it that one fellow Olympian took pity, found a pair of scissors and cut Carvajal’s trousers at the knee.

The main event

On August 30, at precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the low 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. The race was slightly shorter than today’s marathons, which are almost always 26.2 miles. “This was more like cooking than civil engineering,” the New York Times wrote in 2012. “Race directors designed their courses by a sense of feel, not by a fastidious recipe.”

The course had seven hills, varying from 100 to 300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents. In many places, cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing. The men had to constantly dodge crosstown traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.

There was only one spot where athletes could officially secure fresh water, 12 miles from the start of the race. (Carvajal somehow got a drink at a water tower six miles into the course.) James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time.

Hicks, an experienced runner from Massachusetts, led the 32 starters from the gun. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon when he collapsed on the side of the road some eight miles from the finish. The dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining, causing serious hemorrhaging. Had he gone unaided an hour longer, he might have bled to death.

Lordon, one of the Americans, suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by a wild dog. Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s car “passed the little Cuban three miles out, still running at an even gait, and he waved his cap and yelled enthusiastically,” as the paper reported the following day.

Félix Carvajal
Félix Carvajal, a Cuban runner, is rumored to have cut his long pants off at the knee before the race. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On one occasion, Carvajal stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. When the strangers refused, he playfully snatched two of the fruits and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he laid down and took a nap. Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark, cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.

Sam Mellor
Sam Mellor, an American runner, experienced severe cramping during the event. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the rules of the Olympic marathon “allowed runners to be coached and assisted by race officials,” writes George R. Matthews in America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904. Hicks, one of the early American favorites, “received an inordinate amount of coaching and some extraordinary assistance during the marathon.”

At the ten-mile mark, Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew, whom he begged for a drink. They refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics, which had no rules about performance-enhancing drugs at the time. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant at the time; today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes it as a “strong poison” that is “used primarily as a pesticide, particularly to kill rats.” Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge the runner’s condition.

Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of 3 hours, 13 minutes. The crowd roared. But the cheers quickly turned to boos as the truth came to light. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he’d finished only for the sake of a joke.

The brandy-fueled victor

Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified, he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing, he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. Race official Charles Lucas wrote:

Over the last two miles of the road, 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 at the 20-mile mark
Hicks reaches the 20-mile mark. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The athlete began hallucinating, believing the finish line was still 20 miles away. During the last mile, he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He drank more brandy but was refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the moments that followed:

There was not a semblance of the elastic spring with which he had started. He must have heard the uproar about him, but he betrayed no sign of it. He was past that. He did look up once when the din was at its height. He was within a few yards of the finish. His lower jaw was hanging as in imbecility, his eyes stared blankly, but his pitiful expression didn’t change.

Hicks’ trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner. It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He declared, “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won—this time without the aid of anything but his legs.

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