The men’s marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games ranks high on the list for the most bizarre, unusual and controversial events ever held in Olympic Games history.
To begin with, the organisers of the marathon knew almost nothing about staging such an event. The course, which measured 39.99 kilometres (24.8 miles) in length included seven hills and was run on dusty roads, made dustier by the many cars which the judges, doctors and journalists used to follow the runners. The only water available to the runners was from a well located 19 kilometres (12 miles) from the main stadium where the race began and ended.
The event attracted nearly all of the top American marathon runners, including:
Sam Mellor – winner of the 1902 Boston Marathon
John Lordon – winner of the 1903 Boston Marathon
Michael Spring – winner of the 1904 Boston Marathon
Thomas Hicks – 2nd in the 1904 Boston Marathon
Arthur Newton – 5th in the 1900 Paris Olympics marathon.
There were also some lesser-known and unusual entrants. One was 1.5 metre (5 foot) tall Felix Carvajal, a Cuban mail carrier, who had lost all of his money when playing craps in New Orleans after arriving from Havana. After hitchhiking to St Louis, he arrived on the starting line wearing heavy street shoes, long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a beret.
Also entered were the first two black Africans to participate in the Olympics – Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, who were Zulu tribesmen. They were not athletes – they had been brought to the United States as part of the Boer War Exhibition in the St Louis World’s Fair, which was held concurrently with the Olympic Games.
The race was scheduled for the middle of the afternoon on the 30th of August, when temperatures would hit 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). It was not surprising when the hot conditions and tough course had an immediate impact on the competitors.
John Lordon started vomiting after only 16 kilometres (10 miles) and had to withdraw. American runner William Garcia was discovered lying in the middle of the road, after collapsing due to inhaling dust kicked up by the cars following the runners. Sam Mellor, the leader at the halfway mark, retired after 25 kilometres (16 miles). Taunyane lost time when he was chased off the course and through a cornfield by two large dogs. The only runner who didn’t appear to be bothered was the Cuban Carvajal, who stopped a number of times to chat with spectators, discuss the progress of the race and practice his English. He also quenched his thirst by snatching a couple of peaches from an official in one of the cars, and by raiding a farmer’s orchard of some green apples, which gave him stomach cramps.
Back in the main stadium, the spectators were unaware of these incidents, although the more knowledgeable fans might have wondered why three hours had passed without any athletes entering the stadium. Finally, after 3 hours and 13 minutes, New York resident Fred Lorz entered the stadium, did the 5 laps required and crossed the finished line. He was declared the winner, and was about to be presented with the gold medal, when it was discovered that he had stopped running after 14 kilometres (9 miles), hitched a ride in a car for 17 kilometres (11 miles) and then started running again.
American Athletic Union officials were not amused, disqualified Lorz and gave him a lifetime ban from competing. The ban was lifted, and Lorz went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.
With Lorz’s disqualification, the real winner was Thomas Hicks. If modern-day rules had been in place, Hicks would have also been disqualified. Second at the halfway mark, Hicks found himself in first place when Sam Mellor retired. 16 kilometres (10 miles) from the finish the heat started to get to Hicks, who begged to be allowed down and rest, but his handlers wouldn’t allow it, even though he had a lead of nearly 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles). To keep Hicks going, his handlers gave him a drink of a concoction made up of styrchnine sulfate mixed with raw egg whites. A few kilometres later he was given more strychnine, as well as some brandy, as well as being bathed in warm water.
Hick was forced to slow down to a walk when faced with a final, steep hill just 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) from the stadium, but a couple more doses of strychnine and brandy revived him enough to win by six minutes ahead of French competitor Albert Corey, with Albert Newton finishing third. Carvajal recovered from his stomach cramps to finish fourth. Only 14 of the 32 starters managed to complete the course, including Taunyane, who finished ninth, and Mashiani, who finished twelfth. Needless to say, Hicks was in a stupor after the race had finished. He had lost 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) during the event, and announced his retirement straight after the race had finished.
After the race had finished, the athletes who had suffered in competing my have received some satisfaction when they learned that two of the race officials in charge of patrolling the course were badly injured as well, when their car swerved to avoid one of the runners and careened down an embankment.
David Wallechinsky’s book “The Complete Book of the Olympics”, Penguin Books, 1984 p. 44-45 was used as the basis for this blog post.