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The Disastrous 1904 Olympic Marathon

The runners were plagued by high heat, dusty roads, wild dogs, and rat poison.

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  • Thomas Hicks pictured with two supporters.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The marathon at the Olympics is the crown jewel of competitive long-distance running, and the medals awarded in it the highest honor in the sport. Inspired by the myth of Pheidippides’ run to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon, it has always represented endurance and triumph. However, for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Olympics today, it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always so dignified. At no time in history was that more abundantly clear than during the disaster of a men’s marathon held at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri. 

That year's Olympics had originally been planned to take place in Chicago, but was changed to take place in St. Louis alongside the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a colonialism-themed World’s Fair that featured Boer War reenactments and Indigenous people on display. The World’s Fair organizers had objected to the Olympics taking place concurrently in a different city, publicly threatening to hold their own program of athletic competitions to overshadow the Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin, founder and president of the International Olympics Committee, capitulated. 

St. Louis’ inland location meant travel there was more difficult than Chicago in 1904, so many nations simply didn’t send representative athletes. Only 32 runners from seven nations (the US, Cuba, South Africa, France, Greece, Britain, and Canada) made it to the hot, dusty starting line of the men’s marathon on August 30. Many of them had placed in the Boston Marathon, or run in prior Olympic Games—others had never run a marathon in their lives. 

One American competitor, Fred Lorz, was a New York bricklayer by day who trained as a runner by night. He had placed in a special five-mile run held by the Amateur Athletic Union, the prize for which was a guaranteed spot in the Olympic marathon. Other American runners included Frank Pierce, a member of the Seneca Nation and the first Native American athlete to compete in the Olympics, and Thomas Hicks, an experienced runner and the favorite to take home the gold. 

Also on the starting line were two South African runners of the Tswana people. Jan Mashiani and Len Taunyane had come to the World’s Fair as part of the Boer War reenactment troupe—both were actual veterans of the wars. Mashiani and Taunyane were the first Black South Africans to participate in the Olympics, and would remain the last until the end of apartheid in the 1990s. Taunyane ran the race barefoot. 

Joining them was the Cuban mailman turned globetrotting marathon runner Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto. On his way to the games, Carvajal had made a layover in New Orleans, where he’d gambled away all his money in a game of dice. He arrived at the starting line in street clothes, long pants included. New York police officer and discus thrower Martin Sheridan tracked down a pair of scissors and snipped Carvajal’s pants at the knee, turning them into makeshift running shorts. 

In the 90 degree heat of a St. Louis afternoon, Louisiana Purchase Exposition president David R. Francis fired the starting gun. Lorz led the pack out of the gate. Taunyane got a well-paced start, but soon fled a mile off course pursued by a pack of wild dogs. 

The modern marathon is usually held on closed streets to prevent the interference of passers-by and onlookers. This was not so in 1904, as the runners had to sidestep cars, horses, trolleys, trains, and pedestrians on the open dirt roads. Worse still, passing cars kicked up stifling clouds of trail dust—causing one runner, William Garcia of California, to drop out of the race and end up in the hospital with internal hemorrhaging. 

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  • Carvajal on his way to fourth place.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As the race drew on, Carvajal began to feel pangs of hunger. He reportedly hadn’t eaten anything for two days, a predicament which was likely related to his lost funds. He came across spectators snacking on peaches, and asked if he could have one. They refused. Carvajal snatched a pair of peaches from the shocked spectators, running down the road with his bounty. 

But Carvajal was still hungry. The marathon’s route passed between rows of trees in an apple orchard, so Carvajal decided to seize his opportunity. He sped through the orchard, scarfing down apples as he went. His enthusiasm for fruit proved his downfall, however, as some of the apples had gone rotten. Carvajal’s hunger pangs turned to nausea, and he was forced to lie down in the orchard for an extended nap. He still managed to come in fourth place.

Around the nine mile mark, Lorz, the bricklayer from New York, reached his limit, doubling over with an abdominal stitch. He hailed a passing car and asked for a lift. Lorz rode the car for 11 miles along the marathon route, waving out the window the whole way. He then hopped out and rejoined the race, “finishing” in first. 

The crowd, mostly American, cheered their countryman as he took his place on the podium. He posed for a photo with Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-president Theodore Roosevelt, and bowed his head to receive the gold medal. Before she could put it around his neck, however, someone cried out that Lorz had cheated. Cheers turned to boos as Lorz was ushered away by officials. He admitted the truth, but insisted it had only been a joke—he never would’ve actually accepted the medal. The Amateur Athletics Union slapped him with a lifetime ban for this stunt. 

With temperatures and humidity both in the 90s, staying hydrated that day was difficult enough. James E. Sullivan, a chief organizer of the games, made it his mission to further complicate that. Sullivan was a fervent believer in the theory of "purposeful dehydration", which held that eating and drinking during a race were not beneficial to an athlete’s performance. As a result, he ensured that there were only two water sources along the entire route.

Sullivan’s experiment was a problem for many runners, but none more so than Thomas Hicks. Hicks’ trainers had him on a rigorous diet of egg whites, brandy, and strychnine, a rat poison that acts as a stimulant in small doses. Under today’s rules, Hicks would’ve been disqualified for the use of performance-enhancing drugs—although the combination of dehydration, alcohol, and poison did anything but enhance his performance. He was already flagging 10 miles out from the finish, but his trainers refused to let him quit or get him a drink, instead washing his mouth out with warm water.

When Hicks heard that Lorz had been disqualified, he got a second wind. However, onlookers reported that he was visibly unwell, pallid of complexion and barely able to lift his legs. He began hallucinating that the finish line was still 20 miles away. To combat this, his trainers fed him more of the toxic cocktail. Before long, Hicks was in a slump, his arms slung over his trainers’ shoulders as he pitifully kicked his feet. 

It was in that posture that Hicks crossed the finish line in first place, after the disqualified Lorz. His final time was 3 hours and 28 minutes—the slowest ever Olympic marathon finishing time by a 30-minute margin. He celebrated his victory in the care of four doctors, who soon discovered that he finished the race eight pounds lighter than he had begun it. 

Lorz was soon found innocent of any intentional wrongdoing, and he was reinstated into the AAU in time for the Boston Marathon in 1905. He won that race fair and square against Hicks, who did not place. Carvajal continued traveling the world in pursuit of his running career until he disappeared on the way to a marathon in Greece in 1906. He reappeared months later aboard a Havana-bound steamship, with no explanation for his absence. Nothing further is known about the lives of Taunyane and Mashiani, who came in 9th and 12th places respectively, after the marathon. 

James E. Sullivan held fast to his belief in purposeful dehydration for all of two days after the race, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a scathing account that called the marathon a “man-killing event.” Only 14 of the 32 entrants had made it to the finish line. Amid calls for the marathon to be struck from the next Olympics’ programming, Sullivan abruptly flip-flopped, calling the race an impossible challenge on human endurance.

Despite controversy, the marathon returned to the 1908 Olympics in London, and is still part of the event today. The men’s marathon is now usually the last event held at the summer Olympics, putting an inspirational button on the games. Olympic marathons today are subject to careful planning and tighter restrictions, including on the availability of water, use of drugs, and closure of roads. Those lessons were learned the hard way during the trials and tribulations of the 1904 marathon.