Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts - Rabid Dogs, Rat Poison and Rotten Apples: The Curious Case of the St. Louis Olympics Marathon, 1904

August 12, 2016

This week, we’re continuing our Olympics-themed blog series with a look at what is perhaps the most memorable and ridiculous Olympic event of all time. The 1904 marathon doesn’t on the face of it have much to do with event entertainment, but have a read of this blog and we feel that by the end of it, you’ll agree that it’s certainly deserving of its billing under ‘comedy’.

St. Louis wasn’t meant to hold the 1904 Olympics. The winning bid was actually from Chicago, Illinois but upon hearing about the Games arriving in the USA, the organisers of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (otherwise known as the St. Louis World’s Fair) stated that they would not accept another international event at the same time as theirs and argued that if the Olympics wasn’t moved to their city, they’d put on their own sporting activities, which would overshadow the entire affair. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, gave in and awarded the games to St. Louis. So far, so ridiculous. But the best was yet to come.

Because St. Louis was rather busy arranging the World’s Fair, they merely incorporated the Olympics into their other arrangements. As such, the Olympics lasted five months, beginning on 1st July and ending on November 23rd. Because of the difficulty in putting up athletes for five months in a foreign nation, only 12 nations sent competitors along to the games; of the 651 competitors, 500 were from the USA.

The men’s marathon (only 6 women entered the Olympics that year) is certainly the standout event from the 1904 Olympic Games with  a whole host of hilarious moments that make the entire race suitable for a slapstick comedy film at some point in the future. Instead of beginning in the morning, the race was poorly organised from the get-go and the 40km marathon (24.85 miles) started on the afternoon of August 30th amidst temperatures of 32 °C. Although it began and ended inside the stadium, the rest of the course was on dusty country roads, which created huge dust clouds for the competitors to run into and that had been exacerbated by race officials riding in vehicles both ahead and behind the entrants. What could be worse than running into horrendous dust clouds created by race officials? Well, how about running into horrendous dust clouds without any hope of water? The only source of water for the athletes was at a well somewhere around the 11-mile mark.

You might be fooled into thinking that such a difficult race wouldn’t be won by anybody. You’d in fact be wrong, because the first competitor to cross the line was American runner Fred Lorz, who had his photograph taken with the President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt, and was about to be given his gold medal when his race was declared void. You see, young Fred had actually dropped out of the race at the 9-mile mark and had decided to hitch a ride back to the stadium in a passing car, waving to spectators and runners alike. When the car broke down at the 19-mile mark, Fred had decided to run the rest of the way, jogging over the finishing line in ‘first’. After his deception was revealed, Fred admitted to the allegations though stressed it was all just a joke. The Amateur Athletic Union didn’t find it funny however; they banned him from competition for life (though they did lift the ban a year later).

 What of the other competitors? Frenchman Albert Corey – who came in second place - ran for the USA because he didn’t have the correct documents to run for his country. William Garcia of San Francisco put in a solid effort but was found lying in the road at some point during the race, breathing in the dust clouds from the vehicles having caused severe internal injuries. Cuban postman Andarin Carvajal was also a worthy competitor; he arrived late after losing all his money in New Orleans en route. Having hitchhiked and walked the entire way from Lousiana, Carvajal arrived in street clothes and had to cut his trousers into shorts in order to compete. He can perhaps be regarded as a ‘character’. He’d stop to chat with spectators along the race course and having not eaten in 40 hours, stole from peaches from a passing wagon and also took the time to pop into an orchard by the side of the race course, indulging himself in some apples. Unfortunately for the Cuban, they turned out to be rotten and he was left with strong stomach cramps for the rest of the route. Even so, Carvajal finished in 4th place.

Two Tswana tribesmen also featured in the 1904 marathon and hold the distinction of being the first ever black Africans to compete in an Olympics. They weren’t actually in the city to compete but were instead part of a travelling sideshow related to the Boer War. Yamasani came in twelfth whilst Len Tau finished ninth, a result regarded by many as a disappointment. That being said, there was general agreement that Tau would have done better had he not been chased nearly a mile off course by aggressive rabid dogs during the race.

So who won amidst the chaos of the St. Louis marathon? That would be British-born Thomas Hicks, appearing for the United States, who came first despite using measures that would no doubt get him banned from modern marathons. Ten miles from the finish line, Hicks led the race by a mile and half but was stopped from giving up by his support team. He desperately wanted to lie down but was instead forced to take several doses of strychnine sulfate (a common rat poison), all washed down with a swig of brandy. The positive effects of strychnine include stimulating the nervous system; the negatives include death. Despite being helped over the line with a trainer on each arm, Hicks was still declared the winner and went on to receive immediate medical attention, which no doubt saved his life. Hicks retired from running the very next day.

The race was such a disaster – over half of the competitors didn’t even finish – that it was stated by James Sullivan, Director of the St. Louis Olympic Games, that holding a marathon in the future would be “indefensible on any ground, but historic.” London subsequently ignored this for the 1908 Olympic Games and considered the race such a success that it led to the establishing of the annual London marathon. As for the strychnine? Incredibly it was considered perfectly fine to use for another twenty years until its banning from sporting competitions in 1928.

Bonus Fact: Andarin Carvajal was selected by the Cuban government to run in the Athens Olympics of 1906, with his expenses being paid for by his country. After landing in Italy, he promptly disappeared and never actually arrived in Greece. Believed to be dead, his obituary was ran in the newspapers of the time before he reappeared on a Spanish steamer boat in Havana, promptly turning professional in 1907. Nobody knows what happened to him during the 'lost months'.



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By Henry Fosdike