Between Randy Johnson smoking a bird with a fastball, the California Golden Bears returning a kickoff for a game-winning touchdown with their opponent’s band on the field, Mike Tyson taking a bite out of his opponent’s ear mid-fight, or Ron Artest and his teammates engaging in an all-out brawl with the opposing crowd, there has been no shortage of strange sporting moments in our history. An event that often flies under the radar amongst the who’s who of strange sporting events is the 1904 Olympic Games Marathon.
The 1904 Olympic Games were the first time America ever hosted the Olympics. They were held in St. Louis, Missouri, in conjunction with the World’s Fair to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase. Like the inaugural event of just about anything, they were a bit of a dumpster fire. However, none of the events of the 1904 Olympic Games will stand out in history quite like the Marathon.
Quite The Cast Of Characters
Nowadays, there is a pretty strenous process to qualify for any Olympic event. This often consists of competing in any given sport at a professional level as a prerequisite and still having to attend Olympic Trials to qualify for your country’s team. In 1904, this simply wasn’t the case.
“A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic Marathons.” These American competitors, Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, were all naturally the favorites. Compared to the field, they had an advantage simply because they had run a marathon before. Not even accounting for whether or not it was at a professional level.
One of the strangest competitors was fellow American, Fred Lorz. Lorz spent his days as a bricklayer and trained at night. By today’s standards, this would be someone running to stay in shape after their day job. He qualified to compete in the Olympics by “placing in a ‘special five mile race’ sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union.” Less than a fifth of the distance of a marathon, something even leisurely runners spend an immense amount of time training for.
Another notable competitor was former mailman, Félix Carbajal, who raised money to travel to compete from Cuba. Carbajal traveled to New Orleans prior to the games. He promptly “lost all of his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis.” Carbajal competed in a “white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret, and a pair of street shoes.” One of his fellow competitors lent him a pair of scissors to turn his pants into cutoffs.
The absurdity only hit a second gear when the race actually started.
The race started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a bit later than the start time for a traditional marathon.
“Heat and humidity soared into the 90s and the course wound across roads ‘inches deep in dust.’ There were 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, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. 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. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.”
Obviously, this would never happen in today’s Olympic Games.
For example, the marathon in 2021’s Olympic Games was quite brutal with nearly 30% of runners retiring early from the event. This was after officials relocated the event from Tokyo to Hokkaido because the temperate was around six degrees lower on average. The temperature in Hokkaido was “78 Degrees Fahrenheit for the start of the race at 7 o’clock in the morning and 82 Degrees Fahrenheit at the finish time.” Even with ample water stations, nearly thirty percent of the top marathon runners in the world couldn’t even complete the race. Including Japanese athlete, Yuma Hattori, who had a heat stroke due to the treacherous conditions in his home country.
For obvious reasons, 2021’s athletes are generations ahead of where they were in 1904. Training, nutrition, natural ability, etc. have all come a significant way. It’s why we have the greatest athletes the world has ever seen today. Even with a humanely-designed event, almost a third of these freak athletes didn’t complete the marathon in 2021.
The athletes of 1904 combined with James Sullivan trying to create the Hunger Games was a recipe for disaster.
An Absolute Battering
The first victim, William Garcia, “nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon.” Garcia, a less experienced runner from California, “collapsed on the side of the road. He was hospitalized with a hemorrhaging after the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining.”
John Lordon, one of the favorites, “suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up.” Smart man.
Len Tau, a South African runner, “was chased a mile off course by a pack of wild dogs.”
The diceman, Félix Carbajal, “was making good time even though he paused to talk to spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two 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.”
Another favorite, Sam Mellor, had the lead for a bit but eventually succumbed to cramps. He slowed to a walk and eventually withdrew.
Bricklayer, Fred Lorz, began cramping around the nine-mile mark and “decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.”
Fellow favorite, Thomas Hicks, had to be aided by two men around the ten-mile mark. “He begged them for a drink but 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 PED use in the modern Olympics.”
Luckily for him, he wasn’t the most blatant cheater of the day.
A Contentious Ending
“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. Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, ‘An American won!’ Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head. She was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, ‘someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.’ The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a ‘joke.'”
Thomas Hicks eventually emerged victorious. While hallucinating, “his 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 had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, ‘Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.'”
Fred Lorz got his rematch with Hicks in the following year’s Boston Marathon, where he avenged his Olympic loss without the aid of any cars.
This would obviously never happen in today’s Olympics. For example, testing for PEDs is in place so although he wasn’t the most blatant cheater, Thomas Hicks would be promptly disqualified. We can shame the shady business around the Olympics all we want but at least there aren’t packs of wild dogs chasing off athletes during their events anymore. Also, the organizers of the games don’t try to kill the athletes now.