Jul 23, 2021

The 1904 Olympic Marathon

The 1904 Olympic Marathon is regarded today as one of the strangest athletic events in history and certainly the strangest Olympic event. The reason for this is that the man initially crowned as the winner had ridden 11 miles of the marathon in a car. 

Furthermore, the real winner of the marathon did not even run across the finish line––he was carried across. The course was also so dangerous that several people almost died.

The 1904 Olympics, the third ever Olympics, was held in St. Louis, Missouri during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition — more commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. Although the 1904 Olympic games, which were the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States, were scheduled to take place in Chicago, the Olympic organizing committee eventually decided to change the location of the games to St. Louis because the World’s Fair was there. 

The Olympics were poorly attended due to growing tensions over the Russo-Japanese War in Europe, so there were only 650 athletes in total, representing merely 12 countries. More than 550 of the athletes were from the U.S., and about half of the athletes not from the U.S. were from Canada. 

The Olympic Marathon specifically only had 32 athletes, 19 of whom were Americans. The course was 24.85 miles long and was considered one of the most difficult marathon courses ever run. The course itself was a road made up of dust and had seven hills that ranged from 100 feet to 300 feet tall. Additionally, there was cracked stone across some of the ascents, making them dangerous because it was hard to find footing. 

Furthermore, throughout the course of this Olympic event, the road was still used as a road. The runners had to run while cars drove by, making the race even more dangerous. The fact that cars were driving on the road is what allowed one racer, Fred Lorz, to catch a ride in a car for 11 miles of the race.

On August 30th, the day the marathon was held, the temperature in St. Louis reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit, which felt like 135 degrees Fahrenheit due to the heat and humidity. There were also only two freshwater sources for runners: a water tower at the six and a well at the twelve-mile mark. These conditions made the races even more dangerous. 

The racers themselves were also strange. A handful of them were recognized as marathoners since they had placed well in the Boston Marathon or previous Olympic games, but most of the runners were regarded as either middle-distance runners or as amateurs. 

The race began just after 3 pm and not long after the race started, William Garcia collapsed while running and had to be hospitalized for hemorrhaging because of the dust. Garcia would have died if he had continued to run. Another man, John Lorden, gave up after vomiting during the race. One participant from South Africa, Ten Lau, couldn’t finish the race because wild dogs had chased him off the course. 

Félix Carvajal of Cuba had chatted with people who were watching the race throughout the marathon, and he eventually stopped racing when he saw an orchard and decided to eat some apples. The apples happened to be rotten and made Carvajal sick, so he bowed out of the race.

After all these men had stopped, Sam Mellor had taken the lead. However, he stopped racing after experiencing severe cramping. Lorz also experienced cramping nine miles in, which was when he got a ride in a car for almost half the race.

10 miles in, Thomas Hicks was assisted by two men who would help him complete the race. These men fed him small doses of strychnine––a bitter, highly toxic, natural substance that is used as a pesticide today but was used as a stimulant at the time of the 1904 Olympics––and egg whites that were supposed to help him run. This was the first recorded case of drug use in the modern Olympic Games. 

After riding 11 miles in a car, Lorz jumped out and ran the remaining distance, crossing the finish line just before the three-hour mark. Lorz was initially crowned the winner and was about to receive the gold medal from President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt, when Lorz was identified as having cheated. 

Hicks had tried to cross the finish line, but at the very end, he began hallucinating and believed he was only at the beginning of the marathon. Soon after, his legs gave in, and the two men who had “helped” him throughout the marathon carried him across the finish line. 

The men who helped Lorz during the race assisting him as he neared the finish line.

Lorz completed the marathon but was not healthy enough to leave the grounds until an hour later after being helped by four doctors. The following year, Lorz went on to win the Boston Marathon without any assistance. 

While many strange things have happened in the Olympic games since (though not quite as strange as the 1904 Olympic marathon), another strange occurrence in the Olympic marathon event took place during the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. 

Ethiopian Abebe Bikila could not find a pair of shoes he liked before the marathon, so he decided to run barefoot through Rome for the entire race. Surprisingly, Bikila won the race and became the first Black African to win the Olympic marathon.

Sydney Henderson

I am a senior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, and I swim and play water polo. I am interested in gender studies and economics, which I plan to major in in college. I also love stand-up comedy!

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