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Today, we know the Olympic marathon as one the most revered and lavish of athletic events where our demigods of endurance are canonized.
But when the United States hosted the 1904 Summer Olympic Games, the men’s marathon was so scandalously irreverent that the kibosh was almost put on the event for good. In fact, the race can be summed up with three trigger warnings: Poison, deliberate dehydration, and near fatalities. Read on at your own discretion.
The Rag-Tag Olympic Lineup
Taking place during the World Fair, the 1904 Olympic marathon was really more of a bizarre side spectacle to give a nod to the game’s classical roots in Greece. It ended up being more of a circus show tangibly connected to the fair.
Thirty-two athletes representing four nations (the United States, South Africa, Cuba, and Greece) toed the line that afternoon, but only 14 managed to finish the race. Which, given the gruesome conditions, was rather impressive. The temperature soared to a hellish 92°F.
The assembly of athletes was something of a ragtag bunch. Although a few of the men competing had accolades for previously either winning or placing in prestigious marathons like Boston or the Olympics, most of the field were middle distance runners. The field favorites included Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all of whom were experienced marathoners. Another American Fredrick Lorz, a bricklayer who trained by night, earned his spot on the Olympic Team by placing in a five-mile race sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union.
There were also a dozen Greek athletes who had never run a marathon, and a former mailman from Cuba named Félix Carbajal de Soto. Carbajal had raised money to come to the states by demonstrating his running talent to his countrymen. Unfortunately, he lost all his money while gambling in New Orleans and had to walk on foot and hitchhike to St. Louis. After the exhausting journey, Carbajal arrived at the starting line in pitiable attire, garbed in a long-sleeved shirt, long, dark trousers, and a pair of street shoes. His pants were cut at the knee by a fellow Olympian sympathetic to his less than ideal racing uniform. Also competing were two men representing South Africa’s Tswana tribe, Len Tau and Jan Mashian.
Deliberate Dehydration and NDEs
The starting pistol fired at 3:03 in the afternoon as the heat beat down at temperatures in the 90s. What proceeded was less a marathon race than an unethical human-limitation experiment over a winding, hilly course inches thick with dust. (A far cry from the efforts put into designing today’s courses. The 2021 Olympic Marathon course, in contrast was set 500 miles north of Tokyo in Sapporo to avoid hot conditions.) As coaches and doctors rode in cars and horses alongside the runners, they spewed dust into the runners lungs igniting several hacking spells. American competitor William Garcia was discovered lying on the road along the marathon course with near-fatal internal injuries caused by breathing in dust.
Despite the dangerous levels of heat and humidity, the runners were only able to secure water from two locations on the course at the 6-mile and 12-mile markers. That’s because the chief organizer of the games, James Sullivan, wanted to “minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time,” according to the Smithsonian magazine. What better opportunity to do a bit of experimenting on the topic?
Brandy and Rat Poisoning: The Fuel of Champions
The first to cross the finish line was Lorz, the 5-miler, who had actually dropped out at 9 miles and intended to ride his way to the end to retrieve his clothes. However, the car broke down at mile 19 so he decided to hop back in the race and jogged his way to a faux victory. As a prank he acted as if he had won, and soon discovered after the medal ceremony (during which he was booed before the gold medal could be draped around his neck) that he was banned for a year by the AAU for his practical joke. He went on to redeem himself by winning the 1905 Boston Marathon.
The legal victor was Hicks, though his methods of making it across the finish line wouldn’t fly today. Throughout the race he was given a toxic cocktail containing egg whites, brandy and strychnine sulfate — a common rat poisoning that in small doses acts as a stimulant — making this the first recorded use of drugs in the modern Olympic Games. To be fair, at this time there were no rules against the use of performance enhancing drugs in competition. After suffering hallucinations, begging to lie down, and walking up one of the last hills, Hicks was carried over the finish line by his trainers as he kicked his feet and declared the champion. His time, 3:28.45, is the worst in Olympic history by a half-hour. Hicks allegedly lost eight pounds over the course of the marathon and likely would have died in the stadium had a team of doctors not treated him immediately.
Coming in behind Albert Corey of France (second) and Newton (third) was none other than the tenacious Cuban, Carbaja. It was an impressive finish not because of his attire or having hitchhiked his way to the starting line, but because in the middle of the race Carvajal, famished, detoured through an apple orchard and snacked on some apples that turned out to be rotten. He suffered severe stomach cramps and had to lie down for a quick snooze. He woke up refreshed and continued the race to finish fourth. Also of note was ninth-place finisher, Len Tau of South Africa, who might have performed better had he not been chased a mile off the course by feral dogs. Full results can be found here, for those curious.
Not exactly an inspirational tale, but it’s nice to note that our attitudes toward hydration and doping have come a long way in the last hundred years.
“The 1904 Olympic Marathon Might Have Been the Strangest Ever.” The Smithsonian Magazine, August 7, 2012
“The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2004
“Controversy and Slow Times Marked the 1904 Olympic Marathon.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2004
“New York Athlete Wins Marathon Race.” New York Times, April 20, 1905
“The 1904 Olympic Marathon and the Early Days of Doping.” PodiumRunner, June 30, 2016
“Marathon Madness.” New Scientist, August 7, 2004
“8 Unusual Facts About the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.” History, 2014
“Sports Legend Revealed: A marathon runner nearly died because of drugs he took to help him win.” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2010
“Wacky Tales from Olympics Past.” Mental Floss, September 30, 2010