The Olympic Games have seen some strange things, such as the embarrassing time when two countries showed up with the same flag, but when it comes to the most bizarre event, it the gold medal has to go to the marathon of the 1904 Games.
The 3rd Summer Olympics took place in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. It was the first time the Olympics were held outside of Europe, and expectations were running high. 651 athletes from 12 nations participated in 95 different events.
The marathon took place on August 30. It was the last Olympic marathon to be less than 26.2 miles in length. The course was 24.85 miles (39.99 meters) and would be changed at the 1908 Games to its current standard.
Thirty-two athletes representing four nations competed, but only 14 managed to finish. The race began in the afternoon. Temperatures during the marathon reached 33 °C (92 °F) and humidity reached into the 90’s, bringing the heat index to about 57 °C (135 °F). The race began and ended in the stadium, but the rest of the course was on dusty country roads with race officials riding in vehicles ahead of and behind the runners, creating dust clouds. The only source of water for the competitors was a well at about the 11-mile mark.
William Garcia of San Francisco nearly lost his life because of the conditions. He was found lying in the road along the marathon course with severe internal injuries caused by breathing the clouds of dust kicked up by the race officials’ cars.
Andarín Carvaja, from Cuba, ran the race, but only after getting there at the last minute. His arrival was delayed when he lost all his money in New Orleans, playing craps. He hitchhiked to St. Louis, and stopped along the way at an orchard to get something to eat. He was so hungry that he devoured some apples, even though they turned out to be rotten. The resulting food poisoning left him weakened, but he still managed to cross the finish line in the fourth place position, wearing his regular street clothes, which he cut with scissors to make into running gear.
The first person to cross the finish line was Fred Lorz. He finished with an impressive time of 3 hours and 13 minutes. He was declared the winner and was about to have his picture taken with Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, when someone pointed out that there may be a problem with Lorz’s performance. Upon investigation, race officials determined that Lorz dropped out of the race after 9 miles and hitched a ride in a car back to the stadium. The car broke down at the 19th mile marker, so Lorz jumped out and picked up the rest of the route on foot. He was disqualified and given a lifetime ban from further competition. This “lifetime ban” was lifted after one year, and Lorz went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.
The fellow who ultimately was awarded first place was Thomas Hicks. After 15 miles, Hicks was in the lead, but he was spent. He tried to drop out, but his trainers wouldn’t let him. Instead, they gave him the first of several small doses of strychnine and brandy. Strychnine is a deadly poison used to kill rats, but in small doses, it stimulates the neural system and was believed to be beneficial.
Whether due to overexertion, dehydration, or deadly neurological poison in his system, Hicks was barely able to complete the race. He was hallucinating and had to be physically helped across the finish line by two of his trainers. The performance-enhancing drug (poisonous or otherwise) and the assistance to cross the finish line would have disqualified him under modern rules, but was permissible at that time.
Hicks won the gold medal, and he narrowly avoided death, due to the timely intervention by physicians at the finish line. He lost eight pounds during the course of the race.
The marathon included the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics. Len Tau (real name: Len Taunyane) and Yamasani (real name: Jan Mashiani) were both from the Tswana tribe from the Orange Free State (now part of the Republic of South Africa).
Len Tau finished ninth, despite being chased nearly a mile off the course by a pack of dogs. Yamasani came in twelfth.
One person present who was not allowed to run was Albert Corey. He came all the way from France but did not have the right documents with him, so he was not allowed to join the French team.