What the hell happened at the 1904 Summer Olympics?
The Olympics are one of the few international events that brings together people from every corner of the globe to celebrate our humanity through the spectacle of sport. Inspired by the ancient Olympic Games held in Greece, the modern games were created in 1894 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and has continually grown over the years to become the world’s most prestigious sporting competition with more than 200 countries participating.
The Olympics have become such a massive event that hosting cities are always trying to make it bigger and better than the previous games, to the point where the cities acquire such large mountains of debt that it can take decades to pay off. Case in point, the Tokyo Olympics – which were supposed to be held in 2020 but was delayed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic – was estimated to have cost the city $12.6 billion USD.
This price tag for hosting the Olympic Games may seem outlandish, (if you want to read more about the financial history of the games, check out this great article) especially to us common folk who work multiple jobs or need to pinch pennies to make it from paycheck-to-paycheck, but as the old saying goes: you get what you pay for.
Every four years, whether you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the games in person or are watching them on television from the other side of the world, everything from the lighting of the Olympic torch to the closing ceremonies is a awe-inspiring exhibition of sportsmanship and class.
This, however, was not always the case.
The International Olympic Committee awarded the city of Chicago the right to host the 1904 games. This was the first time the games would be held outside of Europe and should’ve been a momentous occasion: the games that broke it free from its geographic borders and became a truly international event. Instead, well, it was a proverbial dumpster fire.
When the IOC made the announcement that the Olympics were going abroad, everyone was really excited. Everyone except the city of St. Louis, that is. Why did the Gateway to the West have a problem with the announcement? Well, that summer, the city was hosting the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – a World Fair devoted to the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase – during the same timeframe and the well-funded organizers of the expo didn’t like the idea of another international event potentially stepping on their toes.
So, they did the most reasonable thing possible: they struck a deal with the Amateur Athletic Union to include the 1904 track and field championships as part of the exposition and informed the Olympic committee that they intended to create a sporting event so spectacular that it would eclipse the Olympiad unless it, too, moved to St. Louis.
With their hands tied, the IOC reluctantly moved the games to the new city but its problems were far from over. Transportation in the early 1900s was not as robust as it is today. Commercial airlines wouldn’t become mainstream for another fifty years and it wouldn’t be until 1956 that the U.S. would begin building its interstate system. In short, it was expensive and time consuming to get to St. Louis. As a result, only 12 countries would send delegates. Of the 630 athletes who participated, 523 were American.
Because of the sheer disproportionate number of U.S. athletes, compared to the other nations, America also swept most events, hauling in a total of 239 medals (of 280) – the most by any country in any Olympics, ever. Some of these medals were contested, however, as the American Olympic team was accused of having European immigrants who hadn’t achieved citizenship yet. Some of these claims of fraud took until 2012 to resolve as Norway still insisted two gold medal winning wrestlers were Norwegian.
If you think this is all bananas, just wait, there’s more.
The modern Olympic games are played out over a stretch of two weeks. The 1904 games were scheduled to last between August 29th and September 3rd, a comfortable six days of games and activities, and that’s exactly how long the track and field events lasted. Every other event? Not so much.
The World Fair had its claws so deep into the Olympiad that it spread the remainder of the games out for months, intertwining their own athletic events such as a military athletic carnival, an Irish sports festival, a YMCA basketball championship, and the extremely controversial “Anthropology Days“. To make things worse, the expo’s organizers lumped all these events under one “Olympic” umbrella so spectators had absolutely no idea which were official events and which were showcases. In total, the 1904 Olympics ran between July 1st and November 23rd, a grueling 146 days, and consisted of 93 different sporting events.
One of the keystone events of any Olympiad is the marathon and 1904 was no different … except this particular event was less road race and more circus sideshow. It was so bad, organizers seriously considered removing the event from all future games.
Where should we begin with this colossal train wreck of an event? How about the fact it started at 3 p.m. on a day that had temperatures reaching into the 90s? Or, how the race route took runners over dusty, unpaved roads? OR, how the race organizer, James Sullivan, was a staunch believer in “purposeful dehydration” – one of those really wacky and ill-thought out areas of “science” at the turn of the century – and made sure there was only one water station on the entire 26.2 mile course?
Of the 32 competitors, 18 withdrew due to exhaustion. But the pure oddity of this race doesn’t stop here.
Cuban runner Felix Carbajal raised money to race in the Olympics but blew his money gambling in New Orleans. He had to hitchhike his way to St. Louis and entered the marathon in a dress shirt, slacks, leather shoes, and a beret. At some point, a sympathetic bystander found some scissors and trimmed the bottoms of his pants off, turning them to shorts, just before the race.
While Carbajal’s determination to compete is admirable, being a broke athlete is tough. Without money, one cannot buy food. Food gives us energy. Running uses a lot of energy. Somewhere during the race, hunger pangs struck and he decided to stop and snack on some apples he found. Unfortunately, the apples were rotten and didn’t agree with his stomach, forcing him to drop out. (The bizarre story of Mr. Carbajal doesn’t stop here, so I may need to write another article to cover it all)
A South African runner named Len Tau was chased off the track by a pack of wild dogs.
William Garcia, an American runner, ingested so much dust that he tore the lining of his stomach and needed to be hauled away for emergency surgery.
The first “winner” of the marathon was 20-year-old American Fred Lorz. He crossed the finish line to an eruption of cheers from the spectators and even had his picture taken with President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice.
Unfortunately for him, when he was about to claim his gold medal, a witness came forward accusing Lorz of fraud. Apparently, just after passing the 8.5 mile mark, after becoming dehydrated and exhausted, he quit the race. His trainer offered him a ride to the stadium, but after a cruel twist of fate, the car broke down. Stranded once again, Lorz decided hey, why not just go run the rest of the way.
He insisted it was all a joke, but the crowd didn’t seem amused. His fraud got him banned for life from the Amateur Athletic Union, but it was lifted after he formally apologized. He won the Boston Marathon the next year.
The real winner of the race was Thomas Hicks, but the victory wasn’t sweet. About 8 miles from the finish line, the heat and dust were taking its toll and he tried to lie down. His trainer, like Sullivan, believed water actually hindered a racer’s performance, so, rather than giving him a simple, natural and refreshing cup of H2O, he gave him small sips of a homemade cocktail designed to stimulate his nervous system.
What was in that cocktail, you ask? Three simple ingredients: egg white, brandy, and … rat poison. The toxic concoction did work, sort of. Hicks was able to complete the marathon in three hours and twenty-eight minutes, but he did so while hallucinating and he needed to be helped across the finish line by his trainer. (Yeah, that’s probably cheating, too, but given everything he endured, I think people were just happy it was over and he survived.)
In addition to the absurdity of the marathon, the 1904 Olympics were also marred by several allegations of cheating. But, there were a few silver linings hiding in this magnificent train wreck of an event.
Some of the more notable achievements include: George Eyser, an American gymnast who won six medals despite his left leg being a wooden prosthetic, and Frank Kugler, who won medals in freestyle wrestling, weightlifting, and tug of war (yeah, that was a thing), making him the only Olympian to earn medals in three different sports in the same Olympics.
The Olympics of today may cost a fortune to host and cause a massive financial burden for some of host countries, but I think we can all agree that the price tag associated with the grand spectacle we see today is far better than whatever the hell happened in 1904.