Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The 1904 Olympic Marathon was the worst race ever run

Cuban long-distance runner Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto, known as Andarín Carvajal, standing on the track of an athletic field in St. Louis, Missouri, during the 1904 Olympic Games
Cuban long-distance runner Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto, known as Andarín Carvajal, standing on the track of an athletic field in St. Louis, Missouri, during the 1904 Olympic Games
Photo: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,033,951-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

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This week’s entry: Athletics at the 1904 Summer Olympics—Men’s Marathon

What it’s about: Olympic glory, in the absolute loosest sense. We were saving this to run opposite the 2020 Olympics, but as they’re now the 2021 Olympics, we’re not waiting a whole year to bring you the best story of confusion, calamity, and craziness we’ve come across in a long time. 1904 was far from the best Olympics ever held, but it may have been the most entertaining.

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Biggest controversy: What if we had an Olympics and almost no one came? 1904 was a banner year for the Olympics in many respects. It was the first to feature gold medals (previously, silver went to first place, bronze to second, and third went home empty-handed). And it was the first held outside Europe, as the United States hosted the Games in St. Louis. Which sounds great until you remember that it was 1904, and the direct center of this vast country wasn’t the easiest place to get to. In fact, St. Louis was so remote that most countries didn’t bother to make the trip. Only 12 countries participated in the St. Louis Games, and of them, only Germany (22) and Canada (56) sent more than a couple of athletes. A single French competitor participated, and only two each from Switzerland and Austria. (There also may or may not have been one Italian athlete, two Norwegians, and one from Newfoundland, which was not yet part of Canada, but record-keeping was bad enough that this is in dispute.) Of the 651 athletes at the Games, 526 were American.

Strangest fact: Everyone knows keeping hydrated is important for long-distance runners, but what the organizers of the 1904 marathon presupposed was… maybe it isn’t? Nowadays, keeping athletes in peak physical condition is a complicated science, and host countries spend millions on state-of-the art facilities for them to compete in. In 1904? Not so much. The marathon track was a dirt road, which runners slogged down in 92-degree heat, kicking up dust as they went. The Games’ chief organizer, James E. Sullivan, allowed only one water station because he had a theory that “purposeful dehydration” was helpful to runners, and decided to use the Olympic Games as his laboratory. As a result, only 14 of the 32 entrants finished the race—one was found passed out by the side of the road after inhaling too much dust—and to this day, the winning time is the worst in Olympic history by a full half hour.

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Thing we were happiest to learn: America won! Not surprising, given 19 of the 32 racers were American. What is surprising is that, while America took gold, silver, and bronze, none of those racers were first across the finish line. That honor went to Fred Lorz, who ran nine miles and then gave up and hitchhiked back to the stadium. Which he could do, because there were cars driving up and down the road that served as the marathon track. During the Olympics.

Lorz’s ride went ten miles before the car broke down. Lorz got out and ran the rest of the race. He was hailed as the winner, had his photo taken with former Wiki Wormhole subject Alice Roosevelt, and was about to be awarded the gold when someone pointed out that they saw him waving from a passing car. He immediately ’fessed up, claiming the whole thing was a joke. The Amateur Athletic Union wasn’t laughing: It banned him from organized running for a year. Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is the ending—Lorz was actually an accomplished distance runner and won the Boston Marathon shortly after his ban was lifted.

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Thomas Hicks, USA, gold medalist in the 1904 Olympic marathon
Thomas Hicks, USA, gold medalist in the 1904 Olympic marathon
Photo: S&G (PA Images via Getty Images)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While today’s athletes have issues with performance-enhancing drugs, 1904’s had problems with performance-inhibiting drugs. Ten miles into the race, Thomas Hicks, the eventual gold medal winner, was leading all comers by a full mile and a half before he ran out of steam. His trainers had to physically restrain him from stopping and lying down after burning himself out early. To keep Hicks going, his trainers gave him brandy laced with strychnine, a rat poison that can stimulate the nervous system in small doses. (The brandy was also questionably medicinal—runners at the time apparently believed against all evidence that alcohol would give them a boost, and champagne was often drunk during races instead of water.)

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Shockingly, poisoning Hicks didn’t help. He began hallucinating and was barely able to walk, although he still staggered to the finish line several minutes ahead of the competition. He had to be bodily carried over the finish line, as his trainers lifted him off the ground while he continued to shuffle his feet in a running motion. He lost eight pounds during the race and likely would have died had there not been several doctors in the stadium.

Also noteworthy: The best tale of Olympic glory might belong to Andarín Carvajal. The lone Cuban at the 1904 Games, mailman-by-trade Carvajal came to St. Louis by way of New Orleans, where he lost all his money, as one does in New Orleans. He hitchhiked to St. Louis, and arrived in street clothes, having not eaten in 40 hours. He cut the legs off his pants to make running shorts, and ran the race, but partway through, the starving Carvajal detoured through an apple orchard. The apples he ate turned out to be rotten. He got stomach cramps so severe he had to lie down and take a nap. He woke up some time later and continued to run the race. He finished fourth.

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Also also noteworthy: 1904 was the first year South Africa competed in the Games. Two of their eight athletes were runners Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, who finished 9th and 12th, respectively. Tau could have likely done better, except he was chased a mile off course by dogs in the middle of the race.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While temperature in St. Louis on that August day was 92 degrees, conditions were made worse by the heat index, which got up to a punishing 135 degrees. Heat index—the South’s answer to wind chill—is a measure of how hot it feels, based on combining the temperature with relative humidity. The evaporation of sweat cools the body, but there’s less evaporation when it’s humid, so the body is less able to cool itself the more humid it gets, making it feel hotter.

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Further Down the Wormhole: Outside of several Americans and that woebegone Cuban runner, the rest of the handful of athletes to finish the race were from Greece. Home of the ancient Olympic Games (and the first modern Olympics), Greece was one of the better-represented countries at the 1904 games, with 14 athletes participating, 9 of whom ran the marathon, 3 of whom managed to finish.

Greece’s official name is the Hellenic Republic, since the country became a parliamentary democracy in 1975, after several years under a military junta. The country has a voting age of 17, which falls into a catchall law enforcement Wikipedia category that includes everything from drugs to age of consent to “legality of bitcoin by country or territory” to banned films. To keep things manageable, we’ll stick to films banned in the U.S., which we’ll surreptitiously look at next week.

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Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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