The 1904 Olympic Marathon Was Essentially The Hunger Games

The marathon is one of the most grueling and extreme events of the Olympics, holding pride of place on the very last day just before the closing ceremony. You can usually pick the exhausted marathon runners in the ceremony, but these modern marathons are basically a walk in the park compared to the 1904 event that left multiple competitors on the brink of death, with less than half of the athletes actually finishing. Here’s how it went down.

The 1904 Olympics in St Louis, USA, were far different to what we’ve been watching over the last two weeks. There were less than a third of the number of events that are seen today, and most of them were not open to female competitors. Not only this, but due to the difficulty of travel and rising tensions around the Russo-Japanese war, only 62 international athletes competed — a tiny number compared to the 526 athletes that represented the host country, the United States.

The whole event was a bit of a shambles — which is somewhat less surprising when you find out that St Louis essentially bullied their way into hosting the games after Chicago originally won the bid. This was due to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair being held at the same time — and the two events ended up combined in one bizarre festival.

The marathon was the crowning blunder in an all-round odd event, and it just gets stranger from there on in. The organisers, to begin with, decided to start the marathon in the afternoon instead of the morning, with the result being an event held in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius. It was also run entirely on dirt roads, with cars and horses riding ahead and behind kicking up dust clouds that became hugely problematic for the runners. The only water the competitors had access to was a well around the 11 mile mark — and spectator Charles Lucas notes that “the visiting athletes were not accustomed to the water, and, as a consequence, many suffered from intestinal disorders.”

One competitor, an American named Fred Lorz, didn’t even make it to this point, dropping out from dehydration at around 9 miles. He decided to get a ride in a car back to the stadium to meet up with the other competitors at the finish line. The car then broke down around the 19 mile point, so Lorz decided to jump out and join the race for the last five miles to the finish line. There, he was hailed as the winner — and he decided to play along.

Lorz got as far as having his photo taken with Alice Roosevelt — as in daughter of President Roosevelt — and was about to be awarded a gold medal when someone presumably pointed out “hey, that’s the guy that took a car most of the way here”. Lorz played the classic ‘only joking’ card, but the organisers weren’t amused, banning him from competition for life. Interestingly enough, even with his motorised assistance he still didn’t manage to break the standing world record.

Meanwhile, the other competitors who hadn’t given up halfway were having a pretty bad time of it. Another American runner, William Garcia, was found lying on the road partway through the marathon course, suffering severe internal injuries from breathing the dust kicked up by officials’ cars. Lucas describes the man’s near demise — “the dust particles caused an erosion of
the membraneous wall of the stomach and a serious hemorrhage resulted which almost cost the Californian his life.”

Another who fell sick along the way was victim to his hunger and some rotten apples. This was a Cuban postman named Andarin Carvajal, who was very much unprepared for the race. He had lost all of his money in New Orleans, hitchiked his way to St. Louis and had to cut off his trousers to make them look like running shorts, having no other clothes to wear. Beginning the marathon after not having eaten in 40 hours, he stopped to grab some apples from an orchard — which turned out to be rotten. Despite developing some bad stomach cramps from this, Carajal was still making good time — he may have even won if only he hadn’t stopped to chat with every crowd assembled along the course, according to Lucas’s recount of the event. Somehow despite all these setbacks he still managed to finish fourth.

Aside from Carvajal and a handful of Greek runners, there were only two other competitors who weren’t from the United States — the first two black Africans to compete in the Olympics, Len Tau (AKA Len Taunyane) and Yamasani (AKA Jan Mashiani) from South Africa. These two were actually part of the aforementioned World’s Fair, but were entered in the race to compare the physical prowess of Africans with that of the Caucasian race (in the days where the latter were very much occupied with trying to empirically prove some measure of supposed superiority).

The two were actually expected to perform quite well, and in the years since many marathon winners have emerged from the African continent (most notably Ethiopia, which has won the most gold medals of any country in the marathon). Taunyane ended up the ninth to finish, and Mashiani was twelfth, though the former would have undoubtedly done far better in the race if he hadn’t been chased almost a mile off course by aggressive dogs. Lucas wasn’t kidding when he said that “the course through St. Louis County was the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over.”

Of all these stories, the journey of the eventual winner, British-born American Thomas Hicks, is somehow the strangest. Hicks was around 10 miles from the finish when he started to show his exhaustion, and from this point he was attended to by multiple people as he continued along the course of the race. Around the 7 mile mark he wanted to lie down and rest, and his team refused to let him. Instead, they decided to administer a dose of “sulphate of strychnine”, also known as rat poison. It will, of course, quite effectively and gruesomely kill a human in high enough doses too, though in those days it was still widely used as a performance enhancer.

Four miles from the end his team repeatedly had to stop him from lying down, and instead he slowed to a walk given his mile-and-a-half lead. He was administered another dose of strychnine along with two egg whites and a sip of brandy. His attendants then bathed his entire body with warm water, in what sounds like a surprisingly in-depth process to occur on the actual marathon course.

Lucas describes the horrors that Hicks suffered towards the end of the race: “Over the last two miles of the road, Hicks was running mechanicallylike a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff. The brain was fairly normal, but there was more or less hallucination, the most natural being that the finish was twenty miles from where he was running. His mind continually roved towards something to eat, and in the last mile Hicks continually harped on this subject.”

With two more hills to overcome, Hicks wasn’t allowed to have any water, or even the beef broth he had with him, but was simply fed more eggs and more brandy as he made his way to the finish line. He eventually had to be helped over the finish line by multiple people, but was still considered to be the winner of the race. Lucas made a conclusion that is pretty astounding by modern sporting standards:

“The Marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road.”

Said drugs weren’t of much long-term benefit to Hicks, however, who had to be rushed off to medical care before he could even accept his accolades as the winner. Contemporary reports claim that he lost eight pounds during the race, and passed out when being driven out from the stadium.

While the marathon as it’s run these days is one of the hardest events you could ever complete, it still has nothing on the infamous St Louis marathon of 1904. Of 32 athletes competing only 14 managed to cross the finish line — and many of them not in the best condition. It’s just as well that the 1904 games were one of the few where winners were actually awarded solid gold medals.

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