America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least strangest. The games were held in St. Louis in 1904 as part of the World’s Fair that year. It lasted approximately five months, not just over two weeks as is customary today. The marathon race sounds like a slapstick comedy routine, complete with strychnine as a performance-enhancing substance use and a rival who traveled miles by car. There was even an athlete who ran in his dress clothes!
A Rough Start
To begin with, the entire course was extremely dusty, and breathing in that dust resulted in a variety of injuries, including one runner who was hospitalized with a hemorrhage when the dust tore his esophagus and stomach lining. The race organizer purposely withheld water to evaluate the effects of dehydration. So the entire situation was a nightmare from the start. To put it lightly that is.
A Host of Strange Events
Five laps kicked off the race and there were several changes in the lead. Three previous Boston Marathon winners were mostly American runners. None of them were going to finish. In fact, only 14 men finished the race: one hitching, one napping, and one—the eventual gold medalist—drinking strychnine mixed with raw egg and cognac among a few other scandalous concoctions.
The First-Place Finisher Drove There!
After suffering from severe cramping, first-place finisher Fred Lorz got a ride in a car to the finish line, showcasing his cleverness and humorous spirit. He emerged just moments before the finish line, slyly crossing it, thus baffling and amusing unsuspecting bystanders. Lorz playfully claimed his unorthodox approach as a jest, adding an unexpected twist to the race narrative.
The Second-Place Finisher Drank Strychnine
As an attempt at a performance-enhancing medication, Thomas Hicks was given a mixture of egg whites and strychnine, a poison commonly used to kill mice or birds, and then brandy too. His handlers carried him past the finish line. He fainted shortly after crossing the line. It took four medics an hour to get him up and running again, and he had lost 8 pounds.
The Fourth-Place Finisher Raced in Dress Clothing
Andarn Carbajal, the fourth-place finisher, was a Cuban citizen who collected money for the Olympics by running the whole length of Cuba. When he landed in the United States, he gambled away all of his money and dressed up for the race. Fortunately, another runner chopped his pants into shorts using a knife. Carbajal stopped for a snack at a roadside orchard during the marathon, but the apples were bad, so he had stomach cramps and had to sleep it off. Only 14 of the 32 racers who entered the race finished, the lowest percentage of entrants to finish an Olympic marathon by a significant margin. It’s astonishing that anyone did given the circumstances.