With the 2020 Olympics finally underway, we turn to the… 1904 Olympics.
It was a weird year.
The host city was St. Louis, and American athletes took home a record 239 medals.
A big reason why, though, was that many European countries just didn’t come to the St. Louis Games at all.
Only 12 countries participated; many events just had U.S. athletes competing against each other.
And the competition sometimes turned very strange.
Take the 1904 Olympic men’s marathon, for example.
You couldn’t write a weirder race than this one.
For starters, only 14 of the 32 runners finished the race.
Most of them were extremely dehydrated, as the race organizers decided to sharply limit the number of water stations along the 26.2 mile course.
And by some accounts, the course wasn’t actually quite long enough to qualify as a marathon.
Nonetheless, instead of getting the hydration they needed, runners ended up swallowing lots of dust from the unpaved roads on which they ran.
One guy had to drop out of the race and go to the hospital for emergency surgery; his esophagus and stomach lining couldn’t handle all the dust.
Another guy, Felix Carbajal de Soto of Cuba, raised a bunch of money to get him to St. Louis, but gambled it away in New Orleans; he had to hitchhike to the Olympics and competed in street clothes.
Fortunately, a bystander with scissors turned his slacks into shorts just before the race began.
Less fortunately, de Soto picked and ate an apple from a tree along the route that turned out to be rotten; in trying to stave off his dehydration and hunger he ended up with painful stomach cramps,.
And then there was Len Taunyane of South Africa, who may be the only Olympian ever that had to veer way off course during a race because he was being chased by wild dogs.
The first man to cross the finish line, Fred Lorz, was about to receive the gold medal, until a witness pointed out that he’d actually quit the race, taken a car ride back to pick up his clothes, and resumed running after the car broke down.
He claimed he only broke the finish line tape as a prank.
The eventual winner, Thomas Hicks, had been deprived of water by his trainers, who instead gave him a cocktail of egg whites, brandy and rat poison.
They thought this would perk him up; instead Hicks was hallucinating and essentially had to be dragged to the finish line.
It probably didn’t help that he’d also ingested strychnine and water from a car radiator (!)
After that mess of a marathon, the organizer said the race was “indefensible on any ground” and probably wouldn’t return in 1908.
But it did, of course.
I guess they figured the race had nowhere to go but up.
8 Unusual Facts About the 1904 St. Louis Olympics (History.com)
Tom Hicks, Marathon Olympic Champion and his supporters at the marathon. St. Louis Olympic Games, 1904. via Wikicommons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marathon_Hicks1904.jpg