In 1904, St. Louis Hosted the First Olympics on American Soil
It was Kind of a Mess…
We know strychnine as a poison, but in the right dose, it can act as a stimulant, too. It was so popular in the Victorian era that athletes would dope up using strychnine or coca leaves before events. The first US Olympics had their marathon won by a man who made it across the finish line driven by brandy, strychnine, and egg whites (and another who was just driven), and it was also common practice in a strange sport called “the wobbles.”
The 1904 Olympics, the first to be held on U.S. soil — in St. Louis, Missouri, and they were a mess. Doping, shameful “Anthropology Days” competitions among “savages” and minimal international participation were a recipe for a games that the Wall Street Journal once dubbed “Comedic, Disgraceful And ‘Best Forgotten.’”
You can’t really fault the multiple instances of cheating during the 1904 St. Louis Olympics marathon since it was basically a 26-mile Benny Hill skit that included one top contender being chased off the course by wild dogs, and another running in wingtips and trousers. The original winner of the race was Fred Lorz, a future Boston Marathon winner who led for nine miles before dropping out due to cramps, and then, after accepting a ride to the stadium, figured he’d play a joke on the crowd and jog triumphantly to the winner’s circle.
He even received the champion’s wreath from President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter before admitting to his hitchhiking. So instead, American Thomas Hicks, who was kept upright for ten miles by regular doses of strychnine and brandy, and who was effectively carried across the finish line by his coaches, won the gold because no one wanted to see the French second place finisher walk away with the victory.
Today, we all know that strychnine is a poison. It’s an incredibly complex plant-synthesized compound, and it causes violent convulsions. In a final, horrifying touch that makes it the perfect poison for murder mysteries, the victim often dies with tight facial muscles and a terrifying smile. It’s not even commonly used in rat poisons anymore because it’s such an awful way to die.
In Victorian America and Britain, though, it had a very different use. You’ve probably read about all the vintage medicine that used strychnine as an ingredient, and if you’ve ever wondered why that seemed like a good idea, the reason’s a strange one.
Doping in sports isn’t new, and at the turn of the 20th century, athletes were doing it with strychnine. This was considered perfectly acceptable.
Strychnine injections were commonplace, used as medicines to cure the aches and pains that go along with extreme athletic ability. It was only around 1917 that scientists studying the impact of the “tonic” realized that it was helping people function at a higher level than they would usually be capable of.
Until then, athletes were using it rather like we use coffee—it’s a pick-me-up that some of us can’t get through the day without. They have some important things in common, too. Both strychnine and caffeine bind to neurotransmitters, changing the speed at which they fire. In low doses, the poison does much the same as caffeine does, but in higher doses, it causes neurotransmitters to fire so rapidly that it quickly turns into restlessness and the trademark convulsions.
The first recorded instance of using an injection of strychnine purely as a performance enhancer came in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The marathon was just as bizarre as the rest of the events, but one of the favorites to win was an American named Thomas Hicks. Denied water (Olympic overseers also thought this was a great time to study the effects of dehydration on athletes), he was given a dose of strychnine and egg whites about 11 kilometers (7 mi) before the end of the race. (They also had brandy, but they were saving that for emergencies.)
The event, which was normally only two weeks long, was expanded into a five-month extravaganza spanning from July to November. It was the first time the games were held outside of Europe, and the result was a chaotic event that almost got the marathon portion wiped from the event forever.
The games were dramatically extended to coincide with the St. Louis World’s Fair, and the combination was made pretty haphazardly. Because the event was made so long and the location was so difficult for many European nations to reach, only 12 countries other than the United States participated in the games. As a result, 500 of the 630 athletes who took part in the games were American. At the time, there was also rising tensions between Europeans involved in the Russo-Japanese War, which kept people from attending.
Because there were so few foreign participants in the games, the U.S. decided to combine the Olympics with U.S. national championships, so in addition to the Olympic games there were also things like local YMCA swim meets. Sports like boxing, lifting dumbbells, freestyle wrestling, and the decathlon also made a debut at the 1904 Summer Olympics.
Ironically, St. Louis wasn’t even supposed to host the 1904 Olympics. The people behind the Louisiana Purchase Expedition, aka the World’s Fair, didn’t want two international events to be held at the same time and made the case that the Olympics should be combined with the fair’s planned sporting events.
Pierre de Coubertin, who created the International Olympic Committee and brought the Olympics games to modernity in 1896 in Athens, Greece, followed by Paris’ games in 1900, consented and allowed the games to happen in St. Louis. He later famously said that “the games matched the mediocrity of that city.” Ouch.
“Everything settled. You have Olympic Games.”
Baron Pierre de Coubertin sent this telegram in February 1903 and awarded the city of St. Louis the right to host the 1904 Olympic Games. Yet nearly two years earlier, in May 1901, Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee voted to award the same Olympic Games to Chicago.
Somehow St. Louis stole the Olympics.
Although Chicago won the original bid, St. Louis immediately set out to undermine its planning efforts. Already slated to host the 1903 World’s Fair, St. Louis’ ambition grew, and it quickly made the decision to steal the Olympics.
Using the combination of its financial backing and its willingness to use America’s athletes as leverage, St. Louis outflanked and outmaneuvered its northern rival. Chicago had only three choices: continue with the Olympics as planned but without America’s best athletes; transfer the Games to St. Louis; postpone the Olympics until 1905. Meekly, Chicago asked Coubertin to make the final decision.
Baron de Coubertin read the writing on the wall. In February 1903, he alerted Chicago of his decision. With two words, Coubertin wiped out two years of planning: Transfer accepted.
Seeing as President Teddy Roosevelt considered sport an essential part of manliness, outmatched only by shooting foreigners and bullying pulpits, it’s not a huge surprise he would bring the U.S. its first Olympics in 1904. The only problem was that the games were scheduled for Chicago and were, at best, an afterthought to St. Louis’ World’s Fair.
World’s Fair organizers made it known that they weren’t willing to compete for crowds that summer, and eventually they just straight up threatened to hold their own way cooler athletics competition if the Olympics didn’t comply. IOC President Pierre de Coubertin fought the relocation tooth and nail, but after word spread that Roosevelt supported the shift to St. Louis and that Chicago was woefully unprepared to host much more than a child’s birthday party, the IOC voted 14-2 against the Second City.
The opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition followed several years of preparation that included the development of surrounding neighbourhoods, improvements to the city’s water supply, and the clearing of parkland. The great enterprise that unfolded in St. Louis in 1904 brought together the achievements of science, art, and industry that helped define the advent of the twentieth century. The story behind the construction of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition is one of human perseverance—a testimony to the energy, investment, and commitment of the citizens of St. Louis.
The Fair was a highly orchestrated event, with its designers joining ranks with civic planners and an army of more than 10,000 labourers to transform over 1,200 acres of thickets and swamps in Forest Park and Clayton into a grand landscape filled with classically inspired buildings, waterways, gardens, and venues. While the 1904 World’s Fair celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, the renovated parkland told a story of American progress since 1804.
The World’s Fair served as host to the Games—the first Olympics to be held in the United States since the ancient event’s 1896 revival. The official games took place August 29 through September 3, 1904, predominantly at Francis Field, the stadium on the campus of Washington University. Throughout the course of the World’s Fair, numerous other athletic events and contests occurred under the guise of the Olympics in order to boost the public’s interest and participation. More than simply competitive events, the 1904 Olympics served as a demonstration of the health benefits of physical exertion both for individuals and nations. European tension caused by the Russo-Japanese War, and the difficulty of getting to St. Louis, kept most of the world’s top athletes away.
Although inspired by the ancient Greeks, the Olympic marathon is a thoroughly modern invention. After Athens was chosen to host the first modern Summer Games in 1896, French linguist Michel Bréal proposed that the sporting competition include a long-distance run to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Pheidippides, the messenger who dropped dead from exhaustion after sprinting 25 miles to Athens after the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. to bring news of victory over the invading Persian army.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1896, a group of 17 runners gathered near the ancient battlefield in Marathon to race the 24.8 miles to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, originally built in 330 B.C. and restored for the Summer Games. As the racers pounded the dirt roads towards Athens, messengers on bike and horseback sprinted to the stadium with updates. Despite stopping halfway to eat an egg and quaff a glass of wine, 23-year-old Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis was the first runner to enter the stadium. As the 80,000 fans packed inside realized the leader was one of their countrymen, cries of “Hellene! Hellene!” filled the air. Among the fans caught up in the jubilation were the crown prince of Greece and his brother who jumped onto the track to join Louis as he circled the stadium before crossing the finish line. “The excitement and the enthusiasm were simply indescribable. one of the most extraordinary sights that I can remember,” wrote Pierre du Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games.
It appeared at first that the host country had swept the top three spots in the marathon, but third-place finisher Spyridon Belokas was disqualified for hitching a ride in a carriage along part of the race course. The first Olympic marathon champion received a cup donated by Bréal and an ancient Greek painted vase. Although he became a national hero in Greece, Louis returned to life as a farmer and never competed in another race again. The 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis, adjusted back to 24.8 miles, turned out to be a hot mess.
The marathon event at the 1904 Olympics sounds like a ‘Three Stooges’ sketch. The absurd marathon event, which began during a gruelingly hot St. Louis summer afternoon. But heat wasn’t the only problem. Not even close.
Most of the marathon course ran along dirt roads. Dirt roads kick up dust, which isn’t good for running — especially running long distances in punishing heat. Moreover, officials were allowed to assist and coach marathoners during the race. Many of these officials travelled the route by car. Their cars stirred up even more dust, which made running the actual marathon even more difficult.
Fans initially thought a runner named Fred Lorz had won the marathon. Lorz triumphantly entered the main World’s Fair stadium, which was the race’s final stage, with gusto and verve ahead of the other runners. But Lorz was disqualified by race officials after being found to have rode several miles of the route in a car. Yes — this was the actual Olympics.
Archie Hahn, known as the Milwaukee Meteor, won the 60m, 100m and 200m. In the 200m, he ran an Olympic record time of 21.6 seconds, a record that would stand for 28 years. One of the most remarkable athletes was the American gymnast George Eyser, who won six medals even though his left leg was made of wood.
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was laid out and landscaped by George Kessler, It covered 1,200 plus acres and was the largest fair to date. There were over 1,500 buildings, connected by some seventy-five miles of roads and walkways. Exhibits were staged by sixty-two foreign nations, the US government and forty-three of the then forty-five US states. There were over fifty concession-type amusements on the Pike. In light of the immensity of the Fair, it was necessary to issue daily programs so visitors could make the most of their experience. These programs cost 5 cents and were printed by the press of the Model Printery in the Administration Building, in the Hall of Congresses.
They contained detailed information on morning, afternoon and evening events including time and place. They also contained advertisements and a map of the Fair. In organizing the Fair, four divisions were created-Exhibits, Exploitation, Works, and Concessions and Admissions. Within the Division of Exploitation, was the Press and Publicity Department, which had the largest and most experienced group of newspaper men of any previous fair. This department created every kind of periodical publication about the Fair. The local press bureau section collected the news of the Exposition day by day, putting it out in the daily programs. Besides the daily programs, the Worlds Fair Bulletin was published as a monthly magazine both before and during the Fair.
Thousands of people from all walks of life converged on Forest Park in 1904 to take part in “the spectacle”. After the Fair opened on April 30, 1904, the average daytime population was usually over 100,000 people including both visitors and those workers who lived on the grounds of the Fair. Although the first few months were disappointing in attendance figures, visitor numbers increased as the Fair progressed. Most fair-goers paid a daily admission fee of 50 cents, but others who either lived in St. Louis or anticipated a longer visit, could buy coupon booklets at reduced rates. Stockholders in the Exposition Company and their families could get in for half price. Employees of the Exposition Company and concessionaires received coupon books with identification photographs for admittance to the Fairgrounds
The great exposition ended on December 1, 1904. The legacy of the Fair lives on. Today St. Louis enjoys Forest Park-an urban oasis that was saved and restored by the Fair., The city still has tangible reminders of the great exposition such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Worlds’ Fair Pavilion and the St. Louis Zoo’s Bird Cage. All St. Louisans can be proud that for seven months in 1904, a kaleidoscope of humanity came together on the grounds of the exposition and stood in awe at the architecture, technology and wonder of this great fair. St. Louis had again fulfilled its role as gateway city and literally played host to the world.
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honour the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.
The start of the race required runners to complete five laps around the stadium before heading off into St. Louis County. The course was not shy on delivering obstacles for the athletes. Through the streets of St. Louis, in order to stay on the course, runners had to dodge cars, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars, and people walking their dogs. In places, the roads were covered with cracked stone that the runners had to pick their way through. If all that wasn’t enough, there was the seven 100-300 foot hills, noxious exhaust fumes from the early automobiles (including support vehicles and others following the runners along as they went), and the extreme amounts of dust kicked into the air by these vehicles and horses.
The 1904 Olympic marathon is still considered by most to be the strangest race ever run. Runners faced all kinds of odd conditions that made the race extremely difficult. The race took place in August, and was nearly 90 degrees and humid in St. Louis. The race was mapped out over a series of hilly, dusty roads and there were only two stations on the run that provided runners with fresh water.
A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted “oddities.” Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites. Another American, Fred Lorz, did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, and earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a “special five-mile race” sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Among the leading oddities were ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot.
On August 30, 1904, thirty-two athletes from four nations lined up for a forty kilometer race at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. It was the marathon race at the III Olympiad, and what happened over the next twenty-five miles or so is one of the best stories in the history of the sport.
The most colorful competitor was Felix Carvajal, a poor postman from Cuba. His country wouldn’t pay for his trip to St. Louis, so he raised the money to get to St. Louis on his own. He got as far as New Orleans before losing all of his money in a craps game. He resorted to hopping boxcars and hitchhiking to get to St. Louis. Upon arrival, he endeared himself to the American weightlifters who gave him a room and food to eat. For the race, he lined up at the start wearing his street clothes. A discus thrower found some scissors and cut his pants off at the knee to make shorts.
At precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents.
In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up.
Conditions were so bad that of the thirty-two runners, only fourteen completed the race. As runners dropped out, the crowd back at the stadium became weary waiting for the runners to return. Chaos reigned throughout the race. Leaders dropped out one by one. One runner dropped out after having a vomiting attack. Another collapsed with a stomach hemorrhage. Two officials suffered serious injuries when they crashed their car into a ditch. Two men named Len Tau and Jan Mashiani became the first black Africans to compete in an Olympics. They were in St. Louis as part of the South African Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair. Len Tau ran so well that he finished ninth. He would have finished even higher if a wild dog didn’t chase him off the course for over a mile.
Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.”
The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honour; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”
Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. “Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like 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.”
He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
Hicks had collapsed through the finish line with a time of 3:28:53. It was the slowest Olympic marathon ever. Hicks almost died as a result. Doctors quickly worked to revive him, declaring that he had “a very low vitality”. Fortunately, Hicks recovered, collected his gold medal, and promptly retired from running marathons.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without the aid of anything but his legs.
Chewing coca leaves was also pretty popular among athletes, for obvious stimulant reasons, and it was a favorite in one of the strangest of strange Victorian sports—the wobbles. Also called go-as-you-please races, they were slightly more hard-core than they sound. Walkers would cover hundreds and hundreds of miles over the course of a race that might last a handful of days, and participants could suffer from injuries from the run-of-the-mill bleeding feet to tension throughout their legs and thighs, which would then be sliced open to relieve the pressure.
These athletes in particular were known for chewing coca leaves as they walked, and we can’t say that we entirely blame them.
“Anthropology Days” Happened.
The 1904 World’s Fair included “living exhibits,” in which humans from non-Western societies were displayed in supposedly natural environments for fair attendees. It was a human zoo, more or less.
With the Olympics also in town, a plan was hatched: A two-day affair called “Anthropology Days,” in which people from the “living exhibits” would be put on athletic display, frequently in sports with which they had no experience.
The organizers put on a series of events which pitted “exhibited peoples of the fair” who were there for “various native displays” against Olympic athletes to see who was stronger and had more endurance. This series of competitions, known as “Anthropology Days,” featured a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, javelin, and mud-slinging among the events people were coerced to play.
The accounts of the time show that the spectacle of white men trying to persuade Natives to engage in sports that they did not understand was regarded humorously by the spectators as well as many of the participants themselves
The prizes were money as opposed to awards, because this wasn’t an Olympic event. Some of these native peoples had no clue what the Olympic events were. There was no competition there. … It was an odd setup, an experiment to see who was stronger or better. It was a failed attempt.”
Participants included American Indians, as well as people from Africa, the Middle East and the Philippines. In other words: Non-white people were displayed for the enjoyment and entertainment of white people.
By today’s standards, an event such as this would be universally reviled. This was the first and last time such a competition, which featured indigenous peoples from the Americas and around the world, was held at the Olympics.
The 1904 Olympic marathon had been so gruelling that many felt it beyond the bounds of human capability. Even the director of the 1904 Summer Games, James Sullivan, opposed the race’s return to the Olympics. “It is indefensible on any ground, but historic,” he said.