Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History

Patrick Lynch - January 18, 2018

The Olympic Games is no stranger to scandal. Ben Johnson’s doping in 1988, four Badminton teams deliberately losing matches in 2012, and the Budd/Decker collision in 1984 were all deemed controversial incidents at the time. However, none of them compare with the truly remarkable, and farcical, 1904 Olympic marathon which featured cheating on an obscene level.

The 26.2-mile long run is the ultimate test of endurance, and the name ‘marathon’ comes from the legend of Philippides, a Greek messenger who was supposedly sent from the battlefield of Marathon to the city of Athens to announce victory for the Greeks over the Persians in 490 BC. Regardless of the dubious veracity of this tale, the marathon event was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens as organizers looked to host a race to recall the glory of ancient Greece.

The first marathon was won by a Greek water-carrier named Spyridon Louis in a time of 2:58:20 over a distance of 24.85 miles. The 1900 version was run over 25.02 miles while the 1904 marathon was run over 24.85 miles. The Olympics for that year were held in St. Louis and no one who attended the marathon event in 1904 ever forgot what happened that day.

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
Athletes during the 1904 Olympic Marathon – Gizmodo UK

Keystone Cops Organization

Unlike modern day marathons where the athletes are highly trained and used to the grueling distance, most of the runners in the 1904 version were middle distance specialists or people looking to compete for the novelty value. Of the 32 entrants, only 14 finished the event, and several competitors almost died from exhaustion.

The marathon took place on August 30 and matters weren’t helped by the searing heat and the idiocy of the organizers. Even modern day marathons are held early in the morning to ensure the heat isn’t a major factor. In 1904 however, the race was run in the afternoon, and by the end, temperatures had reached a scorching 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
Fred Lorz – Wikipedia

This wasn’t the only organizational blunder; not by a long shot. One would assume that the athletes would have several rehydration stations along the way; not so. In fact, the only two available sources of water were a water tower after 6 miles and a well after approximately 11-12 miles. In other words, the runners had to go through 13+ torturous miles to get to the finish and rehydrate. This foolishness played a significant role in the chaos that ensued.

While the race started and ended in the Olympic stadium, most of the event took place on dusty country roads. The race officials elected to ride in vehicles ahead of the competitors and created dust clouds that were breathed in by the runners. During the race, most of the runners had to stop to hack their lungs free of the dirt they inhaled. Overall, multiple athletes collapsed with exhaustion; several were near death. Fred Lorz was one of the favorites and rather than slog through the dusty course in searing heat; he had a much better idea.

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
The Two Members of the Tsuana Tribe – Today I Found Out

A Motley Crew

Five Americans were among the favorites for the event. John Lordon, A. L. Newton, Sam Mellor, Thomas Hicks, and Michael Spring were all experienced marathon runners. Spring had won the 1904 Boston Marathon with Hicks in second place. Fred Lorz was another interesting entry. While he had only won his Olympic spot by virtue of a good performance in a special 5-mile race organized by the Amateur Athletic Union, he was an excellent marathon runner. Lorz had finished fifth in that year’s Boston Marathon and fourth in the 1903 version.

Not every entrant was as skilled as the above. Ten of the runners were Greeks who had never competed in a marathon event before. There were two members of the South African Tsuana Tribe who were only in the city for the World’s Fair. They elected to run barefoot. Felix Carbajal was a Cuban national and former mailman. He had shown his endurance by once trekking the length of Cuba. He arrived at the starting line in a pair of street shoes, long dark pants, and a beret. Someone ended up doing him a favor by trimming his pants to knee length.

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
Felix Carbajal – Mashable

Let the Farce Begin

At 3:03 pm, the athletes began racing over what was described as the most difficult course any human has ever been asked to run across. Leaving aside the awful organization and sky-high temperatures for a moment, it was a truly monstrous course for the time. There were seven hills ranging from 100 to 300 feet high, and several had insanely long ascents. There was cracked stone on multiple points of the course which made things treacherous for the competitors.

Unlike today’s specially designed courses that are closed off during the race, the 1904 marathon took place on a public road. As a result, the runners had to avoid people walking their dogs, trolley cars, delivery wagons, and railroad trains. Believe it or not, the aforementioned stupidity of only having two water stations was deliberate. The chief organizer of the games, James Sullivan, wanted to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration.

A South African runner had the misfortune to attract the attention of farm dogs. The snarling beasts attacked him, and he was forced over a mile off the course. Carbajal fared a little better. The flamboyant Cuban started well and was clearly filled with energy as he was able to chat with spectators in broken English as he ran.

He stopped at a car and asked for a peach, and when his request was refused, he took two and began eating them. Not satiated as he hadn’t eaten for 40 hours having hitch-hiked his way to the starting line, Carbajal stopped by an orchard and took some apples. Unfortunately for him, they were rotten, and soon enough, he began throwing up and eventually decided to take a nap. Meanwhile, William Garcia almost died after the dust thrown up by the cars covered his oesophagus and ripped his stomach lining. As the novelty athletes fell by the wayside, it was up to the experienced runners to show them how things were done, or not.

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
The runners are about to start – YouTube

The Great Con

Fred Lorz led the race for the first mile but was soon overtaken by the determined Thomas Hicks. John Lordon’s race came to a premature end as he suffered from a sudden bout of vomiting. Sam Mellor became the new leader, but severe cramps practically ended his chance of winning as he first slowed to walking pace before stopping. It seemed as if Lorz’s race was run when he was hit with cramps after just nine miles. He was seen getting into a car and waving at spectators and fellow runners.

It was now Hicks’ race to lose, but his body also betrayed him with 10 miles to go. He begged for water but instead of complying, his trainer, Hugh McGrath, sponged his mouth out with distilled water. Within three miles, Hicks was almost completely spent so Doctor Charles Lucas, who was riding in the vehicle with McGrath, sprang into action. He administered 1/16 grain of sulfate of strychnine orally, mixed with egg white. In the modern era, strychnine is known as a lethal drug, but in the early 20th century, it was a performance-enhancing drug. According to famed novelist H. G. Wells: “Strychnine was a great tonic” that took “the flabbiness out of a man.”

As it turns out, when given in small doses, strychnine enables neurons to fire even when the body’s neurotransmitter levels are very low because of fatigue. Hicks’ team decided against providing him with brandy as they wanted to see how the strychnine would affect him. He kept plodding on, but after 20 miles, he started to turn grey. When poor Hicks only had two miles left, he started hallucinating and believed he had 20 miles to run. He begged for something to eat, but his team gave him the brandy instead.

Booze, Drugs and Automobiles: Why the 1904 Olympic Marathon Was One of the Most Scandalous Races in History
Hicks is given assistance – Wikipedia

The Conclusion

Unbeknownst to Hicks, Lorz had reappeared. After traveling 11 miles in an automobile, he jumped out and started running. One of Hicks’ team spotted him and demanded he leave the course, but Lorz kept going. He easily finished ahead of the exhausted Hicks and ‘won’ in a time of less than three hours. The crowd was thrilled and roared “An American won.”

President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, placed a wreath on Lorz’s head and was just about to give him the medal when someone suddenly called for a halt to the fiasco and insisted that Lorz was an imposter. Instead of panicking, Lorz smiled and claimed he was joking and had never intended to keep the gold.

Hicks was on the verge of collapse, but once he heard that Lorz had been disqualified, he somehow kept going and eventually won the race. By the end, his trainers had lifted him up and carried him across the line while Hicks continued to move his legs back and forth as if he was still running. With the aid of four doctors, Hicks was able to leave the grounds an hour later, and he was declared the winner. The great farce had ended, and it was a minor miracle that no one died. Incidentally, Carbajal was invigorated from his nap and finished fourth. Lorz defeated Hicks in the 1905 Boston Marathon without the aid of a car.