Monday, 30 July 2012

Rat poison, runners and rides

                     I’m not really a sport’s fan but I am a big fan of the bizarre, and few sporting events were as bizarre as the 1904 Olympic Marathon. The 1904 Olympics were held in St Louis, Missouri, USA, but in effect they were no more than a circus tacked onto the centenary celebrations of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World’s Fair. The ‘Olympic’ events took place alongside other sporting events but none were particularly well publicised amongst the other World’s Fair Cultural presentations and exhibits. 

1904 Olympic Poster

The International Olympic Committee recognised 94 of the sporting events to be of bona fide Olympic standing – athletes representing twelve countries other than the USA competed in only 42 of these events. The dreadful mis-organization of the games and the controversies surrounding them almost caused the demise of the modern Olympics. And of all the blunders, clangers and shenanigans they engendered, none eclipsed those associated with the Marathon race. 

1904 Marathon Field

It was held on August 30th 1904, starting and ending at Francis Field, Washington University, St Louis, to be held over 40 kilometres (24.85 miles) and commencing at 3 pm. 36 runners were registered to run, but on the day there were only 32 starters. The temperature in the afternoon had reached 90 F (32 C), and in this stifling heat the runners completed five laps of Francis Field track before heading out on to open roads of Missouri. But these roads were not roads in our definition of the word – they were either sun-baked dirt trails or rock-strewn, rutted byways. The automobile was a novelty back then, and tarmac roads were a thing of the future. The support staff, race officials, doctors and journalists were divided into those in new-fangled automobiles and those riding on horseback and bicycles. But regardless of how they travelled, they threw up choking clouds of dust and spread a suffocating haze of petrol fumes in their wake. The runners would have been comforted to know that the only watering spot was a well at the halfway point, only twelve miles away. In the dirt, dust and blistering heat, the runners ran on, whilst back at Francis Field the ten thousand spectators sat in the sweltering sunshine and waited. And waited. And waited. 

Fred Lorz

After three hours and thirteen minutes, an American Fred Lorz loped into stadium; barely blowing and hardly sweating, Lorz was the first man over the finish line. As the President’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt, was about to crown him with the victor’s laurel wreath, Lorz confessed all was not as it seemed. At about the halfway stage, he had collapsed with cramps and heat exhaustion. After waving his fellow competitors past, Lorz had scrounged a lift back to the stadium in one of the supporting automobiles. Unfortunately, the car broke down about five miles from its destination, so the by-now refreshed Lorz decided to jog back to collect his clothes. On entering Francis Field, and carried away by the roar of the welcoming crowd, Lorz hammed it up and pretended to be the first man home. For this little joke, an unappreciative AAU banned him for life, although this decision was later rescinded and Lorz went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon. 

Thomas Hicks

At 3 hours 28 minutes and fifty-three seconds, Thomas Hicks, English born but representing USA, was next over the winning line. The gold-medallist Hicks had started to struggle at about 10 miles out. His trainers gave him a water-soaked sponge to suck, but after three more miles Hicks faltered again, so his team gave him 1/60 grain of strychnine sulphate (a rat poison and dangerous but effective stimulant in small doses) whisked into an egg white, washed down with a brandy chaser, and sponged him down with hot water taken from the boiler of a steam engine. At twenty miles, the shattered Hicks had slowed to barely a walk, but his handlers urged him on, and two miles later more strychnine was given to him. In sight of the stadium, the by-now delirious and dehydrated Hicks was dosed with more eggs and brandy, and was eventually carried down the home strait by the trainers and, babbling about something or other, over the finish line. 

Hicks hobbles hoome

After several doctors had revived him, he was given his winner’s medal – he had lost ten pounds in weight, and the following day he hung up his running shoes and never competed again. His time is the longest in Olympic marathon history. Six minutes later, the silver medallist made it home – Albert Corey was a strike-breaking French butcher who hadn’t had the correct paperwork with him, so although being French, he was registered as an American. Another American, Arthur Newton, ran in at 3:47:33 to claim the bronze medal. 

Carvajal - Athlete extraordinaire

Next home was Félix Carvajal, a five foot tall Cuban postman, who had run the length of Cuba to raise enough money for a boat ticket to the USA, then hitchhiked to St Louis, where he lost what little money he had left in a dice game. He arrived at the race in heavy street clothes, so was helped to cut down his trousers into an approximation of shorts, and ran without support staff, strategy or training. He began jauntily, raising his beret to the spectators as he passed, and running backwards to enable himself to hold conversations with the crowd and practice his English. Carvajal, however, hadn’t eaten for almost two days, so when he spotted an orchard he popped in and helped himself to some green apples, which gave him such a bad stomach ache he had to stop and have a nap, to sleep off the pains. Even so, he managed to finish fourth. 

Len Tauyane (on the left)

The ninth man in was Len Taunyane, a Tswana tribesman who had been brought to the World’s Fair as an exhibit, with the intention of proving the superiority of the White Race over The Black Man (the eugenics movement was all the fashion in the US at the time – nice to see they’ve grown out of that one). He might have done rather better if he hadn’t had to make a detour of over a mile to avoid a ferocious dog, which had chased him off the course. William Garcia, winner of the 1903 Boston marathon, was found by a local couple, who were following the race in their car, lying unconscious by the side of the road, his oesophagus, lungs and stomach lined with thrown-up dust. They drove him back to the stadium, from where he was hospitalised. A support vehicle swerved to avoid a cyclist and crashed into a trench, severely injuring two officials, who were also hospitalised. Of the 32 starters, an astonishing eighteen failed to finish. 

'Fine Figure of a Fellow' Frank Kuglet

In other events, the American George Eyser won two golds, three silvers and a bronze in gymnastics – not bad for an athlete with a wooden leg. Frank Kugler, another American, was the only man in Olympic history to win three medals in three different sports – wrestling, weight-lifting and tug-of-war (he took a bronze in weight-lifting, even though he was one of only three competitors participating in the event). 

I could get an Olympic bronze under those circumstances.

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