Updated: Feb 6
Do you have a favorite Olympic sport?
Welcome to America the Bizarre. I’m your host Jordan Rausch and today I have a cohost, my husband Jeremy. I love telling Jeremy these stories while I’m preparing them for you guys, and I thought it would be fun for you to hear some of his reactions. If it goes well and you guys like him, this could become a regular thing. If you guys decide that you would rather just have him as a host, that’s too bad because I’m the one with the stories.
The Olympic games were started in ancient Greece as part of a religious festival to honor the Greek god Zeus. They were held in Olympia which was a rural sanctuary site in the wester Peloponnesos. The exact start date of the games is not known, some saying 776 BC and some experts saying as early as the 9th century BC. All athletes competed naked, no matter what event you were in though wrestlers and pankration (a mixed martial art) did cover themselves in oil to compete. The events were boxing, chariot racing, long jump, javelin, discus, pankration, running, and wrestling.
It doesn’t seem like they were a ton of rules. No ladies obviously. The only two rules in pankration were no biting and no gouging. Boxers were encouraged to avoid hitting the others genitalia, but there were no points or time limits. Boxers who could not be separated could opt for klimax, where one fighter could get a free unblocked hit at the other boxer and then the other boxer got to go. The first person to hit was decided by coin toss.
When the Romans gained power and influence in Greece, the games began to decline in popularity. The last held ancient Olympic games was held in 393 AD when the emperor Theodosius I decreed that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated.
In 1856, a rich Greek-Romanian philanthropist Evangelos Zappas, wrote to King Otto of Greece and offered to fund a modern revival of the Olympic Games and King Otto accepted. The first Olympic games was held in Athens city square and athletes from Greece and the Ottoman empire competed. Zappas then funded the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium for future Olympic Games.
Around the same time, other countries held their own versions of Olympic games. The Wenlock Olympian games were held in Shropshire, England and was founded by William Penny Brookes in 1850. The events included football, cricket (because it’s England) and weird events that were more just to laugh at like an Old Women’s Race and a Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race. Brookes invited a French aristocrat named Pierre de Coubertin to the 1890 Wenlock Olympian Games and Pierre was inspired to create the International Olympic Committee.
The first meeting of the Olympic Congress was held in June 1894 where it was decided that the games would be held every four years and the host city would be held by a different participating country each time. The delegates from 34 countries voted to have the first games in Athens, Greece in 1896. Pierre was then able to host the second Olympic games in 1900 in his home country of France.
After the 1900 games, countries would bid to host the Olympics. Chicago, Illinois won the bid to host the 1904 Olympics because Chicago was the only city that put in a bid. Shortly after it was announced that
Chicago would host, the International Olympic Committee started to receive pushback from another city, St. Louis. St. Louis was planning on hosting a World Fair in 1904 as well and thought that if the Olympics should be held anywhere, they should be held in the same city as the World Fair. St. Louis threatened to host their own athletic competitions if the Olympic Committee didn’t change the Olympics from Chicago to St. Louis, so Pierre de Coubertin reluctantly agreed to switch cities for the 1904 games, however he refused to attend. Later on Pierre would say that he “had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town.”
Pierre wasn’t the only person to stick up his nose at St. Louis. Travel to St. Louis for anyone outside of the United States would be very slow and expensive, so many countries didn’t send any athletes. Only 12 countries sent athletes and of the 650 athletes, only 100 did not represent the United States. Then from that 100, about half were from Canada.
Most Olympic games last around two weeks and when the games were still going to be held in Chicago, they were only scheduled for about a week. But because the World Fair would last for months, so did the 1904 Olympic Games dragging on for 146 days. In between the Olympic games, the World Fair would throw in their own athletic competitions like an Irish Sports Festival and YMCA basketball championship. This created confusion about which events were official Olympic events.
Despite it seeming like a joke, especially compared to the insanely talented Olympics we hold now, there were historic and awesome moments. George Eyser was a bookkeeper in St. Louis for a construction company and had joined a local gymnastics club. George also had one wooden leg. He had to have most of his left leg amputated as a child when a train ran over it. After being fitted with his wooden prosthesis, George learned how to run and jump. George Eyser won six medals for the United States in gymnastics in 1904 and three of those were gold.
In between watching George kick butt at gymnastics with his wooden leg, spectators could visit exhibits at the World Fair and there all kinds of things to see and experience. Visitors could go see the cabin where Abraham Lincoln grew up, see human skeletons with the first x-ray machine, or eat new fangled foods like cotton candy. They could also go visit the human zoo. Visitors could walk through different exhibits that were built to replicate native habitats of different villages from around the world. It was called the Philippine Village named after America’s newly acquired territory and spread out over 47 acres. The largest exhibit displayed a replicated village of the Philippines and had real people from the Philippines live out their days like they were back home, but you know in a cage and on display for white people to watch. There were also villages for Pygmies from Central Africa, Native Americans from Mexico, Syrian, Turks, etc.
This exhibit was the brainchild of the head of the fair’s Department of Physical Culture, James E. Sullivan. When James learned that the Olympics were also going to be held in St. Louis during the fair, he had another idea. James proposed the fair hold a “Special Olympics” his phrase not mine, where the indigenous people would perform in the same events as all the white guys. James quickly threw the Special Olympics together and it was an absolute mess because these competitors had never learned how to compete in these events and very few could explain the rules to them in their language. James E. Sullivan tried to show this as a success by saying that it only proved that the native’s were inferior to white
men to even be able to compete. Pierre de Coubertin heard about these Special Olympics and said “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men, and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
Despite all of James Sullivan’s best racist efforts, the 1904 olympics did not prove any race’s inferiority to white men. George Poage became the first African American to win an Olympic medal when he took home the bronze in the 400 meter hurdles. There was also diversity in the Olympics’ main event , the marathon. Two men from the Tsuana tribe of South Africa and Frank Pierce, the first Native American Olympian, all competed in the marathon. Among them were experienced American marathoners Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks. The rest of the racers had never run a marathon before including ten Greeks and a 5 foot tall Cuban named Felix Carabajal. Felix raised money to come to St. Louis for the games by trekking along the length of the island of Cuba. However, once Felix got to New Orleans he lost all of his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike the rest of the way to St. Louis. The temperature was in the 90’s on race day, and if you’ve never been to St. Louis it gets really humid. Felix showed up to the starting line wearing a long sleeved white shirt, dark pants, a beret, and a pair of street shoes. Before the race started, a fellow Olympian took pity on Felix and cut his pants into shorts.
The 24.85 mile course was not an easy flat course. One official called it “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”. Most of it consisted of roads that were inches deep in dust. There seven hills along the course, varying from 100 to 300 feet in elevation change. Oh yeah, and they didn’t shut down any roads the racers had to cross. While also competing with each other, they would also have to dodge traffic, railroad trains, trolley cars, and large groups of people trying to make their way to and from the fair. There were only two water stations along the course, one was a water tower at the six mile mark and the second was a roadside well at the twelve mile mark. And then you have to finish the last 12.85 miles without water in 90 degree heat. Do you have a guess for what genius created this course? James E. Sullivan, the same Special Olympics guy, because he wanted to test the limits and effect of purposeful dehydration and he is the absolute worst.
At 3:03 p.m. the starting pistol fired and the men were off. Fred Lorz, a bricklayer that only trained at night after work, led the pack at the beginning of the race. After the first mile though, Thomas Hicks one of the experienced marathoners, took the lead. They ran along cars that would kick up dust on the road and racers would start having coughing spells. William Garcia from California collapsed and ripped his stomach lining from coughing so hard. He had to be hospitalized because he was hemorrhaging. John Lordon began to vomit violently along the course and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African racers of the Tsuana tribe was chased a mile off of the course by a pack of feral dogs.
Felix, the short Cuban, was actually holding his own though and keeping good pace despite his non-aerodynamic outfit. He would take breaks every now and then to talk with spectators in broken English. While running, he ran by some people eating peaches in their stopped car. He stopped to talk with them and asked for a peach, they told him no so he grabbed two peaches and ran off. A little bit after he finished his stolen peaches, the course took him by an orchard so he figured that he would eat a couple of those. Turns out the apples were rotten and Felix started getting stomach cramps so he layed down and took a nap.
Sam Mellor was now in the lead, but he started to experience cramps too. He slowed down and tried to walk them off, but after they didn’t go away he stopped completely. Frank Lorz, the guy that only ran at night, also got cramps around mile 9. Frank decided to hitch a ride with one of the cars driving by. He waved at spectators and the other runners while the car passed them.
The American favorite, Thomas Hicks begged the men at the ten mile mark for a drink of water, but they refused. Instead of a glass of water, they sponged his mouth with warm distilled water. It was just enough for him to keep going. Seven miles away from the finish line, Hick’s handlers gave him a mixture of strychnine and egg whites as a stimulant because there were no rules about performance enhancing drugs. There weren’t really any rules at all, but especially not about that. By the way, strychnine is super poisonous. It’s mostly used as rat poison today. Apparently his team also had some brandy to give it to him, but they wanted to try out the strychnine first and see how he handled that. For all the kids out there, neither of these things will help you run fast. People back then didn’t know what they were doing. Everybody was just trying anything that even sounded like it could maybe be a good idea.
After riding in a car for 11 miles, Frank Lorz decided that he was feeling good enough to run again and got out of the car and back onto the course. Frank runs by Thomas Hicks towards the finish line and crosses with a time of just under three hours. The crowd is chanting “An American won!” and Alice Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, placed a wreath upon Frank’s head. Alice was just about to place the gold medal around Frank’s neck when someone yelled out that Frank was an imposter. Then all of the chants turned into boos. Frank just smiled and was like it’s okay guys, it was just a joke. I never meant to actually accept the gold medal.
Thomas Hicks, now suffering from dehydration and strychnine poisoning, wasn’t doing so hot, but when he found out Frank had been disqualified and he had a chance to win he forced himself to start jogging again. His trainers gave him more egg whites and strychnine, because they don’t know anything, but this time they gave him the brandy to wash it down with. They soaked him with warm water and he picked up his pace a little bit more. A race official said “Over the last two miles of the road, 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.”
Around that last mile though, Hicks started to hallucinate. He started to believe that he had just started the race and the finish line was still 20 miles away. Then he started to beg to get something to eat and that he wanted to lay down. So his team gave him some more brandy and egg white. There were only two hills between Hicks and the finish line. He walked up them and then jogged back down. Just before the finish line, he was only able to shuffle his feet so his trainers picked him up and carried him over the line. Apparently this still counted because his feet were still moving back and forth. I don’t know, but he was declared the official winner. Both of the South African men finished the race, luckily making it back after the wild dogs chased them and placed fifth and 12th. I didn’t see other finish places for the other racers, but at least we know those guys made it back okay.
Hicks had lost eight pounds during the race and it took four doctors to get him feeling well enough to leave the fair grounds. Thomas Hicks said of the race “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The
terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.”
Thomas Hicks and Frank Lorz would race against each other again the next year in the Boston Marathon. Frank Lorz beat Thomas Hicks, but without hitching a ride.
If you would like to know more about the 1904 olympics, my sources were:
“Much Wenlock” by Ben Johnson
“8 Unusual Facts about the 1904 St. Louis Olympics” by Evan Andrews
Britannica “St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games”
“Rembering the Anthropology Days at the 1904 Olympics” by Nate Dimeo
“The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever” by Karen Abbott
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