• Fraser du Toit

The 1904 Men's Summer Olympics Marathon – Dumbest Race in History

Modern marathons are sleek events full of the world's best long-distance runners. These people are highly trained professionals getting paid fat stacks to swing their legs. Millions of people tune in to watch them compete in the Summer Olympic Games. This has not always been the case.



In 1904 America hosted the third Summer Olympics. This was of course not the third Olympics ever held, but the third in the modern tradition. Back then the Olympic Games weren't nearly as popular as they are today. Consisting mainly of amateur competitors and whoever decided to show up on the day.

The Americans decided to host their Olympic Games in St Louis, Missouri. 32 runners lined up at the starting line, only 14 would finish. They would face 90 Fahrenheit (32.22 °C) heat and clouds of dust filled with the toxic emissions of the support vehicles.

Racers would face 7 steep hills, some would be poisoned, others attacked by wild dogs. The 1904 Men's Marathon was such a farce that the Olympic Committee nearly scrapped the Marathon event entirely.


Why St Louis?



Back in 1904, the Olympic Games were still a minor event. America was celebrating the Louisiana Purchase, which had happened roughly 100 years before in 1803. They held a festival known as The World's Fair, and the Olympic Games were just a small part of it.


Among the exhibits were the usual technological marvels like typewriters and automobiles, dinosaur skeletons in the natural history exhibit, and of course humans from countries dominated by colonial powers. They called it Anthropology Days.



Slavery may have been illegal in the USA, but that didn't include the display and exploitation of humans from all over the world. After all, this wasn't slavery, it was entertainment. What the organizers referred to as “savages” to be put on display for the entertainment of the white people.



The Olympic Games weren't even the only sporting event featured at the World's Fair in 1904. There were also events held where the captive “natives” were made to compete against one another. Events like mud-slinging, “ethnic” dancing, an early version of the javelin throw, and climbing a greased pole.


The Race so Cursed it Nearly Killed the Olympics



Back before safety had been invented people would arbitrarily draw a line on a map and declare it a good place for a race. The distance for a marathon hadn't even been standardized. For the 1904 Men's Summer Olympics Marathon the distance would be 24.85 miles (39.99 km) long. One race official had enough of a brain to call the course:


“the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”

The race would start at 3pm on 30 August. Competitors would start with a couple of laps inside the stadium before bursting out into the bustling streets of St. Louis. Once outside, they would have to dodge cars, trams, and pedestrians as the course had not been cleared.

The roads were incredibly dusty in places and covered in rocks. Hills ranging between 100 and 300 feet (30.48 m and 91.44 m) made the course especially grueling. Further complicating things were the cavalcade of support vehicles and horses leading the race and kicking up great clouds of dust. The exhaust fumes on those early vehicles came out as thick clouds of smoke that added to the runners' woes.

Adding even more to the danger of the thing was the lack of water given to the runners. There was only one water station along the course, at 12th mile. This decision was made by James E. Sullivan, who was also responsible for marking the course. He was the Head of the Physical Culture Department for the World's Fair and as a result he was responsible for the Olympics as well.

He had some thoughts about exercise which he wanted to test out during the marathon. Chief among those ideas was “purposeful dehydration”. Sullivan believed that drinking water or eating during exercise were dangerous and would only cause cramps.

Mostly American runners took part in the race. This was largely due to the fact that most countries didn't pay for athletes to compete or even attend the Olympic Games. Coupled with the ongoing Russo-Japanese War that further limited participating nations. Crossing the ocean in 1904 was quite the expensive undertaking, not to mention the danger.



Strangely, South Africa made its Olympic Debut in 1904. Two Tswana men who were part of the Anglo-Boer War exhibit decided to give this Olympics thing a go. Jan Mashiani and Len Taunyane were among the 14 finishers. Not only were they the first South Africans to compete in the Olympics, but they were the first black Africans to do so as well.

Another first time attendee was Cuba. One Cuban made it to the Olympics. His name was Felix Carvajal. This mailman had raised his own funds to join the race and would show up on the day wearing formal clothes and a beret.


Individual Experiences


Len Taunyane

Taunyane was part of the Boer War exhibit at the World's Fair. He was a veteran of the Second Boer War and as part of the exhibition, he participated in daily reenactments of famous battles from the war.

Len arrived at the starting line barefoot. His experience of the 1904 Men's Marathon would be a grueling battle against the rocks, dust, and a pack of ferocious dogs that chased him nearly a mile off course before he could return to the race.

Overall he managed to finish 9th. Finishing in a race like this is an achievement in itself. Spectators were disappointed because they had high hopes for him. Taunyane was billed as a Zulu, despite being a Tswana man. Although he was from South Africa, there was no official country for him to represent yet. Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani would be the only black athletes to represent South Africa until the end of Apartheid in 1986.


Felix Carvajal


The Cuban nation had never competed in the Olympic Games before. Felix Carvajal aimed to change that. He had a passion for running long distances and the type of grit one develops as a mailman.

Felix raised his own funds to attend the 1904 Marathon by asking people along his mail route. He may also have run across the entire island of Cuba in a demonstration and fund-raising stunt.

Carvajal raised the necessary money and got on a ship to New Orleans. He was so taken by the city that he went on a bender which saw him drink and gamble away all of his money. Determined not to let this setback stop him, Felix hiked the rest of the way to St. Louis.

When he arrived at the starting line, he was wearing full pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and hiking boots. Another competitor helped him to cut off the legs of his trousers to turn them into shorts.

Felix finished fourth. This is made more impressive when you consider that he had stopped to chat up nearly every spectator along the way. Once he stopped a cart loaded with peaches and asked the farmers if he could have one. They refused, so Felix did what he did best and ran, after swiping a peach.

Another stop that Felix made was when passing an apple orchard. The nutritional orbs looked particularly inviting, so he helped himself to a couple before running off again. Unfortunately the apples retaliated and Felix was soon writhing on the ground with stomach cramps.

He took a nap, after which he got up and finished the race.


Fred Lorz

Fred Lorz was a bricklayer from New York who did all of his training at night. He took part in a qualifying race which won him a paid trip to participate in the Olympic Marathon of 1904.

Fred started off strong. Easily overtaking many of his competitors. He did run out of energy at mile 9, and his manager gave him a lift in his car for the next 11 miles (17.7 km). Around mile 20, Lorz felt a second wind come on, and he hopped out of the car and jogged the remaining distance to the Olympic Stadium in St. Louis. He was greeted by a cheering crowd.

Fred Lorz gave the crowd a wave as he crossed the finish line and broke through the tape. People were freaking out as he had just finished the marathon in record time. The US President's daughter was there to congratulate him, and she was about to hang the gold medal around his neck when a spectator pointed out that Lorz never crossed the half-way mark.

Lorz was disqualified and banned for life from all athletic events. He apologized, and the ban was lifted. The next year he won the Boston Marathon.


William Garcia

One of the few people to have very nearly died while running a marathon, was William Garcia. This Californian man was found retching in a ditch. Blood was pouring out of his throat.

He was rushed to a hospital where it was found that due to excessive inhalation of dust, his esophagus, and stomach had hemorrhaged. Had they not found him within the hour that they did, he would have been the first fatality in modern Olympic history.


Tom Hicks

The man who would eventually win the 1904 Summer Olympics Marathon was Tom Hicks. Hicks was an English born brass worker from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The man from Massachusetts was in for a bad time.

Some time after the halfway water-stop, Hicks started to feel very thirsty. He had a pair of helpers riding in a car in front of him. This car helped to keep his lungs full of delicious carbon dioxide.

Hicks begged them for some water, which they denied him as per Sullivan's orders. Presumably they were having a water fight on the back of that car. Whatever the case, Kicks wouldn't see a drop of water before the end. Except for the time they sponged out his mouth with distilled water, which he wasn't allowed to drink and wouldn't have helped him anyway.

The helpers did notice that Tom was struggling. They mixed up a cocktail of raw egg whites, brandy, and Strychnine (commonly referred to as Rat Poison). Painful spasms, from the poison, helped keep his limbs moving.

Tom's helpful helpers would feed him more poison whenever his pace slowed. Slowly his face turned gray and his eyes receded into his skull. His body was slowly succumbing to the poison, which made his helpers feel that it was definitely helping and he should have some more.

Hicks grew despondent when he heard of Lorz's victory, but he perked up when he found out that Lorz had been disqualified. His helpers splashed water in his face and gave him one more cocktail of Salmonella and Strychnine.

Charles Lucas, a race official, wrote this about Tom Hicks:


“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.”


Tom Hicks collapsed near the finish line. He had lost 8 pounds of weight from the start of the race. Poison had ravaged his body, and he was clost to death. His helpers scooped him up and dragged him across the finish line.

Doctors spent the next hour reviving him before he was able to leave the stadium.



James E. Sullivan would see the disatrous marathon as a great success of his purposeful dehydration theory. He wrote a book in 1909 on the subject. If it wasn't absolutely obvious, purposeful dehydration is a terrible idea.