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These games were a sideshow in every sense.
We usually have the image in our minds that the Olympics are really big business. The hosting cities go out of their way to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that the best facilities are provided for the competing athletes.
But, it wasn't always this way.
Historians agree that the St Louis Games of 1904 almost killed off the Olympics. They were little more than a farcical sidelight of the giant international St. Louis Expo held the same year. Originally scheduled for Chicago, the Games were moved to St. Louis. Only 496 men from 13 nations attended. There was no women. Naturally enough, the Americans won most of the events, including all but one of the 23 track and field contests. It was only the special Interim Olympics (the so-called Intercalated Games) in Athens two years later that restored some dignity to the Olympic movement and ensured the Games' ultimate survival.
The St. Louis games could hardly be called an international competition.
Since traveling overseas from Europe was extremely expensive at the time,
the competition consisted mostly of Americans and Canadians (of the 681
athletes, 525 were from the United States.). It should be pointed out,
however, that the Olympics were not intended to be a competition among
nations at the time - it was a competition among amateur athletes from
around the world. It was the job of the amateur athlete to find his way
to the games at his own expense. No one cared if you couldn't get there.
Needless to say, the 1904 Olympics were of relatively minor importance.
They were originally scheduled to take place in Chicago, but President
Roosevelt urged for the games to be held in St. Louis because the Louisiana
Purchase (World) Exposition was being held there at the same time to showcase
the world's newest technologies (electricity, automobiles, airplanes, etc.).
The Exposition organizers built a permanent gymnasium and a stadium
with enough seats to hold some 35,000 spectators (This may sound like a
lot of people, but it's really nothing when you compare it to the estimated
20 million people that attended the Exposition during its six month run.).
The entire event lasted from Monday, August 29 to Saturday, September 3,
1904. There were no events scheduled for Friday, so the entire series of
Olympic games lasted for just five short days.
At this point you probably don't see too much wrong with this scenario.
Unfortunately, when the games were actually held, they were a disaster.
To start, if you were considered to be a minority, you had to compete in separate games. These games came under the high-sounding name of "Anthropology Days" which were held on August 12 and 13, 1904. These games were designed to face "costumed members of the uncivilized tribes" (African pygmies, Sioux Indians and other coloured races) against one another. Never-to-be classic Olympic games were included - mud fighting, rock throwing, pole climbing, spear throwing, and... you get the idea...
Things went downhill from there.
In swimming, Hungary's Zoltan Halmay won the 100m and 50m freestyle. Originally, Halmay beat American J. Scott Leary by just one foot in the 50m event. However, the American judge ruled that Leary had won. This ruling resulted in a brawl between the two, so the judges ordered a rematch. Halmay won on the second attempt. (They couldn't check the videotape at this time in history.)
An American gymnast named George Eyser won two gold, two silver, and
one bronze medal at the games. Quite a remarkable feat when you consider
the fact that he only had one real leg - the other leg was solid wood (His
leg was amputated when he was run over by a train - Ouch!).
Now for the competition that they would really like to strike from the
record books - the Marathon.
The marathon was run on a very humid, 90+ degree day. The 40 kilometer
course started with five laps around the stadium track. The runners then
left the stadium and embarked on a dusty, unpaved course that took them
up-and-down over seven different hills. The path was marked by red flags
that designated the way. A vanguard of horsemen cleared the trail along
the way. They were followed by doctors, judges, and reporters in the newly
invented automobiles. The net result was a constant cloud of dust kicked
up into the runners' faces. They were literally forced to eat dust.
The first man to cross the finish line was Fred Lorz from New York City.
Lorz had completed the race in just over three hours time. When he entered
the stadium, the crowd roared with excitement. Photographs were taken of
President Roosevelt's daughter Alice placing a laurel wreath over Lorz's head.
Lorz's moment in the limelight did not last very long. Just as Lorz
was about to accept his medal, officials learned that Lorz had been spotted
passing the halfway mark in an automobile. It seems that Lorz had been
suffering from cramps, so he hitched a ride at the 9 mile point. He then
rode in the vehicle for another eleven miles, at which point the car overheated
and broke down. He waived at the spectators and fellow runners along the
way. Lorz, now rejuvenated from his ride, chose to run the rest of the
Lorz claimed that he never meant to fool anyone - he just couldn't resist
the praise and adulation of the roaring crowd. Lorz was immediately banned
for life from any future amateur competition. This ban was lifted a year
later allowing him to win the Boston Marathon (we'll assume that he was
So, if Lorz didn't win, who did?
It was a British-born man named Thomas Hicks who ran for the American
team. Hicks ran the race in 3:28:53. When he ran into the stadium the crowd
was less than enthusiastic. After all, they had already cheered for a winner,
even if he had been disqualified.
Of course, good little Alice Roosevelt was again ready to pose with
the winner. But she couldn't. Hicks had to be carried off of the track.
It seems that Hicks had begged to lie down about ten miles from the finish
line. Instead, his trainers gave him an oral dose of strychnine sulfate
mixed into raw egg white to keep him going. This was not enough - they
had to give him several more doses, as well as brandy, along the way. By
the end of the race, Hicks had to actually be supported by two of his trainers
so that he could cross the finish line (essentially, he was carried over
the line with his feet moving back-and-forth). Hicks was very close to
death's door. It took four doctor's to get him in good enough shape just
to leave the grounds, eventually falling asleep on a trolley.
Wait! That's not the end of the story! (can it get any more bizarre?)
It seems that another entrant was a Cuban postman named Felix Carvajal.
Once Felix heard about the marathon, he announced that he was going to
run. He had no money, so he quit his job and went into the fund raising
business. He ran around the central square in Havana and jumped on a soapbox
pleading for donations. He repeated this several times until he raised
the necessary cash.
On his way to the race, Felix managed to lose all of his money in a
crap game in New Orleans. As a result, he had to hitchhike his way to the
games (not an easy thing to do in 1904). When Carvajal arrived at the games,
he lacked any type of running gear. The officials were forced to postpone
the start of the marathon for several minutes while he cut the sleeves
off his shirt and the legs off his pants. He ran the race in lightweight
During the race, Felix didn't seem to fatigue easily. He constantly
conversed with the crowd, even running backwards at times while he spoke
to them in broken English.
But wait, in keeping with the 1904 tradition it had to get worse for
He blew any chance of victory by getting hungry. He first ate some peaches
that he stole from a race official. He then took a detour into an orchard
to munch on some green apples. Big mistake - he developed stomach cramps
and had to temporarily drop out of the marathon. Eventually, Felix got
back in the race and managed to come in fourth place. He probably would
have won if he had not gotten the munchies.
Hold it - the marathon is still not over!
The marathon included the first two black Africans to compete in the
Olympics - two Zulu tribesman named Lentauw (real name: Len Taunyane)and
Yamasani (real name: Jan Mashiani). They wore bibs 35 and 36, respectively.
The only problem was that these two tribesmen were not in town to compete
in the Olympics - they were actually the sideshow! Yes, they were imported
by the exposition as part of the Boer War exhibit (both were really students
at Orange Free State in South Africa, but no one wanted to believe that
these tribesmen could actually be educated - it would have ruined the whole
Lentauw finished ninth and Yamasani came in twelfth. This was a disappointment,
as many observers were sure Lentauw could have done better - that is if
he had not been chased nearly a mile off course by a large, aggressive
The marathon was over, but there is still one more little story to go
along with this:
It seems that two of the patrolling officials driving in a brand-new
automobile were forced to swerve to avoid hitting one of the runners -
they ended up going down an embankment and were severely injured.
In the end, the St. Louis Olympics (along with the previous Paris games)
proved to be such a disaster that the Olympic Committee was forced to hold
interim Olympic games in 1906 at Athens, in an attempt to revive the flagging
Olympic movement. These games were not numbered, but were attended by twenty
countries and put the Olympics back on a steady course to success.
An interesting useless sidenote: Iced tea made its debut at the
1904 Exposition. It seems that it was so hot during the Expo that the staff
at the Far East Tea House couldn't even give away their product.
What to do? What to do?
Very simple - they poured the hot tea over ice cubes! The drink quickly
became the Expo's most popular beverage.
And yet another useless fact: A teenager named Arnold Fornachou
was selling ice cream at his exposition booth. He ran into a big problem
- he ran out of the paper dishes on which to serve the ice cream. In a
stroke of genius, he noticed that the guy in the next booth, a Syrian named
Ernest Hamwi, was selling waffles. Arnold rolled one of Ernie's wafer-thin
waffles up and invented the ice cream cone. Within ten years more than
one-third of all ice cream was served in a cone.
Source: David Wallechinsky from
The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics, thanks David
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