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The craziest Olympic marathon of all time

Course-cutting and doping abounded at the first Olympic marathon held on U.S. soil

olympic rings

The Olympic marathon was not always the relatively well-organized and sedate affair that it has become. Despite rumours (and occasionally, busts) over doping and controversies about shoes, heat and having the event moved 800 kilometres from the rest of the Games, the Olympic marathon of 2020 will still be relatively civilized compared to what happened in 1904, which was quite literally the Wild West in terms of rules, organization and conduct of athletes.

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According to its Wikipedia page, the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis, Missouri as part of that year’s World’s Fair, were the first Games held in the U.S. And a lot of bizarre things happened during the marathon.

It was held on the afternoon of August 30, when the temperature was 33 C. Out of 32 entrants, only 14 finished. There was only one water station–a well at the 11-mile mark–because officials were doing research into so-called “purposeful dehydration.” The winning time of 3:28:45, credited to the American Thomas Hicks, was almost half an hour slower than the next-slowest winning time. Hicks had collapsed several times and been revived with a mixture of strychnine and brandy, and was carried over the finish line, which was considered perfectly acceptable.

Fred Lorz, who is believed to have cheated to win the 1904 Olympic marathon, and was disqualified and banned, then re-instated the following year after apologizing.

Hicks actually finished second, but the first finisher, the American Fred Lorz, who crossed the finish line in 3:13, was discovered to have dropped out after nine miles and driven partway back to the stadium. He was banned for life by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), but re-instated the following year, after he apologized.

Several other experienced American marathoners competed. One American, William Garcia, almost died, apparently from internal bleeding as a result of inhaling clouds of dust kicked up by motorized vehicles following the runners along the dirt road. Andarín Carvajal of Cuba (who is elsewhere identified as Felix Carbajal) finished fourth, despite ingesting rotten apples from a roadside tree, which made him sick.

The race also included the first two black African Olympians, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, who finished ninth and 12th, running barefoot. Taunyane was chased by dogs on the course, which he blamed for his poor finish.


The Cuban, Carvajal

According to Karen Abbott, who wrote an entertaining account of the event for Smithsonian.com in 2012, Lorz and Hicks faced each other again in 1905 at the Boston Marathon. This time Lorz won fair and square. (Two years later, in 1907, the Boston Marathon would be won by the Canadian phenom known as Tom Longboat.)

Abbott says the shenanigans of 1904 almost caused the Olympic marathon to be permanently abolished, but cooler heads prevailed, and the Olympic marathon lived on.