Mad Olympic Marathon included strychnine performance enhancers and runners in street clothes and berets

If there ever was an athletic event that should be a movie, it’s the 1904 Olympic Marathon. The “performance enhancing” rat poison and brandy! The runner who stopped for an hour’s nap! The one who took the car!

Felix Carvajal at the 1904 Summer Olympics. Source

One official of the 1904 Olympic Marathon called it:  “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”. It wasn’t just the agony of dodging traffic, trains, trolley cars and people walking dogs, the choking dust or the 90 degrees (32 °C ) heat.

Here’s some of the craziness that went down:

  • The first place finisher, Fred Lorz, travelled most of the race (11 miles) by car. He copped a lift after suffering from cramps. Lorz said he had intended to drop out, took a car back to the stadium to get his change of clothes, and simply started jogging when he heard the hubbub. For a minute, the crowd thought he had won. Alice Roosevelt was on the verge of lowering the gold medal around his neck when they realised he’d come by car. Lorz, a known practical joker, claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.” A year later, he won the 1905 Boston Marathon on his own legs.


Hicks and supporters at the 1904 Summer Olympics. Source

  • Thomas Hicks, the second place finisher, was physically hauled across the finish line by his trainers. They had been refusing him water, and giving him a mixture of strychnine and egg white for the entire race. They held off on the French Brandy until the final stretch. Doping wasn’t illegal yet, so he got the gold when Fred Lorz was removed. It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race.


  • Third finisher was remarkably unremarkable.


Andarín Carvajal running during the Olympic Marathon. Source

  • Fourth finisher was Cuban Mailman Felix Carbajal, who raised the funds to attend the Olympics by demonstrating running and famously running non-stop around his entire country. Having landed in New Orleans, he promptly lost all of the travelling money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis.He ran the race in street shoes, long trousers (cut off at the knee by a friendly fellow competitor), a long-sleeve shirt, and a beret. Once, he playfully snatched peaches from an official’s car and ate them as he ran. He might have won had it not been for the hour nap he took on the side of the track after eating rotten apples he found on the side of the race.


1904 Olympic Marathon participants, Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani of the Tswana tribe of South Africa. Source

  • 9th and 12th finishers were from South Africa, and apparently ran barefoot. (Though Tau has shoes on in the above image). South Africa hadn’t even sent a delegation to the 1904 Olympic Marathon: they were there as part of the World’s Fair Boer War Exhibit. Both had been long distance runners in the recent conflict. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs.


  • William Garcia of California, was nearly the first Olympic casualty. The dust from passing cars had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining.


  • Half the participants had never raced competitively before and many didn’t wear socks.


  • St. Louis only had two water stops on the entire run. This was a deliberate experiment by James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, to test the limits and effects of dehydration.


  • 10 Greeks competed, none of whom had ever run a marathon before.


  • The Russian delegation arrived a week late, because they were still following the Julian calendar. In 1904.


  • Arthur Corey finished at 3 hours and 34 minutes. Corey was a Frenchman, but since he didn’t have time to get official papers, he was listed as an American. This is how is still officially listed to this day.



Smithsonian Magazine

America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904
By George R. Matthews

The Olympic Marathon
By David E. Martin, Roger W. H. Gynn

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