Running Through History
Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series of articles about St. Louis’s role in Olympic history. To read the first article—about the way St. Louis won the honor of hosting the first Games to be held in the United States—click here. For the second article—about the differences between the St. Louis and London Games—click here. To read the third article—about the similarities between the St. Louis and London Games—click here.
No event better represents both the similarities and differences between the 1904 Olymic Games and those currently being held in London than the marathon.
In St. Louis, the race began at what is now known as Francis Field on the Washington University campus and was then run over county roads. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that “the course resembles the road from Marathon to Athens in that the hills are about the same height as those in Greece.”
Though the connection to the ancient games may have been forced, there is a clear link between the 1904 marathon and today’s Games. Unlike many of the St. Louis events, the marathon drew an international field of athletes. Top runners from Greece, Austria, Cuba, and the United States competed, as did two runners from South Africa, marking the first time African athletes competed in the Olympics.
The marathon was also an event that drew a bigger audience. Although reports that estimated the crowd for the start at 10,000 were probably exaggerated, the race did create more excitement than many of the other events.
It was also a race filled with great stories. For example, Felix Carbajal of Cuba raised money for his trip to the St. Louis Games by putting on running demonstrations across his home country. Unfortunately, his journey to St. Louis went through New Orleans, where he quickly gambled away all of his money. He came to St. Louis with only the clothes on his back, but that didn’t stop him. He competed in those clothes and finished a respectable fourth.
The conditions of the race, however, made the marathon not only difficult but surely one of the most grueling events in Olympic history. It was run on a 90-degree day over dirt roads. Olympic and team officials rode in cars alongside the runners, meaning athletes were often ingesting thick clouds of dust as they ran. Making matters worse, race officials only provided one water stop.
The person who can take the most credit for making the 1904 marathon unique was Fred Lorz. Though Lorz crossed the finish line first, it was later discovered that he had ridden for at least 10 miles in an automobile. Accounts vary about how his deceit was discovered. Some have said that another runner revealed his cheating while others have claimed that Lorz admitted to what he considered a practical joke.
Lorz wasn’t the only runner who found the course difficult. Fewer than half the athletes were able to finish the race.
One of the runners who found the course the most grueling was Thomas Hicks of the Boston area. During the race, Hicks’ coaches attempted to revive him with a mix of brandy, strychnine, and egg whites. Though Hicks would win the race, the assistance didn’t seem to do much good and he complained, “the road that I competed on today was the hardest that I have ever met with.”
Because of the overwhelming number of American athletes in the 1904 Games, moments of national pride were rare. One of those few moments came when Hicks was nearing the stadium toward the end of the race and the crowd excitedly cheered, “An American! An American!”
The toll that the race took on all of the runners—from the winner to those who couldn’t finish—led James Sullivan, the director of the Games, to question whether this sport should remain part of the Olympics. He said it was simply asking too much of human endurance.
“I saw the finishes of the Paris and yesterday’s races,” Sullivan said, “and I think they are man-killing in effect.”
Sullivan went so far as to convene a special committee to discuss whether the event should be banned. Considering that this year’s Olympic marathon will once again have the honor of being the last event of the Games, it’s obvious that Sullivan’s quest was not successful. But his efforts do provide yet another example of the uniqueness of the 1904 Olympic marathon and the St. Louis Games as a whole.
In the next article in our series, we will explore how the 1904 Games have been remembered and examine their place in Olympic history.
—Jody Sowell, Public Historian
Our Olympics, an exhibit that highlights stories and photography from the 1904 Games, runs through November 18 in the Bank of America Atrium.