St. Louis marathon: The strangest race in Olympic history

The start of the St.Louis 1904 Olympic Games men's marathon
The start of the St.Louis 1904 Olympic Games men's marathon

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The 1904 St. Louis marathon - the most bizarre spectacle in Olympic history. 

The background

Where do you start with perhaps the strangest Olympic story of them all?

The 1904 St. Lous Olympic Marathon isn’t a tale about athletics, it is the culmination of a jaw-dropping mishmash of events that produced one of the most bizarre races ever run.

Running, in fact, was not the only means of transport used in this 24.85 mile (39.99km) race. But more on those shenanigans later.

Perhaps the background to the race should have given people an inkling of the strange events to come, as the St. Louis Olympics were not conventional in any sense of the word.

The USA’s first ever Games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair and as such were missing the unique grandeur that had been witnessed at the turn of the century Games in Paris, or the inaugural modern Olympics that had taken place in Athens four years earlier.

Of the runners who stood on the marathon starting line, a handful had run previously in the Boston Marathon. But mainly the field was comprised of a hodge-podge collection of middle-distance specialists or distance-running novices who had never attempted anything like a marathon in their lives before.

One of the runners, Cuba’s Félix Carvajal, arrived ready to race fully dressed in long trousers, a white shirt and walking shoes. Taking pity on him, a fellow competitor cut off his trousers at the knees in order to make it easier for him to race.

Two of the competitors, Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani, were members of the South African Tswana tribe who were in St. Louis because of the World Fair. The historic importance of their participation was probably unknown at the time, as they became the first black Africans to compete in the modern Olympic Games.

Saint-Louis 1904 Olympic Games, men's marathon. Sam Mellor (USA) leads, in front of E.P. Carr. On the right, Michael Spring.
Saint-Louis 1904 Olympic Games, men's marathon. Sam Mellor (USA) leads, in front of E.P. Carr. On the right, Michael Spring.
© 1904 / International Olympic Committee (IOC) - All rights reserved.

The race

The race began in sweltering heat on an unpaved course that threw up clusters of dust into the thick air, making it difficult for the athletes to breathe as they made their way across the Missouri plains.

To add to the fun, there was only one water stop available during the whole of the race - a roadside well at the 12 mile (19.3km) mark.

The 32 entrants began the race that afternoon, but by the end of the day a mere 14 would finish - the lowest number in Olympic history.

It was no surprise. The winning athlete would later say: "The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces."

The first athlete to cross the finish line was Fred Lorz, an American distance runner who would go on to win the Boston Marathon a year later.

But all was not what it seemed with Lorz’s Olympic marathon victory.

Just as he was about to be presented with the winner's trophy, by none other than the daughter of the President, Alice Roosevelt, a member of the public "called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor”.

It later came to light that at the 9 mile (14.4km) mark, Lorz had begun suffering from cramps and hitched a ride in a car for the next 11 miles. He then proceeded to jump out of the vehicle and run to the finish where he would bask in the spoils of victory. Lorz would go on to claim that he had only finished as a “joke” and had never intended to keep up the charade.

Of the other runners, Cuba's Félix Carvajal was trotting along at a reasonable pace, when hunger caused him to stop at an orchard to snack on some apples. Unfortunately for him, the apples were rotten and the stomach cramps that ensued caused the athlete to lie prostrate by the side of the road where he proceeded to take a nap.

He still finished fourth.

William Garcia of California was another to succumb to the extraordinary conditions of the race. Initially leading, Garcia gulped down so much dust from the country roads that he suffered a near-fatal stomach haemorrhage.

South Africa’s Taunyane, on the other hand, had proved to be a very able runner and was well positioned until a pack of wild dogs chased him a mile off course, leaving him to finish ninth of the 14 finishers.

The race was eventually won by the USA’s Thomas Hicks in a time that was the slowest in Olympic history - 3 hours 28 minutes and 53 seconds. But even Hicks’s race was far from conventional.

Having been helped by his trainers at various points along the route, Hicks finally forced himself towards the finish line.

Charles Lucas, a race official, had this to say about the last two miles of the race:

“His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen colour 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."

Eventually, exhausted and hallucinating that he still had another 20 miles (32km) to run, Hicks was carried over the line by his trainers, his legs moving backward and forwards through the air as if he were still running.

It was a fitting end to a race the likes of which we’re unlikely to ever see again.

Thomas Hicks of the United States, who came first, was helped by teammates to the finish line during the Saint-Louis 1904 Olympic Games men's marathon
Thomas Hicks of the United States, who came first, was helped by teammates to the finish line during the Saint-Louis 1904 Olympic Games men's marathon
© 1904 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

The outcome

The marathon event at St. Louis was so controversial that the event was almost struck from the Olympic programme for the following Games.

The director of the 1904 Olympics, James Sullivan, stated that a run of that distance was "indefensible on any ground, but historic".

Lorz, who had hitched his way to "victory" in St. Louis, was banned for life for his fraudulent behaviour - a punishment that was overturned in time for him to win the Boston marathon a year later.

Cuba’s Carvajal gained sponsorship from the Greek government to run a marathon in Athens in 1906. But he never arrived at the race and newspapers in his home country proclaimed him dead. A year later he arrived safe and well in Havana - his whereabouts during the previous year a complete mystery.

The race winner Hicks, for his part, continued to run marathons for the next five years, before moving to Winnipeg, Canada with his two brothers.

But none of these runners would ever again experience an event as preposterously strange as the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Marathon.