Olympic Marathon 1904

Given the personal shocks of the last couple of days, it was good to have my faith in humanity restored by this account of the marathon at the St Louis Olympics of 1904. Highlights follow.

Accompanying the human drama of amateur, underfunded athletes is the tradition of having amateur, underqualified athletes at the Games. In 1904, arguably the most classic Olympics ever, the marathon had the potential to be upset by a squirrely little guy who had essentially hitchhiked from Cuba and ran the race in what amounted to dress shoes… His name was Felix Carvajal.

Carvajal was a postal worker in Havana who got it into his head that he was going to run the Olympic marathon. He was unsupported by governmental funds but, full of pluck, he quit his job and ran around the city square, trying to drum up cash or at least well-wishers. In a few months, he solicited enough donations to secure passage to New Orleans, no mean feat in an Olympics where some 525 of the 681 athletes were American because international travel was so expensive. Unfortunately, once in New Orleans he encountered the vices of that magnificent city and promptly lost all his money in a crooked streetside game of craps. He then walked or hitched the nearly seven hundred miles to St. Louis, where, in ragged clothes, was taken in by the United States weight team, who fed and sheltered him.

On the day of the marathon he arrived in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, both of which were charitably shorn by an discus-tosser who happened to be toting scissors. It was, after all, St. Louis in the summer, where temperatures regularly topped 90 degrees (32 deg C). Felix faced a curious field: there were some thirty-two runners, mostly Americans and Greeks. Two black men and students at Orange Free State University, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, were South Africa’s first Olympians. However, they were billed as Zulu savages and were participants in the Anthropology Days segment of the competition.

What follows that about Anthropology Days reminds me of the kind of thing that was said about West Indian cricket during the 1980s (said by the people whose countrymen the Windies were magnificently trouncing at the time). Go read.

With Felix and the two Anthropology Day participants entered thirty-seven other runners, and, in the humid St. Louis weather, they all began the race. The fairly brutal weather conditions, and the existence of only one water station 12 miles in, led to a variety of injuries. American Bill Garcia collapsed with a stomach hemorrhage, Fred Lorz, an American, was ahead but dropped out at nine miles – actually what he did was jump aboard a pace car and wave to the runners as it passed and sputtered dust and exhaust in their faces. These were not the only hazards: Len Tau was chased a mile off course through a cornfield by an angry dog and dropped to ninth place.

Reminiscent of poor Vanderlei de Lima in 2004:


Meanwhile, our favorite Cuban continued merrily along, laughing, joking, running backwards and practicing his broken English on bystanders. He leaned into a car of officials and stole peaches out of their fat hands; he took a detour through an apple orchard to swipe himself some lunch. These apples would be Felix’s undoing: he was soon afflicted with cramps and slowed his pace.

Shades of poor Paula Radcliffe there, no?

Well-pampered Thomas J. Hicks of Cambridge, Massachusetts plugged along with the help of his trainers. After Lorz dropped out and into his automotive shenanigans, Hicks was in first place. Hicks’ handlers trotted alongside him, giving him warm sponge baths and sips of water. He told his trainers he wanted to lie down, and they dosed him with egg white mixed with strychnine to keep him on his feet. When he started complaining, they started serving him brandy. The brandy ran out, and they had to borrow some more. By the time he reached the Olympic stadium, he was in such miserable shape and punch-drunk (well, actually, just drunk) that his trainers had to virtually carry him across the finish line.

Egg white, strychnine, brandy: sounds like something out of the Dangerous Book for Boys.

As for Felix, he came in fourth. The Cuban weathered the ugly conditions well, and some spectators postulated that with proper training he would have easily taken the gold.

In the circs, you have to wonder what they mean by “proper training.” Angel Dust? Guinness Extra Cold?

Anyway, the moral is as seen here: