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Why were the 1904 Olympics Such a Disaster?

The 2000 Summer Olympics at Sydney were a millennium extravaganza unparalelled in the history of the Games. Techno-wizardry was at its best and the spectacular pageantry and the actual Games thrilled millions of viewers worldwide.

Hosting the Games is big business. What the host country spends is trifling compared to the amount of money it receives by way of advertising revenue and tourist influx.

Since 1896 when the modern Olympic Games were first held, the Games have undergone many upheavals. They were launched in 1896 to promote sports and test the sporting skills of humans in various categories. Over the years though, the true spirit has been lost as participating countries turn a blind eye to notions of honour and fair play. Instead, the focus is on winning either by hook or crook.

Why were the 1904 Olympics Such a Disaster? [Illustration by Anup Singh]

The history of the Games is peppered with anecdotes of comedies of errors and the crookedness of the participants. In this respect the 1904 St. Louis Games were arguably the most disastrous Olympics ever.

The St. Louis Games could hardly be called international games. The entire event lasted for only five days from Monday, August 29 to Saturday, September 3, 1904 with no events scheduled for Friday.

Right form the start, they were different. The Olympics were not intended as competition between countries but as competition among amateur sportspersons, it was up to the athlete to travel to the Games at his own expense.

Thus participants at the St. Louis Olympics consisted mainly of Americans and Canadians – of the 681 athletes, 525 were from the United States. Needless to say, the Games were farcical.

Why were the 1904 St. Louis Olympics Such a Disaster? Solodov Alexey / Shutterstock.com

To start with, a separate category called ‘Anthropology Days’ was introduced. Minority communities and tribals had to compete in this separate category and were pitted against one another.

The Anthropology Days of the 1904 Olympics were a ‘scientific experiment’ with participation from ‘costumed members of the uncivilized tribes’. This included Pygmies, Filipinos, various Native American tribes, including two South Africans, students at Orange Free State University, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, who were billed as ‘Zulu savages’. Zulus belong to a tribe in Africa.

These participants were to compete in such events such as mud fighting, rock throwing, greased-pole climbing and spear throwing. This was the white man’s way of showing that these people weren’t ‘civilized’ yet!

The actual Olympics started with famous howlers such as Hungary’s Zoltan Halmay who won the 100m and 50m freestyle. Originally, Halmay beat American J. Scott Leary by a foot in the 50m event. However, the American judge ruled that Leary had won. This ruling resulted in a brawl and the judges ordered a rematch. Halmay won again.

The other athletic event was the marathon. After the initial laps around the stadium, the runners embarked on a dusty, unpaved course. Leading the runners was a group of horsemen to clear the trail along the way. The horsemen were followed by doctors, judges, and reporters in motorcars. The result: the runners were literally forced to eat dust.

The first man to cross the finish line was American Fred Lorz. When he entered the stadium, the crowd roared to support the local hero. However, his victory was short-lived as officials learned that Lorz had hitched a ride in an automobile. He was even seen waving to spectators and fellow runners along the way. Lorz was immediately banned for life from any future amateur competition.

The second man in was a Britisher Thomas Hicks who ran for the American team. But Hicks victory too was short-lived as he collapsed halfway. His trainers had given him an oral dose of strychnine sulfate mixed with raw egg-white to keep him going. In the end, Hicks was actually supported by two of his trainers so that he could cross the finish line.

However that’s not the end of the marathon story. The third colourful character in this race was a Cuban named Felix Carvajal. Felix wanted to run the marathon but he had no money. So he quit his job and decided to raise funds by running around the city square. Somehow he managed to raise enough to come to New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Felix lost his money in a gambling game. He managed to hitchhike his way to St Louis. Carvajal lacked any type of running gear and so was dressed in long sleeves shirt and trousers. The officials were forced to postpone the start of the marathon for several minutes while he cut the sleeves off his shirt and the legs off his pants.

During the race, Felix didn’t seem to fatigue easily. He clowned with the crowd and spectators all the way. But the long distance made him hungry and he took a detour and ate some green apples. This nearly cost Felix the race as he developed stomach cramps. Eventually, Felix got back in the race and managed to come in fourth place.

Finally, the St. Louis Olympics came to an ignominious end. The Games were such a disaster that the Olympic Committee was forced to hold an interim Olympic games in 1906 at Athens, in an attempt to revive the prestige of the flagging Olympic movement.