1904 Olympics

Wash U’s Francis Field and Gymnasium, Site of the 1904 Olympics

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, a year late, because of Covid. No spectators are permitted, because of Covid and many other inconveniences have been imposed, because of Covid. These precautions are enough to make one wonder why they even went on with the games in the first place, but that is neither here or there. The spectacle associated with these modern games are enough to engender some serious hating-on of them, but I was surprised to read this week a serious hate piece about the 1904 Olympics that were held here in Saint Louis. There is noting more cherished and honored in Saint Louis history than the 1904 World’s Fair and while not as revered as the fair, the 1904 Olympics have always basked in the reflected glory of the fair. This Daily Beast hit piece had to have been written by a Chicagoan, because who else would be motivated to carry a grudge for so long? Talk about sour grapes.

This sordid story begins in 1903, the hundredth anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, but like the Tokyo Olympics, our World’s Fair had to be delayed a year, to the 101st anniversary of the purchase. Unfortunately, this delay put Saint Louis’ fair on a collision course with the 1904 Olympics, which were scheduled to be held in Chicago that year. Not to be outdone by its large neighbor to the north, the Saint Louis city fathers set about the task of stealing the Olympics from Chicago. They did this by first organizing a competing athletic event associated with the fair that locked up all of the American athletes and then complaining to the Olympic committee about there now being two competing events that were both hosted in the same country and would be occurring at the same time. Appealing to the Olympic committee Saint Louis successfully argued the two events should be combined, in Saint Louis. You see we didn’t steal the Olympics, we won them fair and square. 😉

The Beast article goes on to enumerate all of the many high crimes and misdemeanors associated with the 1904 Olympics that earned it the moniker of the worst Olympics in modern times, but I especially like the way that they described how the marathon was handled:

The conditions for the marathon were horrendous. It was over 90 degrees when the race began at 3:03 p.m. on Aug. 30, and the path extended along a road filled with dust. Making matters worse, organizers limited the water available to the runners because “the chief organizer of the Games wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. Thirty-two men started the race; only 14 finished. One man almost died from a stomach hemorrhage. Fred Lorz, who had maintained the first lead, caught a ride in a car for 11 miles, then emerged at the end and was almost declared the winner before his “short cut” was discovered. The gold medal would eventually be awarded to Thomas Hicks, whose team buoyed him along when he began to flag by feeding him strychnine, egg whites, and brandy. His winning time was a whopping three hours, 28 minutes, and 53 seconds. […] “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces,” Hicks said at the finish line.

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