The men's marathon has come a long way since the 1904 Olympics
Photo: Getty Images
HALL OF INFAMY: As the 2012 Olympics men's marathon approaches we look back at the worst of them all – the 1904 marathon in St Louis.
It was all a joke, Frederick Lorz admitted. The New Yorker, a bricklayer by trade, had just broken the ribbon in the Olympic Stadium and was being lauded as the winner of the 1904 marathon.
As Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of president Theodore Roosevelt, presented him with a floral wreath, the crowd stirred. Several spectators had seen Lorz riding in the car – he had even waved to them from the automobile.
Meanwhile, Thomas Hicks' poisoned brain wavered between reality and delirium as he dragged himself towards the beckoning arena. He was close to death, his body slowly shutting down thanks to two doses of rat poison administered by his own handlers.
The Olympics were still in their infancy when, in 1904, they were held in St Louis in conjunction with a World's Fair. At the time the marathon was still a novelty; an event cooked up to provide a tangible link between the modern Games and that of ancient Greece.
Little was known about the marathon. Course design, training methods, race strategy – these were still poorly understood concepts. The St Louis organising committee cannot be blamed for putting together the most difficult marathon in Olympics history: a hellish 25-mile race that included eight hills, a dust-covered track, a start time in the afternoon heat and only one water station (a well at the 12-mile mark).
Only 14 of the 32 entrants crossed the finish line, and only 13 did so legally. Among the casualties was William Garcia of California, who swallowed so much dust kicked up by passing cars that his stomach lining haemorrhaged and his oesophagus began to close up. He was found unconscious and taken to hospital.
A diminutive Cuban named Felix Carvajal might have won the bronze medal had he not fallen asleep. An unusual man, Carvajal had arrived at the starting line wearing a button-down shirt, trousers and heavy heeled dress shoes (though a friend did shear his trousers into shorts prior to the starting gun).
He had also not eaten in two days, so when the course wound past an apple orchard he snuck off for a snack. In his haste he ate a rotten apple, developed severe stomach cramps and was forced to sleep off the pain. Carvajal still finished fourth; such was the nature of the race.
Lorz, an accomplished long-distance runner, was already exhausted after nine miles in 32-degree heat, so he gave up and jumped in his trainer's car. They drove the next 11 miles of the course together before the car also broke down.
"Well I felt a little better for the rest so I figured I'd just jog the rest of the way," Lorz later testified during an investigation.
"Then, when I got to the stadium I saw I was early. There were all these people there cheering, the clock was still ticking and that red tape was just waiting to be broken."
"So you pretended to be the winner?" asked the judge.
"It was just a joke. It seemed like a funny idea at the time," Lorz replied. "I was going to tell you before you gave me the medal. Honest."
After Lorz's fraud was uncovered, the crowd had to wait another 15 minutes to crown the real winner, the aforementioned Hicks. He staggered into the stadium in a stupor, collapsed over the finish line and spent the next 24 hours under observation in hospital.
Hicks' handlers, Charles Lucas and Hugh McGrath, believed in the performance-enhancing power of strychnine. Eighteen miles in, Hicks was fading and begging for water. He was given strychnine sulphate mixed with raw egg and a chaser of brandy instead.
With four miles to go Hicks went grey and slowed to a walk. More strychnine, more brandy. The crowds that lined the final mile saw the American staggering like a zombie and babbling deliriously about food, while Lucas and McGrath urged him on from their car.
Hicks nearly paid for his gold medal with his life. He retired the day after the race, telling the St Louis Republic: "I am sorry to say that the road is the hardest over which I ever ran."
He finished the race in three hours, 28 minutes and 53 seconds. It is comfortably the slowest winning time in Olympics marathon history, a record that will never be broken.
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