The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever

America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair. From the start, the 1904 marathon was less of a showstopper and more of a sideshow — a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good. A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority were assorted “oddities.” Among the favorites was Fred Lorz, who did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer. There were 10 Greeks who had never run a marathon, 2 men from South Africa who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban national and former mailman named Félix Carvajal (pictured above), who lost all his money on a dice game and had to hitchhike to St. Louis. At 5 feet tall, he showed up at the starting line in a white long-sleeved shirt, dark pants, and street shoes. A fellow Olympian took pity on him by finding a pair of scissors and cutting Carvajal’s trousers off at the knee. The marathon was a 24.85-mile course that wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were 7 hills varying from 100- to 300-feet high, and the humidity soared into the 90s. William Garcia became the first fatality when he collapsed on the side of the road and was hemorrhaging. The dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up, while Len Tau was chased off the course by wild dogs. Carvajal stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he laid down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping, slowed to a walk, and eventually stopped. At the 9-mile mark, cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride with one of the accompanying vehicles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed. In the end, Tom Hicks of the U.S. won the gold medal with a time of 3 hours 28 minutes 53 seconds. Felix Carvajal came in 4th, while Fred Lorz, William Garcia, and Sam Mellor didn’t finish at all.