- Historic Sites
The First American Olympics
In 1904 the Olympics took place for only the third time in the modern era. The place was St. Louis, where a world’s fair was providing all the glamour and glitter and excitement anyone could ask. The Games, on the other hand, were something else.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
The most arresting figure in the 1904 Olympic Games was a Cuban mailman named Félix Carvajal. Upon hearing that the third modern Olympic Games were to be held in the United States, Carvajal, although he knew nothing about track or field, decided he would represent Cuba in the marathon. He raised money by running around a public square in Havana, drawing a crowd, and then begging for cash to get him on a boat. Arriving in New Orleans, he promptly lost his stake in a dice game and had to make his way to St. Louis by hitchhiking and working at odd jobs along the way. Somehow he got there, and on August 30, on a blistering ninety-degree day, Carvajal stood at the starting line, wearing street shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, faded trousers, and a beret. A New York policeman, Martin Sheridan, who would subsequently win the gold medal in the discus, took a pair of scissors and cut Carvajal’s pants off at the knees to give him some air.
As he took his place in the starting crowd, Carvajal found himself in an odd group to be running the first Olympic marathon in America. In addition to legitimate distance runners such as Sam Mellor, John Lordon, and Michael Spring, each of whom had won the Boston Marathon, there were a professional strikebreaker from Chicago and two Zulu tribesmen, named Lentauw and Yamasani, who were at the fair as part of the Boer War exhibit and thought they would take the afternoon off to run.
In many ways Carvajal encapsulated the 1904 Olympic Games. He had no money, he was ill equipped, and he didn’t know what he was doing. But spirit counted for a great deal, and when the starting gun went off, the little postman set sail along the 24.8-mile course (it was shorter then than now) with a glad heart.
He would need it. The roadway was choked with men on horseback trying to clear a path, who themselves became obstacles to the runners. Additionally, there were trainers on bicycles cluttering up the route and automobiles spewing gasoline fumes.
Once under way, however, Carvajal enjoyed himself enormously. He chatted with roadside spectators when he could make them out in the dust clouds, and when he got hungry, he swung off the trail to invade an orchard and devour a few apples. The marathon is a grueling event, but there is one good thing about it. There is plenty of time.
The turbulent history of the Olympics predates Homer. One account has it that the Games began when Zeus wrestled with his. father, Cronus, for mastery of the earth. This tale is dubious even by the standards of mythology, but it has been told so often it has become part of the accepted Olympic Games legend.
Most foreigners stayed home, so it became mainly a meet between track clubs.
The first recorded Games were in 776 B.C., and the major race at them was won by Coroebus of Elis, who dashed along a meadow beside the river Alpheus and was awarded a wreath of wild olive woven from a tree sacred to Hercules. Although the Games began as a religious festival, before long, money began to take precedence over wreaths. The Games became big, crowded secular events. Modern-day basketball players asked to play a game in Europe at three in the morning to oblige American television might take comfort in knowing that during the seventy-seventh Games, an Athenian boxer, Callias, complained that the chariot races had taken so long he was forced to fight by moonlight. The Games lasted for more than a millennium, until A.D. 394, when the Christian emperor of Rome, Theodosius I, banned them as a pagan ritual.
The Olympic ideal died hard. Fired by the poetry of Pindar’s celebration of the games, men clung to the belief that somehow the world could forsake armed conflict in the interest of good sport. The founder of the modern Games was a quixotic Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an amateur athlete of small distinction who rowed and fenced a bit and dabbled in nudism. A French patriot, Coubertin agonized over the defeat of France by Germany in 1871 and felt France must rejuvenate itself by remodeling its educational system along the lines of the English, who incorporated sports into their programs. The Duke of Wellington never actually said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” but Coubertin probably thought he did.
Although high-minded, Coubertin, known as le Rénovateur, was something of a hustler. He could with equal ease produce a member of nobility to front a fund-raising dinner or supply a bogus statistic. However, his theme that the Games could constitute “a republic of muscles” was appealing. If sports could not end wars, Coubertin said, it could at least improve their quality. “An army of sportsmen,” he wrote, “would be more human, more pitying in the struggle and more calm and gentle afterward.”
Through dogged persistence, Coubertin finally prevailed upon the Greek government to serve as host to games in Athens, and in 1896, amid a flurry of doves, the Olympic Games were reborn.
Although the United States sent nothing approximating a national team to Greece, the Americans there swept nine out of twelve major track events. (See box on page 38.)