- 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
With Lordon and Mellor out of the race, Thomas Hicks, an English-born brass worker from Cambridge, Massachusetts, found himself a weary leader. Ahead by a mile and a half, he tried to lie down, but his handlers wouldn’t hear of it. They dosed him with strychnine sulfate mixed with raw egg white, and Hicks stumbled on. The marathon contestant in the best shape by now was Fred Lorz. Refreshed, his uniform crisp and unsullied by the dust from the road, Lorz drove past the field, waving and wishing the runners well from his perch in the truck.
Footraces were not then the carefully controlled track events they are today. Four years earlier in Paris the layout for the hurdles had consisted of a series of thirty-foot-long telephone poles with a water jump thrown in for good measure. There was no water in St. Louis; but there were no lanes for the runners either, and the races seemed more like stampedes.
None of these problems was helped much by the officiating. It is axiomatic that the Olympic Games are poorly officiated. Hardly one goes by without a major furor or two concerning some misstep by an Olympic official. The 1904 Games were no exception. After watching Olympic officials considerably more amateurish than the competitors, the New York Sun commented that “when they were tired of ordering the contestants around, they exercised their official authority on each other.”
One athlete who suffered grievously from official mismanagement was a German middle-distance runner, Johannes Runge. Shortly before the championship 800-meter race, he was misdirected to a handicap race being held for novices. Runge won handily but was still blowing hard when his own race began.
There was a proper rhubarb in the 50-meter freestyle swimming event, in which the Hungarian Zoltan Halmay beat the American J. Scott Leary by a foot. An American judge declared Leary the winner, precipitating a brawl that was not quelled until the judge agreed to call the race a dead heat and stage a rerace. Halmay won easily.
The swimming events, in a lake, proved especially difficult for the officials. The conditions were primitive. The distance markings, according to one report, were “chaotic”; the raft that the swimmers used as the starting line sank several times; and there were no lanes for the swimmers.
The American George Sheldon won the 10-meter platform dive over the vigorous protests of the Germans, who objected to the American judging system because it gave credit for how the swimmer entered the water. The Germans felt that if the indicated somersaults were properly executed in the air, all the requirements were filled. As a result, the Germans attempted more difficult dives than the Americans but lost points for landing on their stomachs.
In another swimming-rules controversy a strong German freestyle relay team was disqualified at the starting line when the Americans protested that all the Germans did not belong to the same swimming club, as each of the four top American teams did. The American judges ruled in favor of the home side, and the race was won by the New York Athletic Club.
The marathon was in Thomas Hicks’s hands if he could hold himself together long enough to finish the last few miles. His handlers drove alongside in their automobile, getting out from time to time to lace their man with more strychnine and brandy. For a while Hicks simply walked along the hilly course, and his handlers bathed him in warm water. When that wasn’t enough, they took him by the elbows and helped him along. The rest of the field was perhaps a mile behind Hicks when, buoyed by the spectators alongside the road cheering him, he began to run again on his own.
Swimming conditions were primitive; the starting raft kept sinking.
Up ahead, the truck Fred Lorz was riding in had broken down. Lorz could have sat and waited for the field to come by him, but he was feeling fresh, so he got out and started running for the finish line.
Although the Olympic games meant track and field to the general public, Coubertin had hoped for the widest possible spectrum of human endeavor to be represented. It was his great disappointment that arts-and-crafts events were never accepted into the Olympic arena.
Two sports played in St. Louis that summer were later discarded as Olympic events. Golf, which was dropped after the 1904 Games, was a team triumph for America. Individual honors, however, went to an antic Canadian player, George Lyon, who walked to the ceremony on his hands to accept his fifteen-hundred-dollar silver trophy. The roque championship was reeled in by the American Charles Jacobus. A form of croquet, roque was played on a hard surface with raised sideboards, similar to a miniature-golf layout. Roque had never been played in the Olympics before and never was again.
But the oddest event of all was Coubertin’s nightmare come true. While he had hoped to stage a theater of pure sport, the American hosts opted for a bit of show business. On August 12 and 13 the Games were suspended for an exhibition of “Anthropology Days,” with contestants culled from among the exhibitors at the fair. A Sioux Indian not eligible for the regular American team romped home winner in the 100-yard dash, and a Patagonian prevailed in the shot put, beating out a Pygmy, who managed to throw the shot only ten feet.