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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
Hearing of this, Coubertin despaired: “In no place but America would one dare to place such events on a program … but to Americans everything is permissible.”
As he neared the end, Thomas Hicks was in a profound stupor. He had lost ten pounds in little more than three hours and was feeling the effects of the various drugs he had been given. Walking and stumbling up the last hill, he finally made his way to the stadium, prepared to accept the laurels of victory. Unfortunately Fred Lorz, looking as if he had finished no more than a jog in the park, was at the podium with President Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, accepting congratulations all around.
Chicanery real or imagined in long-distance running events has been a part of the modern Olympics since their inception. In the 1896 marathon it was discovered that the third-place finisher, Spiridon Belokas, had sequestered a carriage en route and through much of the race had driven in it. Four years later, in Paris, a French bakery deliveryman named Michel Theato was accused of taking shortcuts through city streets to gain his victory. But there was not much larceny in Fred Lorz’s heart. He knew he had been fairly and publicly beaten. He said his victory lap had been merely a lark. The Amateur Athletic Union, never very big on larks, banned Lorz from all future competition; the next year, however, it lifted the ban, and Lorz proved he was a legitimate distance runner by winning the Boston Marathon without automotive assistance.
If it comes to that, Hicks, by any proper reading of the rules, should have been disqualified three times over, but the issue was never raised. He was declared the winner at 3:28:53, the slowest time by more than half an hour in the history of the Olympics. He had to be carried to the locker room, where four doctors worked on him. He then announced his retirement from racing and took a trolley back to the Missouri Athletic Club. He slept all the way.
With Hicks winning the marathon, the American rout of a diminished international field was all but complete. Of twenty-two major track-and-field events, Americans had won twenty-one. The only break in the ranks was a surprise victory by Etienne Desmarteau in the 58-pound-weight throw. This unlooked-for victory proved to be an embarrassment for Canada. Desmarteau had taken French leave from the Montreal Police Department to participate in the Olympics and had been fired. After his victory, his dismissal notice was quietly lost.
America won seventy-seven gold medals; Cuba was second with five, all in fencing. The United States swept all weights and classifications in boxing and wrestling and was supreme in the rowing events. There were a few disappointments. Soccer was never a strong sport in America; in St. Louis, Canada won, and the only goal the American St. Rose team scored went into its own net.
Sometimes the Americans just got lucky. A well-regarded Hungarian high jumper, Lajos Gönczy, arrived in St. Louis with several bottles of Tokay wine, which he liked to consume between jumps. His horrified trainers commandeered his supply, and a sober Gönczy bombed out at five feet nine inches, finishing fourth behind the American Sam Jones, who won with a jump of five feet eleven inches. Later, in an unofficial event and well fortified with Tokay, Gönczy easily sailed over six feet two inches.
America routed the diminished field, and won seventy-seven gold medals.
Overall, the 1904 Olympics drew mixed reviews. America was, naturally, pleased with its virtual clean sweep. A Hungarian Olympic official, Ferenc Kemény, was less so. He reported back to Coubertin, “I was not only present at a sporting contest but also at a fair where there were sports, where there was cheating, where monsters were exhibited for a joke.”
And what of Félix Carvajal, the little man from Havana? Despite stomach cramps, gas fumes, and massive inexperience, he finished fourth—losing a medal but, as the sportswriting fraternity is fond of saying, winning a place in the hearts of sports fans everywhere.