Skip to main content

The First American Olympics

June 2024
12min read

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.

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.)

It was natural, then, that the Olympic Games, after journeying to Coubertin’s beloved Paris in 1900, would next come to America. Our athletes had already garnered most of the medals that had been awarded.

If we seem to have lost track of the doughty Cuban postman for the moment, it is not surprising. Like the Games as a whole, the marathon was a tangle from the outset and difficult to follow. Only fourteen of the thirty-two starters ever finished. “The roads were so lined with vehicles that the runners had to constantly dodge horses and wagons,” one spectator noted. “So dense were the dust clouds on the road that frequently the runners could not be seen.”

Lordon began vomiting after ten miles and gave up. Mellor pulled out after sixteen. Lentauw lost valuable time when he was run off the course and chased through a cornfield by two large dogs. Another runner who slipped out of the race for a while was Fred Lorz. Representing the Mohawk Athletic Club, Lorz led for the first several miles, until he pulled up with cramps. Then he tottered, exhausted, to the side of the road, sat down, and waved weakly to the other runners as they passed. Later he climbed into a truck and was driven for several miles until he felt better.

The choice of St. Louis as the site of the Games represented an unhappy compromise. Originally planned for Chicago, the Games were moved south at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt so they could be held in conjunction with the St. Louis world’s fair, commemorating the Louisiana Purchase. Baron Coubertin correctly sensed that the Games would be merely an athletic sideshow for the fair. Hearing rumors that Americans planned to stage a contest of long-range tobacco-juice spitting, Coubertin threw up his hands and stayed away. The thought was not as crazy as it may have sounded. At various times the Olympics have included such disparate events as mountain climbing, choral singing, dumbbell swinging, and bowling on the green.

The Americans were supposed to have sent a ship to pick up the European teams, but it never arrived, and most Continental competitors stayed home. Not a single athlete from France or England made the trip. As a result, the international sporting event that Coubertin had hoped for settled down to essentially a track meet between the New York Athletic Club and the Chicago Athletic Association, for a trophy donated by A. G. Spalding, the athletic equipment manufacturer, which New York won by a single point. It was difficult to sustain public interest in the Olympics as an event, for it was stretched out from July 1 to November 23 to provide the fair with a continuing attraction. The crowd rarely exceeded ten thousand in a day—a sparse turnout considering that a few years earlier a boat race on the Thames between Harvard University and Oxford had drawn ten times that many.

But if the 1904 Olympics was an all-American show, the results were more than respectable by the standards of the day. In the twenty-one track-and-field events that had been held before, Americans in 1904 established thirteen Olympic Games records, and seven of the other eight were already held by Americans.

The name of Ray Ewry is all but forgotten now because the events in which he starred are no longer part of the track-and-field calendar, but at the time he was one of our most popular sports heroes. Ewry’s life was a classic story of a young man willing himself to become a great athlete. A victim of childhood polio, he undertook a series of exercises to increase the strength in his legs. By the time he reached Purdue University, he excelled as a standing jumper. He was twenty-seven when he went to the Paris Games and won the standing high jump, the standing broad jump, and the standing triple jump. He repeated his triple victory in St. Louis and was to go on to win four more jumping events in the next two Olympic Games. Ewry’s was a record for the ages: ten events and ten gold medals in four Olympic Games.

There were other heroes aplenty for the American team in St. Louis. Archie Hawn, the Milwaukee Meteor, raced home first in the 60-meter, 100-meter, and 200-meter dashes. James D. Lightbody, representing the Chicago Athletic Association, was another triple winner. On Monday, August 29, he came from behind in the 2,500-meter steeplechase to best the highly rated Irish champion John DaIy by one second. On Thursday he stormed through the 800-meter event, lopping five seconds off the Olympic record. On Saturday he set an Olympic and world record by running the 1,500 meters in 4:05.4. A few hours later he entered the four-mile team cross-country but could manage only a second-place finish.

Because of its place in Greek history, the marathon has always been a premier event in the Olympic Games. It is an event that destroys the unfit, and the casualties in St. Louis ran unusually high. William Garcia, a San Francisco runner, began to hemorrhage and collapsed to the ground near death from the heat and fumes that filled the air. Two officials were badly injured when their car swerved off the road to avoid a runner and careened down an embankment. The apples that Carvajal ate were unripe and caused him a severe case of stomach cramps, but doggedly he began running again. With attrition so high, just finishing would be a good showing.

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.


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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.