The Marathon is in my not very well paid opinion, the most nasty, brutal, difficult and physically taxing of all the Olympic sports. The legend of the first runner, who ran the distance of 26 and a bit miles to relay the news about said eponymous Battle Of Marathon, collapsed and died immediately after he had delivered the message. It should come as no surprise that unlike other sports such as sprint racing, swimming, archery, judo and whatnot, there are no back to back Olympic Marathon Champions. Furthermore it seems to be the case that everyone who attempts this torture test of an event, only has about three of them where they are at their absolute peak, in their entire sporting career. Picking who the Olympic Champion will be in the Marathon, is a bit like picking the weather in a city in which you don't live, on a given date four years in the future.
I was looking through a book in the library for a completely unconnected reason and by happenstance I came across the sordid tale of the Marathon at the 1904 Olympic Games at St Louis. Just about everything in this whole story is a comedy of errors and if it wasn't true, if you made a movie about it, you'd be accused of either padding the truth or making stuff up.
For a start, the fact that the 1904 Olympics were in St Louis was a debacle from the get go. The city which had won the bidding process was Chicago but as the city of St Louis was already hosting a World's Fair, they threatened to hold their own sporting fair so that they wouldn't be overshadowed. Chicago surrendered and the President of the International Olympic Committee had to step in and authorise the change. Also, right up until 1948, the Olympics also included cultural events and it was possible to win medals in bizarre things like art and architecture.
As for the Marathon itself, it was held in quite frankly brutal conditions; being run over dirt roads (which because it was 1904 was normal for most of the roads in the world) and in temperatures of more than 32°C. It was so bad that roughly half of the competitors pulled out during the event and among those who did finish, there were more than a few unusual tales.
0th place - Frederick Lorz: Disqualified.
Fred Lorz who was a bricklayer by day and marathon runner by night, had won his place in the American Olympic team by winning a seven mile race at Celtic Park in New York, a fortnight before the Olympic Marathon in St Louis a fortnight later.
As he had been training at night, rather than the heat of the day which got up to 32°C, he collapsed after about nine miles and was given a lift by his manager in a motor car until that also broke down ten miles later. Thinking it would be a great practical joke, Lorz ran the rest of the marathon and crossed the line first.
Naturally he was found to have cheated and was rightfully disqualified. He was then banned by the Amateur Athletic Union for competing for a year, but would later go on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.
1st place - Thomas Hicks: Also cheated.
Apart from Lorz who had sped on in a motor car, Thomas Hicks was leading the field by about a mile and a half before he too began to suffer the effects of the heat. His manager thought it would be a good idea to give him a dose of strychnine sulfate and brandy, which was thought at the time to be a muscle stimulant and similar to caffeine.
Hicks continued on and started to hallucinate, all the while being topped up with more doses of strychnine sulfate and brandy, in a drunken stupor and eventually when he reached the stadium, he had to be helped across the line by his manager and another support member. After he crossed the line, he collapsed and had to be treated by medical staff but as there were no rules with regards the use of drugs, the officials found nothing wrong and awarded him with the gold medal anyway.
2nd place - Albert Corey: Competed for the wrong country.
Louis Albert Coray had arrived in the United States from France in 1903 but changed his name to be more acceptable to his new home. As France did not send a team to the 1904 Summer Olympics, Corey under the banner of the Chicago Athletic Association and his silver medal was included with the United States.
4th place - Andarín Carvajal: A comedy of errors.
Carvajal arrived in New Orleans, after taking the boat from Cuba and lost all his money and equipment in a craps game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. As he didn't have any proper equipment, he cut a pair of his trousers into shorts and ran the marathon in his regular boots.
During the marathon he stopped on the way to have a chat with some spectators, he stole some peaches from the back of a car which had been parked on the side of the road and he also stopped to eat some apples which he took from a tree, which turned out to be rotten. As he felt sick, he decided to stop and have a nap and still managed to come fourth.
9th place and 12th place - Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani: They weren't even supposed to be there.
In 1904, the Olympics were held in conjunction with the World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiani had travlled to St Louis as part of the Boer War exhibition and were there to take part in the re-enactments of the Battles of Colenso and Paardeberg.
Evidently they thought that they thought that entering the marathon was a bit of a lark and as Taunyane had been a despatch runner, he already had the skills to run long distance. He said that he would have done better if he hadn't been chased through a field about half a mile off course by some agressive farm dogs who took excpetion to him.
It doesn't stop there though:
DNF - John Lordan: Started vomiting after half a mile and gave up.
DNF - Frank Pierce: Was the first Native American to compete for the United States in the Olympic Games.
DNF - William Garcia: Had collapsed at about the half way mark and was found lying by the side of the road. He was later found to have been suffering from a serious hemorrhage of the membraneous wall of his stomach as a result of the dust particles which had been kicked up by the officials' motor cars.
Forget Chariots Of Fire with its very British story set in the 1920s but with 1970s synthesizer music, this is the Olympic event which deserves its own movie. Forget films like the Hunger Games, this wasn't something set in a dystopian future but a past that actually happened. It is this running of the marathon in particular which makes me think that there was more than just a hint of truth in the Greek legend. If there is a moral to the story in all of this, it is this:
If you need to go somewhere, take a car. It's the best option and you probably won't die.