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Strychnine, Egg Whites, Brandy and a Human Zoo: The Terrible 1904 Olympics

July 21, 2018

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The third modern olympiad, despite the dropping of such noble sports as kite flying, pigeon racing, cannon shooting and fire fighting, is still talked about as one of the strangest and most misguided sporting events in history.

A few reasons:

  • The games was moved from the fairly reasonable location of Chicago to the comparative backwater of St Louis, Missouri in order to coincide with the Worlds’ Fair being held there. Consequently most countries didn’t take the event seriously enough to send any athletes
  • The fair featured a ‘human zoo’ where African exchange students dressed up in tribal costumes and acted out an imagining of tribal life for paying visitors. This apparently not being dehumanising enough, the games organisers made these non-athlete exchange students compete in sporting events, in order to demonstrate that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view” (to repeat once more, 1900s America was really racist)
  • A lack of clarity as to what constituted the ‘Olympics’ meant that the competition ended up stretching over an indeterminate period of time up to around 6 months
  • Some competitors were discovered to be imposters, including local boxing hero Caroll Burton.
  • George Eyser earned three gold medals in gymnastics, despite being encumbered with a wooden leg

The most bizarre and unforgivable moment in the games, however, was the marathon, which proved to be a perfect storm of poor planning, pseudoscience, lack of concern for human wellbeing and sheer bad luck. – a few highlights from this truly astonishing account of the race:

William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs… At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed… Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites… Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”… Hicks’ trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down… He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea… His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.

Some more on this here:

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever (Smithsonian.com)

Citrus, Altus, Fortius, Horrendius (The Memory Palace)

 

From → 1904

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