Think the Tokyo Olympics are a bad idea? St Louis 1904 set the bar high | Olympic Games

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The Delta variant of the coronavirus is in full flower. Japan is under a state of emergency. Less than a quarter of Japanese population has been jabbed. In a few days’ time USA Swimming’s Michael Andrew and other anti-vaxxers will descend on Tokyo and parts surrounding to go for gold inside fan-less stadia. On one hand this could be a recipe for disaster. On the other persisting with deeply flawed ideas is very much in line with the Olympic spirit.

Consider the case of the 1904 Games, the first worldwide Olympics held outside of Europe. The decision to stage them in the US nearly scuttled the Olympic experiment as we know it. Not only was the host nation an ocean away, but the host city, St Louis, was in the midwest, making for terrifically expensive and slow travel. All together 12 countries showed, with some events playing out like US national trials (which to say the field was all-American). In the end the host nation bagged 238 medals‚ or 223 more than second-place Germany. A German-American gymnast named George Eye won six medals that year on a wooden left leg, including gold in the vault after jumping over a long horse without a springboard.

A boxing winner was caught using a false name. Thirteen runners vied for medals in the 400m on a track without lanes. Swimming heats were held in an asymmetrical lake. The entire spectacle was a bleep-show, according to David Wallechinsky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics. But that figured, given that the 1904 Olympics were also held in conjunction with the World’s Fair – which carried its own slate of events themed around the Louisiana Purchase’s centennial and other grand visions of American imperialism. One such event, titled Anthropology Days, recruited members from Pygmy, Sioux and Patagonian tribes to dance and sling mud. They were further invited to run and throw among themselves. You know, like white men competing in the Olympics – just not alongside them.

When these non-athletes underwhelmed on the track, World’s Fair organizers were swift to dismiss them as “savages” who “proved themselves inferior athletes, greatly overrated”. Pierre de Coubertin, the French historian who founded the International Olympic Committee, didn’t make it to St Louis for Anthropology Days. But, to his immense credit, the accounts alone moved him to scorn the spectacle as an “outrageous charade” that “will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them”.

Felix Carvajal, a Cuban mailman who counted his delivery routine as ”training”, nearly missed the 1904 Olympic marathon after losing his sponsorship money in a New Orleans dice game. Photograph: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

As a programming alternative the St Louis Games offered up the marathon, a marquee event that would no doubt showcase man’s true physical limits. But that event devolved into a freak show, too. Apart from a handful of experienced runners, many of the entrants were amateurs. Fred Lorz, a New York bricklayer, was one of eight runners to earn a spot in the Olympic marathon through a “special seven-mile race” in Queens. Felix Carvajal, a Cuban mailman who counted his delivery routine as ”training”, nearly missed the Olympic marathon after losing his sponsorship money in a dice game. After hitchhiking to St Louis from New Orleans, he took the starting line dressed to the nines in a white long-sleeve shirt, dark pants, oxfords and beret. Meanwhile, two men from South Africa’s Tswana tribe in town for their country’s World’s Fair exhibit took their places barefoot and became the first Black Africans to compete in the Olympics.

When the starting gun fired after 3pm on 30 August, the 32-man marathon field set off on a soupy midwest afternoon that saw the heat index climb to 135F. One fair official proclaimed the marathon’s 24.85-mile course “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”. In addition to the route’s craggy streets and 300-foot hills, runners had to negotiate road and rail traffic and even people walking their dogs because the marathon route wasn’t roped off from the quotidian life. Worse, marathoners were limited to two water breaks – at miles six and 12 – because James Sullivan, the Amateur Athletic Union secretary turned St Louis Games organizer, was keen to observe the effects of “purposeful dehydration”, the sadist. If the lack of fluid didn’t get these runners, surely St Louis’s dusty roads – and the motorcade of judges, doctors and journalists bookending the marathoners – would choke the contestants off like amber waves of grain in the Dust Bowl – which was not terribly far off, by the way.

Not surprisingly, the race quickly fell apart. Oakland’s William Garcia was first to collapse on the side of the road; dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach, leading to hemorrhaging. (If Garcia had endured an hour longer, those who treated him said, he surely would’ve bled to death.) Wild dogs chased one of the South Africans a mile off-course. All the while Carvajal, the gambling mailman, got around the hydration restrictions by scamming fruit along the way. But after helping himself to too many apples at roadside orchard, he succumbed to stomach cramps.

Lorz, the bricklayer, didn’t let cramps stop him at the nine-mile mark. Instead, he hitched a car ride, waving to spectators and rivals alike as he zoomed passed them. Thomas Hicks, the Anglo-American brass worker who edged into the lead after the first mile, was so dehydrated by mile 10 that a two-man training crew scrambled to his aid and propped him up for some miles. When Hicks’s pleas for water exhausted them, they compromised by sponging his mouth with warm distilled water. When he cried for more relief around mile 18, they served him a cocktail of egg whites and strychnine – marking the first recorded use of performance enhancers in the modern Olympics. Never mind if the elixir was killing him softly.

1904 Olympics
Frederick Lorz (31) lines up with eventual race winner Thomas Hicks (20) of the United States and the other competitors before the start of the Olympic marathon race on 30 August 1904 at Francis Field on the campus of Washington University in St Louis. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

As Hicks was running toward the light, a refreshed Lorz was climbing down from an 11-mile joyride, his car overheating in the dust. Paying no mind to the Hicks handler ordering him off the course, Lorz cantered toward the stadium finish line and crossed it just under three hours as the crowd roared and chanted “an American won!” Just as Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s 20-year-old daughter, was about to lower a gold medal over Lorz’s wreathed head, a lone spectator called him out as an imposter, the cheers turned to boos and Lorz shrugged the whole thing off as a joke.

At this point Hicks is barely hanging on. But when word of Lorz’s disqualification reached him, Hicks brightened. His two-man crew produced another strychnine eggnog (with a brandy chaser) and gave him a full-body warm-water sponge bath. That steady diet was enough to keep him putting one foot in front of the other like a zombie over the last two miles, even as a delirious Hicks believed the finish line was another 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged to lie down, chugged more brandy, and shuffled up two last hills before trundling into the stadium. His two-man crew hauled him across the finish line, his feet still pedaling when they hoisted him aloft as he was declared the winner. Guys who do that much carrying probably deserve medals of their own—for “distinguished service” at the very least. But alas the only boast Hicks’s handlers could make after the race was that he was 10lbs lighter.

After an hourlong visit with four different doctors, Hicks finally felt well enough to return to his feet and leave the grounds under his own power. “Never in my life have I run such a tough course,” he said. No question, it was the low point for a Games that historian William O Johnson Jr would pronounce “an Olympics best forgotten”. Hopefully, no one says the same after the postponed Tokyo edition. But at the moment, they’re looking a little too much like Hicks: poisoned, desperate and shambling, zombie-like, toward the finish line against better judgment – and all for the sake of spectacle.

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