St. Louis 1904: one of the surprising and desolate games in the history | Sunday Observer

St. Louis 1904: one of the surprising and desolate games in the history

21 March, 2021
A close photograph of the Marathon runners awaiting the start
A close photograph of the Marathon runners awaiting the start

116 years later, take a look back at some of the lasting images from the Olympic Games St. Louis 1904. The first Olympics ever to be hosted by the United States kicked off in St. Louis, Missouri on August 29, 1904. The United States won a record 239 medals - the largest ever haul in a single Summer Olympic Games in the 124 year history of the Olympic Games.

The 1904 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the III Olympiad, was celebrated till September 3, 1904, as part of an extended sports program lasting four and half months. After considering Philadelphia and New York, the fledgling IOC originally awarded the 1904 Games to the city of Chicago.

Shortly after, the Committee ran into a problem in the form of St. Louis. The founder of IOC and the Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin reluctantly moved the venue to St. Louis. It was the first time that the Olympic Games were held outside Europe. Due to the difficulty of getting to St. Louis in 1904, and European tensions caused by the Russo-Japanese War, only 62 athletes from outside North America participated.

The United States contingent comprised 526 athletes whilst Canada and Germany fielded 56 and 22 respectively. Only 12 countries were represented. A total of 95 events were conducted and some combined the United States national championship with the Olympic championship. The United States secured 78 gold, 82 silver and 79 bronze medals. It was the highest gold medals won by a country until Russia won 80 at Moscow 1980 and the USA 83 at Los Angeles 1984.

At St. Louis 1904, Germany which came in second only brought home 13 medals - 4 gold, 4 silver and 5 bronze medals. Cuba won 4 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze medals to secure the third position whilst Canada came fourth with 4 gold, one silver and one bronze medals.

The Most Successful Athletes

Anton Heida of the United States who won 5 gold medals in Gymnastics in the vault, horizontal bar, pommel horse, team competition and all-around titles and a silver medal in parallel bars, undoubtedly was the most successful athlete at the 1904 Olympic Games.

Marcus Latimer Hurley of the United States who specialized in sprint cycling won 4 gold medals in 1/4 mile, 1/3 mile, 1/2 mile and mile and a bronze in 2 miles race. Later, Hurley served in World War I and was decorated.

One of the most remarkable athletes at St. Louis 1904 was the United States George Louis Eyser who competed with a wooden prosthesis for a left leg, having lost his leg after being run over by a train. Despite his disability, he won 6 medals in total, 3 gold medals (parallel bars, long horse vault and 25-foot rope climbing), 2 silver medals (pommel horse and 4-event all-around), and one bronze medal (horizontal bar). For 104 years until 2008, Eyser was the only athlete with an artificial leg to have competed at the Olympic Games.

Charles Archibald Hahn of the United States became the first athlete to win both 100m and 200m at the same Olympic Games. He won his first event of 60m, benefited from his quick start, making him a favorite for the remaining events. His feat of 21.6 sec in 200m earned him an Olympic record that would stand for 28 years. In his third event of 100m, he again outclassed the field, thus winning 3 gold medals in sprints.

Ray Ewry of the United States won gold medals in Standing Long Jump, Standing High Jump and Standing Triple Jump to secure 6 gold medals in successive Olympics. James Lightbody of the United States won 2590m Steeplechase and 800m and then set a world record in 1500 m. Harry Hillman of the United States won 400m, 200m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles.

Multi-medalist Frank Kugler of Germany won four medals – one silver medal in freestyle wrestling and 3 bronze medals – 2 in weightlifting (Two hand lift and All-around dumbbell) and one in tug of war (Team competition), making him the only competitor to win medals in 3 different sports disciplines at the same Olympic Games.

Myer Prinstein also of the United States won Long Jump and Triple Jump and remains the only athlete to win both events in a single Olympics. In the Discus Throw, after Americans Martin Sheridan and Ralph Rose had thrown exactly the same distance (39.28 m), the judges gave them both an extra throw. Sheridan won the decider and claimed the gold. The top non-American athlete was Emil Rausch of Germany, winning 3 gold medals in swimming.

16 Sports at St. Louis 1904

The 1904 Olympic Games were the first at which gold, silver and bronze medals were physically awarded to the winners. It featured 16 sports. Athletics program constituted 25 events whilst aquatics and gymnastics included 11 events each.

Modern Olympiads typically last a little over 2 weeks, but the 1904 Games ran for a grueling 146 days. While most of the track and field contests were held in a small window from August 29 to September 3, the rest of the events were sprinkled among several months of World’s Fair sports showcases.

A review would later conclude that the 1904 Games officially ran from July 1 to November 23. Swimming and diving were considered 2 disciplines under aquatics. The swimming events were held in a temporary pond near Skinker and Wydown Boulevards, where “lifesaving demonstrations” of unsinkable lifeboats for ocean liners took place.

Archery was the only event in which women were allowed to compete. The competition involved six contestants and 45-year Lida Howell, the undisputed lady archer of the United States, coasted to gold medals in both the Double Columbia and Double National rounds.

Boxing made its Olympic debut and has since featured at every edition except at Stockholm 1912. Women also stepped into the ring but their bouts were considered display events. Amazingly, St. Louis 1904 would be the last time women boxed at the Olympics for 108 years, as the competition was not revived until London 2012.

Tug-of-war was a popular event at the Summer Games from 1900 until 1920. Six five-man teams gripped the ropes and the event counted as part of the track and field. Along with hosting one of the few Tug-of-war competitions, the 1904 edition are also famous for conducting the obscure “plunge for distance” diving event.

Basketball, hurling, American football and baseball were featured as demonstration sports. Gaelic football was an unofficial demonstration sport at the 1904 Olympics. Water polo is also mentioned in the games reports for the 1904 Summer Olympics.

Disputed Nationalities of Medalists

The nationalities of some medalists are disputed, as many American competitors were recent immigrants to the United States. In 2009, historians from the International Society of Olympic Historians discovered that cyclist Frank Bizzoni, formerly thought to be an American, and was still an Italian citizen when he competed in 1904, being granted US citizenship in 1917.

The IOC considers Norwegian-American wrestlers Charles Ericksen and Bernhoff Hansen to have competed for the United States; each won a gold medal. In 2012, Norwegian historians, however, found documentation showing that Ericksen did not receive American citizenship until 1905, and that Hansen probably never received American citizenship.

The historians have therefore petitioned the IOC to have the athletes registered as Norwegians. In 2013, it was reported that the Norwegian Olympic Committee had filed a formal application for changing the nationality of the wrestlers in the IOC’s medal database.

Francis Gailey competed in 1904 as an Australian, and immigrated to America in 1906. He worked as a banker in California, lived for a time in Ontario, and finally settled in California in 1918. The IOC officially counts his 4 medals for the United States, although research undertaken by Australian newspapers in 2008-09 showed that he was an Australian citizen at the time.

Gustav Gotthardt Tiefenthaler was born in Switzerland. He wrestled and won a bronze medal in 1904, and the IOC lists him under the United States. The IOC lists French-American Albert Corey as a United States competitor for his marathon silver medal, but was a French immigrant to the United States.

Anthropology Days

Alongside traditional Olympic sports, the 1904 Games included a bizarre and highly controversial event known as “Anthropology Days.” As part of the contest, on August 12 and 13, “uncivilized tribes” were recruited and encouraged to try their hand. The event was billed as a display of the tribesmen’s natural athletic ability.

This was the first and last time such a competition was held at the Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it 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.”

Fourteen hundred indigenous people from Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and North America were displayed in anthropological exhibits that showed them in their natural habitats. The sporting event itself took place with the participation of about 100 paid indigenous men.

The Strangest ever Marathon

The recorded history of 1904 Games reveals its Marathon as one of the most outrageous events in the Olympic antiquity. Nothing could conceal the hubbub caused by Fred Lorz during the event. That Marathon started and ended in Francis Stadium, which still exists today. David R. Francis, whom the stadium is named, was a graduate of the Washington University in St. Louis.

The marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. Nevertheless from the start the marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential spirit of the games.

On August 30, 1904 at 1503, David R. Francis fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course, which one official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over,” wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100 to 300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents.

In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating hazardous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only 2 places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at 6 miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. The chief organizer, wanted to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up.

Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon, 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.

Felix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap.

Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also 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 - the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant, and at the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy. Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under 3 hours.

The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year 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; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”

Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head and he appeared to revive and quickened his pace.

Marathon official Charles Lucas wrote, “Over the last 2 miles, Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff. He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was miles away. He begged and was given more and more brandy. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline.”

Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner. It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a tough course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.”

Footprints by 2 Olympians

Two of the United States athletes of St. Louis 1904 fame stood out and shed some light on an otherwise bleary Olympic Games. An athlete, George Coleman Poage, born in Hannibal, Missouri, won bronze medals in 200m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles to become the first African-American to win Olympic medals.

Dwight Filley Davis, Sr., born in St. Louis, a 3-time Grand Slam tennis champion did a lot for St. Louis. In 1911, he became the Commissioner of St. Louis Park and contributed immensely to develop sports. He was the United States Assistant Secretary of War (1923-1925) and Secretary of War (1925-1929) as a Major General. You may recognize the name from the Davis Cup international tennis competition or the Dwight Davis Tennis Center.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)