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Aug 27, 2004

The Worst of the Modern Olympics Was Held ... ?

John Hanc, in Newsday (Aug. 25, 2004):

The first runner across the finish line was a cheat.

The second was on drugs.

The man who finished fourth had hitchhiked 700 miles to get to the race, ran in dress shoes and was so hungry on the course he stole fruit. Another competitor was chased off the course by dogs, and there was a car accident involving one of the official vehicles along the route.

And oh yes, for good measure, it was 90 degrees, competitors ran through a cloud of dust and there was only one place to get water.

There has never been a race quite like the 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis. "A circus," is how one historian described it. "The worst marathon in Olympic history," said another. David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics" went further: "The 1904 marathon," he wrote, "ranks very high on the list of bizarre events in Olympic history."

Whatever the criticisms of Athens, its facilities and organization in 2004, it's unlikely that a debacle resembling what happened a century ago could ever occur today. The 1904 Olympic Marathon left the daughter of the president of the United States confused and the city of St. Louis disgraced; it also triggered a cheating scandal and a drug controversy, and almost led to the elimination of the marathon from the Olympic program.

To understand what went so wrong in St. Louis, it's important to understand first how the marathon - now 26.2 miles, then a run of about 25 miles - became part of the program. Now regarded as the most Olympian of Olympic events, and the final one contested on the program of the modern games, the marathon was not even a part of the ancient Greek Olympics. The longest race back then was 4,800 meters, about three miles. Running farther was unheard of in sports, although long-distance runners were frequently used as diplomatic and military couriers. The most famous of these professional runners was a man whose name has come down through history as Pheiddipides. The oft-told legend about him is that he was a message-runner during the Athenians' 490 B.C. battle with the Persians at Marathon, about 25 miles outside the city. In his final effort, Pheiddipides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring the news of victory. "Rejoice, we conquer," he supposedly said - and then dropped dead.

It was to honor this ancient road warrior that a long-distance race was introduced into the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Starting at the Battle of Marathon's memorial and finishing in the Olympic stadium in Athens, this first marathon was won, appropriately enough, by a Greek. Spiridon Louis, an obscure shepherd, finished ahead of 16 other competitors and became a national hero....

The race began at 3 p.m., about the hottest point of the day. Starting with five laps around the cinder track at Washington University-St. Louis (the site for many of the events), the 31 runners ran off into the stultifying St. Louis afternoon. They were preceded by a group of horsemen and a small caravan of automobiles, carrying the runners' handlers (coaches), journalists, race officials and police. The cars, driving on already dry roads, kicked up a constant cloud of dust that settled on the pack of runners behind them.

This, the heat and a lack of water along the course (there was only one source of water, a well 12 miles from the start), led to predictable results. One competitor began vomiting after 10 miles and had to quit. Another, Wallechinsky wrote, "was discovered lying in the road, near death, the membranous wall of his stomach almost destroyed by the dust."...

Meanwhile, in the Olympic stadium, spectators and officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt's eldest daughter, 20-year-old Alice, waited for the winner. At about 3 hours, 13 minutes after the start, he appeared - or so they thought. Frederick Lorz of New York City, who had finished fifth at Boston that year, accepted the cheers of the crowd, and crossed the line. "The officials bustled around and Alice Roosevelt was all ready to hand him the prize," wrote John Kieran and Arthur Daley in their 1936 book, "The Story of the Olympic Games," "when somebody called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor."

Claiming the whole thing was a joke, Lorz readily admitted that he had not run the entire race. Exhausted after nine miles, he had accepted a ride in his manager's car and rode it until about 19 miles, when it broke down. Rather than stand around waiting for repairs, Lorz said, he figured he might as well keep running - and did so, right across the finish line.

Meanwhile, Hicks - the real leader of the race - was struggling. He had to walk up the last hill on the course, about two miles from the stadium. "At the top of the hill a crowd cheered him vigorously, which renewed his flagging energy, and he broke into a fast run," reported the Times.

Lorz was disqualified and Hicks declared the winner. His finishing time was 3 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds, about a half hour slower than the winning times of the previous two Olympic marathons. (By comparison, the 2004 gold medal favorite is Paul Tergat of Kenya, who last year set the world record in the distance, 1.2 miles longer than the marathon distance of 1904: 2 hours, 4 minutes, 56 seconds.)...

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