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Olympic Follies

Amateur glory of Olympics in the early twentieth century upheld in wacky marathon.

Even with some of the more dramatic American losses,[1] the 2000 Summer Olympics Games still warm the cockles of History House's heart. We thrill to the competition of amateurs, and boo those who think that "no-hope" athletes shouldn't be allowed to compete. "No-hopers" represent the true spirit of the original Olympics, which, believe it or not, actually rewarded the victorious competitors with only wreaths.[2] Indeed, abandoning all financial motives is what certain Games of the past were all about. For example, the Brazilian government couldn't afford to send its cadre of 69 athletes to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, but desperately wanted to send them anyway. So they herded them onto a ship with 50,000 sacks of choicest Brazilian coffee, hoping to sell the beans to various undercaffeinated ports of call on the way to the California coastline.

Much to the Brazilians' chagrin, nobody wanted coffee. When they arrived in Los Angeles, only twenty-four athletes had enough money to pay the one dollar landing fee at the port. The other forty-five, with the ship's crew, sailed off into the gloom of the Northern Pacific, hoping to unload their wares on the beleaguered citizens of the Northwest. Coffee had not quite caught on up there; the Olympics never heard from the hopeful competitors again.[3] It was this kind of selfless striving that made early Games shine and joyously goofy to boot.

Havana Trump or Chump?

Accompanying the human drama of amateur, underfunded athletes is the tradition of having amateur, underqualified athletes at the Games. In 1904, arguably the most classic Olympics ever, the marathon had the potential to be upset by a squirrely little guy who had essentially hitchhiked from Cuba and ran the race in what amounted to dress shoes. His picture can be seen in the block image at the top left corner of this page. His name was not really Forrest. It was Felix Carvajal.

Carvajal was a postal worker in Havana who got it into his head that he was going to run the Olympic marathon. He was unsupported by governmental funds but, full of pluck, he quit his job and ran around the city square, trying to drum up cash or at least well-wishers. In a few months, he solicited enough donations to secure passage to New Orleans, no mean feat in an Olympics where some 525 of the 681 athletes were American because international travel was so expensive. Unfortunately, once in New Orleans he encountered the vices of that magnificent city and promptly lost all his money in a crooked streetside game of craps. He then walked or hitched the nearly seven hundred miles to St. Louis, where, in ragged clothes, was taken in by the United States weight team, who fed and sheltered him.

On the day of the marathon he arrived in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, both of which were charitably shorn by an discus-tosser who happened to be toting scissors. It was, after all, St. Louis in the summer, where temperatures regularly topped 90 degrees (32 deg C). Felix faced a curious field: there were some thirty-two runners, mostly Americans and Greeks. Two black men and students at Orange Free State University, Len Tau and Jan Mashiani, were South Africa's first Olympians. However, they were billed as Zulu savages and were participants in the Anthropology Days segment of the competition.

White Man's Burden of Proof

Tau and Mashiani
Tau and Mashiani

The Anthropology Days of the 1904 Olympics were a "scientific experiment" wherein a variety of "savages", among them Pygmies, Filipinos, Patagonians and various American Indian tribes, competed in such undignified events as mud fighting and greased-pole climbing.[4] Olympics founder Baron de Coubertin righteously noted that such a charade "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."[5] The Anthropology Days were designed to test the "startling rumors and statements that were made in relation to the speed, stamina and strength of each and every particular tribe that was represented," claims the Official Report of the Olympic Games of 1904.[6] The report expresses dismay in these men's running ("very poor"), javelin ("another disappointment"), archery ("another disappointment"), and weight-tossing abilities ("The savages did not take kindly at all to the 56-lb. weight,"). The missive concludes, "Lecturers and authors will in the future please omit all reference to the natural athletic ability of the savage, unless they can substantiate their alleged feats."

And They're Off

With Felix and the two Anthropology Day participants entered thirty-seven other runners, and, in the humid St. Louis weather, they all began the race. The fairly brutal weather conditions, and the existence of only one water station 12 miles in, led to a variety of injuries. American Bill Garcia collapsed with a stomach hemorrhage, Fred Lorz, an American, was ahead but dropped out at nine miles -- actually what he did was jump aboard a pace car and wave to the runners as it passed and sputtered dust and exhaust in their faces. These were not the only hazards: Len Tau was chased a mile off course through a cornfield by an angry dog and dropped to ninth place.

Meanwhile, our favorite Cuban continued merrily along, laughing, joking, running backwards and practicing his broken English on bystanders. He leaned into a car of officials and stole peaches out of their fat hands; he took a detour through an apple orchard to swipe himself some lunch. These apples would be Felix's undoing: he was soon afflicted with cramps and slowed his pace.

Yesterday's Rosie Ruiz[7]

Further upfield, Lorz's pace car broke down. It was a common enough occurrence for automobiles in 1904 to break down, so he headed to the Olympic stadium five miles away. He later claimed that his clothes were in the stadium, so he was sort of going that way anyway; when he entered the stadium to a thunderous roar he lifted his arms in triumph as though he'd just taken the gold. He posed with Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice, got wreathed, and reveled for a moment before the officials came crashing down on him. He was banned him from amateur competition for life, or at least until 1905, when he was allowed to run (and win) the Boston Marathon.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Carrying the winner across the finish line
Carrying the winner across the finish line

Well-pampered Thomas J. Hicks of Cambridge, Massachusetts plugged along with the help of his trainers. After Lorz dropped out and into his automotive shenanigans, Hicks was in first place. Hicks' handlers trotted alongside him, giving him warm sponge baths and sips of water. He told his trainers he wanted to lie down, and they dosed him with egg white mixed with strychnine to keep him on his feet. When he started complaining, they started serving him brandy. The brandy ran out, and they had to borrow some more. By the time he reached the Olympic stadium, he was in such miserable shape and punch-drunk (well, actually, just drunk) that his trainers had to virtually carry him across the finish line. He walked and took breaks to lie down throughout the second half of the race, but after the debacle with Lorz, the audience was all too happy to confer a gold medal on a bona fide finisher even if he was doped up and supported by two other men. Four doctors sweated over Hicks for the remainder of the day before he was allowed (or was able) to leave the stadium, at which point he fell asleep on a trolley car and wasn't heard from until the next day. He then discovered that he had lost ten pounds, and cheerfully retired from running entirely.

A victorious but mellow-looking Hicks
A victorious but mellow-looking Hicks

As for Felix, he came in fourth. The Cuban weathered the ugly conditions well, and some spectators postulated that with proper training he would have easily taken the gold. It wasn't an altogether tragic ending for a naive country boy who found himself far from home and bereft of funds thanks to a crooked craps game.

Thus ended the 1904 Olympic marathon. The race had enthusiastic tribesmen, a plucky Cuban, an angry dog, and strychnine abuse. NBC's ratings for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney are in the toilet. We here at History House feel that might very well be the price one pays for the sordid advancement of professionalism in the field of amateur sports. We figure, hey, amateurs are supposed to screw up like this.


  1. Er, and Australian, too.
  2. However, most of the other Greek games awarded vast sums of cash. And when winners of the Olympics returned home, they were showered with monies, sort of like endorsements today. As Olympic historian Waldo Sweet notes, "One thing is clear: the successful Greek athlete was very well reimbursed." Sweet, 119.
  3. Kieran and Daley, 133-4
  4. Interestingly, the Chiricahua Apache Chief Geronimo witnessed these proceedings.
  5. McFarland, 12
  6. McFarland, 205
  7. Rosie Ruiz, for those not paying attention, was an infamous fraud who attempted to win the Boston Marathon in 1980. Rather than running the whole thing, she hopped aboard a train and later jumped back in the race. Check out


  1. John and Daley Kieran. The Story of the Olympic Games: 776 B.C. to 1972. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1973.
  2. Bill Mallon. The 1904 Olympic Games: Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary. McFarland & Company, Inc, 1999.
  3. Waldo E. Sweet. Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook with Translations. Oxford University Press, 1987.
  4. David Wallechinsky. The Complete Book of the Olympics. Viking Penguin Inc., 1984.

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