The torch has barely been lit on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as of this writing. Already the news media is focused on the sewer-like conditions of the swimming venues, the possibility of everyone and their grandma getting the Zika Virus and the slum-like housing that the athletes are supposed to stay in (as opposed to the slum-like housing that everyone else in Rio must live in, if you believe any movie set in Rio).
Like the movie Rio.
It seems like the go-to story for modern Olympic coverage is about how awful conditions are, or how the venue falls apart once the Olympics are over. Compared to the glowing reports of LA, Lake Placid or that one place in Scandinavia when we were so focused on Tonia Harding.
But awful Olympic shenanigans (totally the name of my next cover band: Tracy and the Awful Olympic Shenanigans) aren’t reserved for the 21st century. Way back in 1904, the Olympics were pretty wonky.
The last time anyone ever thinks the World’s Fair and the Olympics are two great tastes that taste great together – for good reason.
First, St. Louis stole the Olympics
These days there is a pretty significant bid process for the Olympics. Prospective cities have to show the International Olympic Committee (IOC) everything from their proposed venues, to how they’ll cope with the sewage from all those extra tourists (hint: not by dumping it in the swimming venues).
There was a bid process back at the turn of the 20th century too. But the Olympics was in it’s infancy in those days. There has only been two other games at that point. Athens (the inaugural games) and Paris (held in conjunction with the World’s Fair).
To host the first Olympics of the new century, Chicago got the nod. But at the same time, St. Louis was on deck for hosting the World’s Fair (the Meet Me In St. Louie World’s Fair, which was kind of a big deal).
St. Louis threw a bit of a tantrum (like a kid at Christmas who thinks his brother got the bigger gift) and said “either let us host the Olympics, or we’ll throw our own competing sporting event.”
At which point Chicago, the IOC and everyone else involved threw up their hands in defeat and let St. Louis have the whole ball of yarn.
Then St. Louis Half-Assed It
Now keep in mind that there was precedent in holding the World’s Fair and Olympic Games together. Paris had done so-and done a decent job at it. But the organizers of the St. Louis fair never planned the Olympic Games to be anything other than a sideshow for the World’s Fair.
That kind of attitude might explain why the Olympic Games lasted nearly 5 months. The fair’s organizers tried to stretch the events over the length of the fair by hosting one event per day. Additionally, non-Olympic events were promoted as Olympic events. This happened so often that later on the IOC had to rule on which events were actually Olympic events, and which were not (the ones that were hosted by the local YMCA were not).
And forget the opening ceremony with a parade of nations and torch lighting. The fair’s organizer didn’t even bother to invite anyone to open the games. He chose to do it himself.
Then Other Nations Gave St. Louis An Epic Side-Eye
Let’s just say that St. Louis wasn’t the transportation capital of the world in 1904. Plus there was a war going on between Russia and Japan.
Getting to the central United States from anywhere other than the United States wasn’t easy, cheap, or quick. So a lot of potential athletes just didn’t go.
On the bright side for the US, this left mainly US competitors. The medal count was never so one-sided in favor of any nation before or since. (Even the Russians didn’t score as many medals in the 1980 Moscow summer games that half the world boycotted because of the Cold War.)
Although, some of the winners that were put down as Americans were actually immigrants who hadn’t established citizenship. As recently as 2012 Norway was trying to get the IOC to recognize that two gold-medalist wrestlers from the 1904 games were actually Norwegian.
Some Events Were Problematic
We’re not talking tug-of-war (which was a thing). We’re talking the Anthropology Days (sadly, also a thing).
One of the unfortunate parts of the World’s Fair back in the day was the human zoo. Basically the organizers would bring in “uncivilized tribes” of the world and have them pretend to live in fake villages so that fair goers could come out and stare at them (it’s even worse than I made it sound).
For Anthropology Days, the fair’s organizers recruited people from the human zoos for two days of events, gave them little to no instruction on how to do the various sports, didn’t give them any time to practice and then acted smug and superior when the various competitors did poorly (because: colonialism. yay?).
The less cringeworthy events also had some flexible interpretations of rules (cheating) on the part of the competitors. One boxer entered the competition using the name of another boxer (a local favorite) hoping to curry favor with the judges.
And Then There Was That Marathon
The St. Louis Olympics marathon has gone down as one of the most bizarre races in history. Due to poor planning the race was held on a brutally hot day. The race planners had people in car and on horseback drive ahead of the runners to clear a path. As a result the racers choked on road dust the whole way.
I kid you not.
There was at least one racer that almost didn’t make it to the start of the race in time, Cuban runner and postman Felix (Andarín)Carvajal. Carvajal was legitimately a race competitor, but lost all his money in New Orleans en route to the race (as you do). He had to hitchhike to St. Louis and arrived with nothing but the clothes on his back. The race was delayed while someone cut away the legs of his wool pants to make running shorts.
During the marathon, Carvajal stopped to talk to spectators and to eat some green apples from an orchard. The apples gave him stomach cramps, so he lay down to nap (like the hare from that one story). After his nap he got up and finished, taking fourth place.
The person who crossed the finish line first was Frederick Lorz (which looks like Lolz, appropriately enough). Lorz dropped out of the race after nine miles due to exhaustion. His manager gave him a lift in a car, but the car broke down after 11 miles. Lorz decided to run the rest of the way to the stadium. When he ran across the finish line, everyone there assumed he was the winner. Lorz said: uh . . . Sure. Why don’t we go with that?
After the medal ceremony, someone in the know said: hey wait a minute, didn’t you get a ride in a car?
To which ole’ Fred said: uh . . . Lulz?
Despite Lorz claiming that the whole thing was an elaborate joke, the Amateur Athletic Union wasn’t laughing, and slapped Lorz with a lifetime ban. They lifted it a year later when Lorz said he was really, really, really sorry. Lorz went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1905. But all anyone remembers is that he maybe cheated at the Olympics.
Don’t do drugs, kids.
The actual winner of the race was a British-born Cambridge brass worker named Thomas Hicks. Hicks won the race (carried across the finish line by his trainers) while being so doped up on strychnine that it nearly killed him (illegal today, but back then strychnine was a common drug used to revive flagging athletes).
Two other runners, South African students Len Taunyane (competing as Len Tau) and Jan Mashiani (competing as Yamasani) had not planned to compete in the race, but were at the fair as part of the human zoo. They finished 12th and 9th respectively, though Jan/Len had been chased a mile off course by aggressive dogs.
So next time you hear someone complain about The problems Olympic athletes face, it could always be worse. At least they don’t have to compete in cut off shorts while being poisoned by their coaches and chased by aggressive dogs.