Inside The Vault | The bizarre story of the 1904 Olympic marathon

David Smith

In this edition of ‘Inside The Vault‘, we travel back to 1904 to revisit one of the most bizarre Olympic incidents of all time.

In 1904, America hosted the Summer Olympics for the first time.

The Olympics coincided with the World’s Fair and Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and controversially featured a separate competition for “uncivilized tribes” – such as the Pygmies, Sioux, Patagonians – called “Anthropology Days.”

To call the St. Louis Olympics a disaster is almost too kind. Only 12 countries were represented at the games, and in certain events, all the competitors were American.

The marathon – the 1904 games’ main event – on August 30th was more bizarre than anything the fair had to offer. While the race featured some experienced marathon runners, the Olympics’ main event also attracted a plethora of other characters.

Two South African men of the Tsuana tribe began the marathon in bare feet, and 10 Greek men who’d never attempted a marathon also joined the curious menagerie of characters at the starting line.

Two American athletes, Thomas Hicks and Sam Mellor, were among the favourites to win the race.

One of the other American runners was New Yorker Frederick Lorz, a bricklayer who trained for the event at night after work.

The starting pistol sounded at exactly 3.03pm, and the athletes began to run across the 24.85-mile course which was home to no fewer than seven hills.

17 of the 32 athletes failed to complete the race, and the 90-degree heat and dusty roads made conditions extremely difficult for those competing.

The dust was so severe that it hospitalized and almost killed Californian William Garcia; it had coated his oesophagus and ripped his stomach lining.

Wild dogs chased another unfortunate athlete – Len Tau – a mile off course.

Fred Lorz started well amidst this chaos, but fellow American Thomas Hicks took the lead a mile into the marathon.

However, after just three hours and 13 minutes, Lorz broke the red tape at the finishing line, finishing an impressive 16 minutes ahead of second placed Hicks.

Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’ head, and the crowd cheered their delight at the sight of an American winning the marathon.

Just before Lorz received his gold medal, members of the crowd dramatically proclaimed that Lorz “was an impostor,” and the raucous cheers of the crowd turned to boos and hisses.

His crime?

Lorz began suffering from cramp nine miles into the marathon, and decided to drop out. He hailed a lift in a passing vehicle, which carried him 11 miles before breaking down.

Lorz’ cramps had passed by this stage, and he jokingly decided to run the rest of the race on foot, and needless to say he won it with ease.

It initially seemed like Lorz would get away with the ridiculous trick, but the medal ceremony was halted when officials had learned that Lorz was seen waving at spectators along his ride in the car.

The bricklayer attempted to pass it off as a practical joke, but the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) handed the New York native a life-long ban from athletics.

Word of Lorz’ disqualification reached Thomas Hicks, who was second in the race, and struggling to continue.

His handlers gave him a dose of sulfate of strychnine – a highly dangerous performance enhancing drug – raw egg whites and French brandy, and it was enough to give Hicks the energy to stumble limply over the finish line.

Amazingly, Fred Lorz managed to get his AAU ban overturned just eight months later, and beat Hicks to finish first in the Boston Marathon the following year in 1905.