For competitors, coaches, host cities, and even fans, the Olympics are high-stakes stuff—and all that pressure can sometimes erupt in utterly weird ways. Remember the infamous accidental dove roast in Seoul in 1988 or the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding episode of 1994? But when it comes to sheer hysterical hijinx from start to finish—and beyond—it’s hard to beat what happened at the 1904 Summer Olympics men’s marathon.
Poor planning meant the event was cursed from the very beginning. Taking place in St. Louis, organizers had set the course over a stadium track…and miles and miles of dusty, hot country roads shared with locals and their vehicles. Oh, and as one South African competitor learned the hard way…packs of wild dogs.
To make things worse, they’d scheduled it for 3 PM, instead of the cooler morning hours. There was little to no water for the runners and few officiants to keep an eye on the action. The ones who were there drove ahead of the competitors, kicking up massive clouds of dust and exhaust. Basically, it was doomed before it started.
Even seasoned veterans were no match for the conditions. Two former winners of the Boston Marathon dropped out early—one had become terribly ill during the first ten miles, while dust clouds took out the other at mile 16. Even more dramatically, another competitor nearly died thanks to the dust. But those who made it to the finish line weren’t in much better shape.
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Andarín Carvajal, a mailman from Cuba, barely made it to the race. He’d stopped in New Orleans first and had gambled away all his money. Carvajal ran the race in regular clothing, hastily cutting his pants into shorts. On top of that, he found himself hungry during the race, so he stole peaches from a spectator and then munched on some rotten apples at an orchard near the course. After getting an upset stomach, Carvajal laid down for a nap—and still somehow got up and finished fourth.
Coming in first—at first—was a man named Fred Lorz. Officiants were about to give him the gold when they made a disturbing discovery. Lorz had actually given up early and attempted to hitchhike back to the stadium. He was almost there when the car stopped running, so he ran the rest of the way back and crossed the finish line. Officials disqualified him after they found out what had happened—which meant that the man who’d got second place was now the winner. And if you can believe it, his story was even more twisted.
Thomas Hicks nearly lost his mind and his life running the 1904 Summer Olympics men’s marathon. He kept trying to stop and lie down during the last leg of the race, but his team wouldn’t let him. They fed him a bizarre cocktail of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine—yes, the poison—to keep him going. Hicks began to hallucinate, and by the time he got back to the stadium for the final part of the race, his trainers had to carry him as he scraped his feet on the ground like he was still running. If there hadn’t been doctors there waiting for him, it’s possible he would’ve died. Instead, Hicks survived—eight pounds lighter and one gold medal richer.
In the end, only 14 out of 32 runners completed the race and Hicks’ finishing time of 3:28:45 was the slowest winning time in Olympic history—by nearly 20 minutes. Perhaps not the result that the entrants and organizers hoped for—but either way, it made for one of the most memorable events in Olympics history.
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