In the summer of 1904, the third modern Olympics kicked off in the unlikely location of St. Louis, Missouri. The games were the first ever Olympiad held in the United States, and American athletes marked the occasion by scoring big in the medal count. Nevertheless, the event is often remembered as a comedy of errors marred by mismanagement, poor attendance and controversy. Explore eight surprising facts about one of weirdest and wildest Summer Games in Olympic history.
1. They weren’t supposed to take place in St. Louis.
After considering Philadelphia and New York, the fledgling International Olympic Committee originally awarded the 1904 Summer Games to the city of Chicago. Shortly after making their announcement, the Committee ran into a problem in the form of St. Louis, which was already planning to host a World’s Fair called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that same summer. The Exposition’s well-funded organizers were desperate to host the Olympics as well, and to force the IOC’s hand, they worked to secure a deal with the Amateur Athletic Union to hold the 1904 track and field championships as part of the World’s Fair. Faced with the possibility of conflicting athletic competitions, Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin reluctantly abandoned plans for Chicago and moved the 1904 games to St. Louis. Apparently no great fan of the “Gateway to the West,” Coubertin neglected to attend the games and later wrote, “I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town.”
2. Only a few countries participated.
Compared to their modern counterparts, the 1904 games were hardly an international affair. European nations balked at the cost and slow speed of travel to St. Louis, and when the games finally kicked off, only 12 countries bothered to show up. Americans accounted for 523 of the 630 total athletes, and more than half of the events were contested entirely by homegrown competitors. Thanks to the significant numerical advantage, the United States would go on to win a total of 239 medals—the largest ever haul in a single Olympics. The near-sweep was not without controversy. The United States was criticized for fielding several European immigrants who still weren’t citizens, and as recently as 2012, Norway was still calling for the International Olympic Committee to officially change the nationality of two gold medal-winning wrestlers.
3. The games lasted for nearly five months.
Modern Olympiads typically last a little over two weeks, but the 1904 games ran for a grueling 146 days. While most of the track and field contests were held in a small window from August 29 to September 3 (the originally scheduled dates for the games), the rest of the events were sprinkled among several months of World’s Fair sports showcases including a military athletic carnival, an Irish sports festival and even a YMCA basketball championship. To make matters worse, the Fair’s organizers took to using the umbrella term “Olympic” for all the athletic competitions, which later led to confusion about which sports were official events. A review would later conclude that the 1904 games officially ran from July 1 to November 23 and consisted of 94 events. The 1908 London Olympics would last even longer, dragging on for an astounding 188 days from April to October.
4. The marathon caused a major uproar.
The St. Louis games are famous for including one of the most outrageous marathons in Olympic history. The race was held in 90-degree weather on a dust-covered road, and the inhospitable conditions conspired to force 18 of the 32 competitors to withdraw from exhaustion. One even suffered a stomach hemorrhage and nearly died before receiving medical attention. Race winner Thomas Hicks only fared slightly better. The runner spent the last 10 miles of the competition in utter agony, and was given several eggs, doses of toxic strychnine and even plugs of brandy to keep him on his feet. His assistants practically carried him over the finish line for a plodding final time of 3 hours, 28 minutes and 53 seconds. Other competitors faced even weirder problems. Cuban runner Felix Carbajal stopped along the course to snack on some apples only to be bowled over by stomach cramps, and a South African runner named Len Tau was chased off the course by a pack of wild dogs. After the race, many argued the marathon was too dangerous for the competitors and should be abolished. Even James Sullivan, the director of the 1904 games, admitted the event probably wouldn’t be back in 1908. “I personally am opposed to it,” he said. “It is indefensible on any ground, but historic.”
5. There were several allegations of cheating.
One of the most unusual controversies of the 1904 Olympics came during the boxing competition, when a fighter named James Bollinger entered under the name of popular local boxer Carroll Burton in the hope of currying favor with the judges. The impostor succeeded in winning one match before he was found out and disqualified. Still, nothing could eclipse the hubbub caused by Fred Lorz during the Olympic marathon. Lorz had been running a respectable fourth until the race’s nine-mile mark, when he developed severe cramps and had to drop out from exhaustion. He hitched a car ride back to the stadium, but after 10 miles, the vehicle suddenly broke down. Having caught his breath, Lorz decided to resume running for the final few miles and eventually crossed the finish line first. He was hailed by spectators as the race winner and nearly accepted the gold medal before someone mentioned his multi-mile car ride. Lorz claimed it was all an elaborate joke, but the Amateur Athletic Union was not amused and promptly slapped him with a lifetime ban. Lorz would later have the punishment rescinded on the grounds that he was “temporarily insane.” He went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.
6. Tug-of-War was included as part of the track and field competition.
Tug-of-war might seem more at a home at a kids’ summer camp than at the Olympics, but it was a popular event at the Summer Games from 1900 until 1920. Six five-man teams gripped the ropes in 1904—one from Greece, one from South Africa and four from the United States—and the event counted as part of the overall team track and field championships. The Greeks and South Africans both lost on the first day of competition, leaving the medal competition an all-American affair. On September 1, the men of the Milwaukee Athletic Club claimed the gold after a hard fought match against the New York Athletic Club. New York neglected to show up for the consolation round, which meant the silver and bronze were awarded to two local teams from St. Louis. Along with hosting one of the few Tug-of-war competitions, the 1904 games are also famous for being the last time golf appeared as an Olympic sport, as well as the one and only time the obscure “plunge for distance” diving event was contested.
7. The games included a side-competition for third world tribesmen.
Alongside traditional Olympic sports, the 1904 games also included a bizarre and highly controversial event known as “Anthropology Days.” As part of the two-day contest, so-called “uncivilized tribes” were recruited from the World’s Fair’s “human zoo” exhibits and encouraged to try their hand at Olympic sports. Ainus, Patagonians, Pygmies, Igorot Filipinos and Sioux were all paid to participate in traditional Olympic events such as the long jump, archery and the javelin throw as well as specially made contests like the pole climb and mud throwing. The event was billed as a display of the tribesmen’s natural athletic ability, but the participants received almost no instruction and most performed quite poorly. Anthropology Days organizer James Sullivan smugly concluded the events were proof that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view,” but others labeled them a demeaning and racist sideshow. For his part, Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin called Anthropology Days an “outrageous charade,” and noted, “it 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.”
8. Women only competed in one official event.
Out of the nearly 100 sports at the 1904 Olympics, archery was the only event in which women were allowed to compete. The competition took place on September 19 and 20 and involved six contestants, five of whom were part of Ohio’s Cincinnati Archers Club. 45-year-old Lida Howell, the nation’s undisputed top lady archer, coasted to the gold medal in both the Double Columbia and Double National rounds. Women also stepped into the ring as part of the Olympic boxing card, but their bouts were considered display events and no medals were awarded. Amazingly, the 1904 exhibition in St. Louis would be the last time women boxed at the Olympics for 108 years, as the competition was not revived until the 2012 Summer Games in London.