The Olympic Games is no stranger to scandal. Ben Johnson’s doping in 1988, four Badminton teams deliberately losing matches in 2012, and the Budd/Decker collision in 1984 were all deemed controversial incidents at the time. However, none of them compare with the truly remarkable, and farcical, 1904 Olympic marathon which featured cheating on an obscene level.
The 26.2-mile long run is the ultimate test of endurance, and the name ‘marathon’ comes from the legend of Philippides, a Greek messenger who was supposedly sent from the battlefield of Marathon to the city of Athens to announce victory for the Greeks over the Persians in 490 BC. Regardless of the dubious veracity of this tale, the marathon event was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens as organizers looked to host a race to recall the glory of ancient Greece.
The first marathon was won by a Greek water-carrier named Spyridon Louis in a time of 2:58:20 over a distance of 24.85 miles. The 1900 version was run over 25.02 miles while the 1904 marathon was run over 24.85 miles. The Olympics for that year were held in St. Louis and no one who attended the marathon event in 1904 ever forgot what happened that day.
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Unlike modern day marathons where the athletes are highly trained and used to the grueling distance, most of the runners in the 1904 version were middle distance specialists or people looking to compete for the novelty value. Of the 32 entrants, only 14 finished the event, and several competitors almost died from exhaustion.
The marathon took place on August 30 and matters weren’t helped by the searing heat and the idiocy of the organizers. Even modern day marathons are held early in the morning to ensure the heat isn’t a major factor. In 1904 however, the race was run in the afternoon, and by the end, temperatures had reached a scorching 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).
This wasn’t the only organizational blunder; not by a long shot. One would assume that the athletes would have several rehydration stations along the way; not so. In fact, the only two available sources of water were a water tower after 6 miles and a well after approximately 11-12 miles. In other words, the runners had to go through 13+ torturous miles to get to the finish and rehydrate. This foolishness played a significant role in the chaos that ensued.
While the race started and ended in the Olympic stadium, most of the event took place on dusty country roads. The race officials elected to ride in vehicles ahead of the competitors and created dust clouds that were breathed in by the runners. During the race, most of the runners had to stop to hack their lungs free of the dirt they inhaled. Overall, multiple athletes collapsed with exhaustion; several were near death. Fred Lorz was one of the favorites and rather than slog through the dusty course in searing heat; he had a much better idea.