Op-ed: St. Louis’ ridiculous, racist and rotten Olympic legacy
The Olympic Games a are a truly spectacular event, an exhilarating, highly organized, two-week display of the best athletes the world has to offer. In the past week, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have delivered inspirational stories of people from around the globe who overcame great odds to achieve success.
The 1904 Olympics, held in the city of St. Louis, were none of those things. They were exploitative, dangerous, drawn-out, poorly planned and incredibly ridiculous. Please do not misunderstand me: They were very dumb and bad.
Last week, Washington University announced the installation of an “Olympic Rings” sculpture to commemorate St. Louis’ role as host city for the 1904 Olympic Games. Chancellor Mark Wrighton is quite excited. He should not be. Perhaps he is unaware of just how dumb and bad these games were.
The 1904 Olympics were the first hosted in the United States. While most modern Olympics take place over two weeks, the 1904 Olympics took over four and a half months. They coincided with the 1904 World’s Fair, which was also in St. Louis. The games were originally slated to be held in Chicago, but St. Louis decided to plan their own athletic events to upstage Chicago.
The Olympic commissioner, who didn’t like the idea of two large athletic events at the same time in the same region, gave in and just moved the official games to St. Louis. The commissioner, however, was completely uninvolved with the games and stated that “the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town.”
While not part of the official Olympic Games, Olympic Organizer James E. Sullivan also held “Anthropology Days,” aka the “Non-Scientific, Super-Racist Days” because their only purpose was to prove that white, American athletes were superior to the “savages” of other nations. Olympic-style sporting events were held alongside events like tree climbing, fighting and mud-slinging. In the 100-meter dash, non-American competitors were not told the rules of the event. The officiators just shot off a starting gun and expected non-English speakers to figure it out. This is really just the tip of the racism displayed at the World’s Fair, which featured reenactments of the Boer War and zoo-like villages of native peoples from around the world.
The Olympic Games themselves were a ridiculous disaster. Yes, there were some good things. American gymnast George Eyser, who had a wooden leg, won six gold medals. The games also introduced the now-familiar gold, silver and bronze medals for winners.
But the bad truly outshines the good here. Many of the events were held throughout the summer alongside non-Olympic events, including a YMCA basketball game.
The marathon event, however, was the epicenter of this stinking display. It had the highest dropout rate of any Olympic marathon. The event was held in 90-degree heat in the middle of the St. Louis summer. If you’re familiar with St. Louis summers, you can see where this is heading. To make matters exponentially worse, Sullivan, who wanted to study the effects of purposeful dehydration, only established two water stations…in St. Louis…in the summer.
The course, which began at Wash. U.’s own Francis Field, was mostly dust. But, wait, the course also had rough stones! The road was active, so cars driving by kicked up extra dust, which clogged the runners’ throats. A race favorite, John Lordon, collapsed while vomiting about two blocks from the start. Len Tau, one of the two South African runners, was chased a mile off course by feral dogs. He evaded the dogs and, impressively, finished fifth.
The most admirable competitor was Felix Carbajal. A Cuban mailman who raised money to attend the Olympics by putting on running exhibitions in his home country, Carbajal ran the marathon wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a beret and street shoes. During the race, Carbajal ate some rotten apples from a nearby orchard and was soon lying on the ground with stomach cramps. He eventually got up and finished fourth place.
The first runner to cross the finish line was Fred Lorz, who, after some stomach cramps of his own, jumped in a car for most of the race. Nearing the end of the course, Lorz was feeling better and decided to finish on foot. He entered the stadium to massive cheers and, when it was discovered he hadn’t actually run most of the race, played it off as a joke.
The legitimate winner was Thomas Hicks, who was fed strychnine (a common stimulant at the time) and brandy by his coaches and suffered severe hallucinations before reaching the finish line. Thus ended the 1904 marathon.
While some of the athletes who were subjected to these games certainly deserve recognition for simply surviving, lauding the organizational prowess and the “Olympic Legacy” of St. Louis with a landmark sculpture at the marathon’s starting point requires an ignorance of the event’s history.
If you truly want to honor these games, put on your long-sleeved shirt, beret and street shoes, trod out to Francis Field on a humid St. Louis summer day, and eat some rotten apples. Maybe let loose some wild dogs. Breath in some thick dust. Then, you’ll surely feel the Olympic pride surge inside you.