Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

St. Louis’ Olympic Games wackiest and strangest in history

The 1904 Olympics featured a first-place finisher disqualified for cheating, rat poison used as a performance-enhancing drug, and rotten apples and rabid dogs as obstacles. And that was just in the marathon.

Originally granted to Chicago but moved to St. Louis so as not to compete with the World’s Fair, the 1904 Summer Olympic Games were one of the most bizarre, unorganized spectacles in modern sports history.

These games were the first held in the Western Hemisphere, and St. Louis proved a distant location not conducive for inspiring competition between the top athletes in the world. Instead, the host country put on the most dominant performance in Olympic history.

Americans comprised approximately 80 percent of the total athletes as a result of a lack of easy transportation to the middle of the country, preventing many Europeans from making the transatlantic trek. In 52 events, Americans were the only competitors, ensuring the hosts a sweep of the medals. This advantage led to a record total of 239 medals for the U.S., still the most for a country in a single games—in second place, with 195, is the Soviet Union at the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.

Similar to the World’s Fair, the Games had a strong Washington University flavor, as many of you may have heard on a tour as prospective students. Francis Field, which at the time sat 19,000 spectators, as opposed to the current 4,000, hosted most of the events, with Francis Gymnasium housing the boxing and fencing competitions and Forest Park the swimming, diving and water polo events. Both the field and gym would go on to be declared U.S. National Historical Landmarks.

The 1904 Games are remembered for two themes: American dominance and wacky problems and antics. Here are the top five examples of the latter, which make the logistical issues with the current Winter Games in Sochi look trivial:

5. Although the bulk of the events were contested from Aug. 29-Sept. 3, the official games lasted from July 1-Nov. 23, when the opening and closing ceremonies were held.

4. As if its medal count wasn’t high enough already, the U.S. inflated its total even further by claiming recent athlete immigrants to the country as Americans, even if they had not yet been granted citizenship.

3. The two-day “Anthropology Days” tournament pitted “natives” who were in St. Louis for the World’s Fair against each other in Olympic-style events. Due to a lack of training and preparation time and the language barrier, the “savage” participants struggled to grasp the concept of sprint races, the javelin throw and archery, among others, leading chief organizer James Sullivan to conclude that non-Westernized people were racially inferior.

2. Another fun fact about Anthropology Days: event winners were awarded not with gold medals but with American flags.

1. The water polo tournament took place at one end of a lake in Forest Park, with the other end being used for the World’s Fair. A group of cattle wandered into that side of the lake, infecting the water and causing four water polo players to die from typhus by the middle of 1905.

And because the 1904 Olympic marathon might just be the craziest event in the games’ history, the five most bizarre elements of that race alone:

5. Sullivan used the marathon as a physiological experiment, allowing water to be handed out only at miles six and 12 on the 25-mile course because he wanted to test the effects of purposeful dehydration on the human body.

4. A Tswana tribesman was expected to compete for a medal but finished a disappointing ninth overall because a pack of wild dogs chased him more than a mile off course.

3. A Cuban man who paid his way to the U.S. lost all his money gambling in New Orleans and had to hitchhike the rest of the way to St. Louis. He raced in dress shoes and heavy wool pants and, for a midrace snack, ate some apples from an orchard along the route, but the fruit was rotten and caused the runner to lie down and take on a nap during the middle of the race. He still managed to finish fourth.

2. The first man to cross the finish line was disqualified for running nine miles, taking a car for the next 10 and jogging the rest to adoring (and undeserved) cheering from fans.

1. Second-place finisher Thomas Hicks was declared the official winner despite receiving doses of common rat poison, used to stimulate the nervous system, from his trainers in the last 10 miles. Hicks used brandy as a chaser for the poison and would likely have died upon finishing had a team of doctors not been in attendance. Your Gold Medalist, everyone.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878