6 Ways the 1904 Olympics Were the Craziest Event Ever Held
It's incredible that millions upon millions of people tune in to the Olympics every two years to appreciate the pageantry of sports we'd otherwise not care about if they were happening in our own front yards, but that's the magic of the games. They have this unique ability to capture the entire world's attention in a way nothing short of a celebrity suicide can.
Every Olympics will have one or two crazy stories (Tonya Harding, that thing in Munich), but the 1904 Olympics takes the cake. It takes the batshit insanity cake and eats it with its hands.
No One Knew How to Organize
Seeing as President Teddy Roosevelt considered sport an essential part of manliness, outmatched only by shooting foreigners and bullying pulpits, it's not a huge surprise he would bring the U.S. its first Olympics in 1904. The only problem was that the games were scheduled for Chicago and were, at best, an afterthought to St. Louis' World's Fair.
World's Fair organizers made it known that they weren't willing to compete for crowds that summer, and eventually they just straight up threatened to hold their own way cooler athletics competition if the Olympics didn't comply. IOC President Pierre de Coubertin fought the relocation tooth and nail, but after word spread that Roosevelt supported the shift to St. Louis and that Chicago was woefully unprepared to host much more than a child's birthday party, the IOC voted 14-2 against the Second City.
"We promise 50 ... no, 65 percent less serial killing at this global gathering. Come on."
With President Roosevelt too busy creating the America we now know and love, David Francis, the former mayor of St. Louis and head of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, presided over a relatively small opening ceremony on July 1, with only the American team and a few disparate foreign athletes in attendance. Because the foundations of peace and goodwill that the games were built on just couldn't compete with America's need to be a dick to everyone about everything all the time.
As if that organizational clusterfuck wasn't bad enough, the games, which were supposed to take place during the week of August 29 to September 3, actually lasted from July 1 to November 23, when organizers had finally exhausted a seemingly endless string of 94 events. That's four months of Olympics, which is insane, because it only takes like six days to remember that bobsled is bullshit and curling is basically sweeping.
Can't you at least switch the rock to a Roomba or something?
Thankfully for the host country's collective confidence ...
America Pretty Much Won All the Medals
In 1904, the first transatlantic flight was still 15 years away, and that shit was so dangerous, we basically invented the Bermuda Triangle to explain the death toll. So, holding the Olympics anywhere outside of Western Europe would have made travel long, difficult, and incredibly expensive for any countries hoping to participate.
Of course, placing them in the dead center of the relatively massive U.S. exaggerated this issue to the point that not even Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, was willing to attend the games. Coubertin later said he "had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town," and then he urinated on a Cardinals baseball cap in case the general public had failed to understand what he was getting at.
He was immediately declared mayor of Chicago.
All told, 526 of the 651 athletes competed under the American flag (including plenty of foreign-born sportsmen poached to boost the host's count), and 49 of the 94 events exclusively featured American athletes. The U.S. went on to win 239 medals, including 68 of the 74 track and field trophies and an honorary award for imperialism.
The next closest nation in the medal count was Germany, with 13 total. Despite Canada's relative ease of travel and having nearly three times the athletes of any country aside from the States, the Canadians faithfully squandered their advantage by winning six medals, or as many medals as an American gymnast with only one leg.
Gymnast George Eyser Drops the Mic on Every Olympic Athlete Ever
Those familiar with athletes wearing prosthetics at the Olympic Games probably think of them all as heroes who triumph over adversity and eventually shoot their girlfriends. Luckily, George Eyser is part of the rare breed who avoided any alleged homicides.
He also won six Olympic medals in a single day.
While wearing this.
Despite having his left leg amputated as a child after it was run over by a train, the German-born bookkeeper slash amateur gymnast wore a wooden prosthetic I'm pretty sure he carved himself from a tree struck down by lightning, which he peed. Eyser stayed in fighting shape with sights set on his hometown Olympics, but things didn't start out well, as he finished 10th, 71st, and dead last during his first set of events in early July.
The 34-year-old got another shot later in the competition and on October 29 won gold in the men's parallel bars, the rope climb (admittedly carrying less weight), and the vault, which at that time was performed without the use of a springboard. Eyser also won silver in the men's side horse and individual all-around and bronze in the horizontal bar, and he helped his local athletic club finish fourth in the overall team competition.
Eyser's in the middle, keeping his teammates upright by the gravitational pull of his balls.
And in case you didn't feel like enough of a lazy jerk reading this while at work, Eyser also competed in the 100m race and long jump and went on to help his club win national and international events over the next five years while he was well on his way to 40 years old. But please, tell me how difficult your day was. I'm very interested.
Three of America's Medals Were in the Tug of War
Hahaha. What the fuck.
Along with croquet, the rope climb, art and poetry, speedboat racing, hot air ballooning, the horse long jump, pigeon shooting, dueling pistols, and something called korfball, all of which were real, great, and somehow now discontinued sports of Olympics past, there's one event people have been fighting to get back in for nearly a century: tug of war.
If only there was a term to describe the battle between the pro and con sides ...
The tug had been added to the schedule four years earlier at the 1900 Paris Games, with only two teams competing. The burly Americans were too busy sweeping the hammer throw to be bothered, but, needing to prove something to our fathers and/or former lovers on our own soil, America fielded four of the six teams that competed in the 1904 event from local athletic clubs in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and New York.
After Greece and South Africa were easily defeated in the preliminary rounds, all four American teams made the semifinals, with Milwaukee eventually beating New York in the gold medal match. Then, in an impressive show of early New York spite, the brooding hipsters refused to show up for either the silver or bronze medal matches, allowing the St. Louis teams to win medals the only way they knew how: by default.
If we're going to bring back the tug of war, there's really only one way: After all the events are decided, the top eight teams in the medal count compete in a final ToW tournament to decide the world's greatest country, and only gold medal winners from those Olympics are allowed to be on the team. The winners get a nuclear weapon. The losers? A head start.
Although if Japan succeeds in getting sumo recognized for the games, we're fucked.
Felix Carvajal Runs Marathon in Dress Shoes, Gets Food Poisoning, Almost Wins
If any sexy Hollywood types are searching for an inspirational underdog story to rewrite for their own amusement, look no further than Cuban marathoner Felix Carvajal, the penniless Havana postman who was pretty sure that being the fastest kid on his block meant he should travel to America and run in the Olympics. And he was kind of right.
Since the newly independent nation of Cuba wasn't willing to sponsor the unknown, Carvajal raised his own funds for the games by begging people on the streets and putting on "grand athletic demonstrations" that amounted to running in circles around Havana's town square because, holy shit, life before TV was terrible and meaningless.
"If I had to pretend to enjoy bridge for one more night, I was going to go on a murder spree."
The 5-foot 1-inch, 95-pound amateur eventually ran around Cuba enough to get in Olympic shape and pay for his fare on a steamship to New Orleans, where he proceeded to lose his life savings gambling at dice. Despite not having cash for room or board, Carvajal just said fuck it and ran or hitchhiked the rest of the way to St. Louis.
Having not really slept or eaten in 40 hours, Carvajal arrived at the starting line exhausted only minutes before the race, ready to compete in heavy wool trousers, dress shoes, a puffy pirate shirt, and a beret. The start was delayed a few minutes so a friendly American could cut Carvajal's only pants into wool running knickers, which are ... slightly better than wool pants? I've never run in either.
"You could power these entire games by the static charge in my loins right now."
It would be reasonable to assume that this exhausted, unprepared gambling maniac lost the race handily. But that's just because you don't know Carvajal. Carvajal not only kept pace with the leaders, but did so well that the scamp had time to practice his English with spectators. While running backward. He also stole peaches from a bystander for no reason and left the course to pick some apples because did you forget what you were supposed to be doing, you maniac? The apples, unfortunately, were bad and gave Carvajal a stomachache, so he did what anyone would do if they had to run a marathon: He went to the side of the road and took a nap.
He came in fourth.
"Shit, but I already had this shirt made up and everything."
Carvajal returned to Cuba a national hero for his persistence, and then humbly returned to his mail route, never to run competitively ever again. He died poor and alone because, you know, Cuba. Actually, that's probably the part Hollywood should rewrite. Oh! Let's make him a handsome American who wins against all odds!
Handsome American Marathoner Thomas Hicks Wins Gold Against All Odds
Oh yeah ... Thomas Hicks became the first American to win the Olympic marathon, doing so against such odds as barely avoiding sure death on the race path after being poisoned by his own coaches, presumably for his benefit.
But first let's talk about original winner Fred Lorz, who glided to the finish amid rampant cheers and was crowned with a wreath by President Roosevelt's daughter Alice before Lorz quickly admitted it was all a joke. He had led for 9 miles before dropping out due to cramps, rode half the distance by car, and then, re-energized, jogged the rest of the way to the stadium. He just couldn't resist the unwarranted adulation of strangers.
Yeah, because embarrassing this guy's daughter was totally a smart life choice.
The crowd was less enthused when Hicks entered the stadium about 15 minutes later. Hicks had wanted to quit after 15 miles, but his handlers had other plans, so they fed him small doses of strychnine sulfate (basically rat poison), raw eggs, and brandy chasers for the last 10 miles just to keep him upright and effectively carried him across the finish. Or, in short, USA! USA! USA!
Onlookers said Hicks was babbling nonsense the last 2 miles and could hardly keep his head up during his "graceless shuffle" to victory. He passed out before Alice could offer him her wreath and was only kept alive thanks to a team of doctors on the scene. But what would have been a sure DQ today was allowed to stand because Hicks was American, the second place finisher was French, and who really gives a shit anyway.
There's no telling how history would have been different if Carvajal hadn't eaten those apples, though. Or if Hicks' coaches had allowed him to quit at the 15-mile mark like he had begged. Or if Len Taunyane, the ninth place finisher and first black African to compete in the games, hadn't been chased more than a mile off course by a wild dog.
Matthew Kitchen used to write about the Olympics for NBC Sports, but then ... something happened. He hasn't said what it was, but now he's writing for us. You do the math. Follow him on Twitter here for tons of links back to this same article you just read.
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