The Games of the III Olympiad were an oddity to start with. Originally awarded to Chicago, Illinois by the International Olympic Committee, they were transferred to St. Louis, Missouri, where they became part of the World’s Fair, known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, celebrating the centenary of the United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France.
The marathon, though, was one of the most bizarre events of its kind in Olympic history. In the days before the marathon distance was standardised at 26 miles and 385 yards, the race was run over just shy of 25 miles, on a hilly, dusty, perilously-maintained course, deliberately devoid of access to fresh water after 12 miles and subject to temperatures of 90ºF or more. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the 32 starters failed to complete the course.
Furthermore, the original ‘winner’, American Fred Lorz was in the process of receiving the gold medal from Alice Roosevelt, daughter of US President when it was discovered that he had not run the full distance and, in fact, far from it. After nine miles, suffering from cramps, he had hitched a lift in a passing vehicle, from which he did not alight until beyond the twenty-mile mark. Once his subtefuge was revealed, Lorz claimed he had finished the race as a ‘joke’ and was summarily disqualified in favour of compatriot Thomas Hicks.
However, Hicks was hardly the epitome of athletic excellence, relying om strychnine, egg whites and brandy, administered by a pair of accomplices, to bolster his performace over the closing miles. Pale, exhausted and hallucinatory, he got his second wind on learning that Lorz had been disqualified but, even so, could barely put one foot in front of the other at the finish and had to be all but carried over the line by his collaborators.