Olympic expert Susan Brownell recalls the colorful and disastrous 1904 marathon on ‘Our American Stories’

Susan Brownell

Professor of Anthropology Susan Brownell appeared as a guest on the “Our American Stories” podcast and shared colorful tales about the marathon at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Billions of dollars are now spent to bring athletes from all over the world together – usually every four years – to compete for Olympic glory.

But the Games that will be televised later this year from Tokyo would be unrecognizable to the athletes who took part in the events held in Athens, Paris and, yes, St. Louis near the turn of the 20th Century.

They had not yet developed into a global spectacle featuring athletes who trained full-time for their chance to bring home gold to their native countries. In fact, in those early Olympics, competitors were still representing their clubs, not their nations, and the competitions themselves didn’t yet have the level of organization that would be expected today.

There might not have been any greater evidence of that than the marathon contested in St. Louis in 1904. Susan Brownell, an internationally recognized Olympic scholar and professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, recently detailed that race in an episode of the podcast “Our American Stories.”

“In the case of the marathon … basically, if you showed up at the starting line, you could jump into the race, and that’s what happened with that event,” Brownell said. “And that’s why it’s such an interesting event compared to our typical assumptions about what Olympic Games are like. There were a number of well-known long-distance runners who showed up at the starting line and were ready to run a serious race.”

But Brownell also discussed other characters who joined the competition, such as Felix Carvajal from Cuba who built a reputation in his home country for running across the island to raise money and demonstrate his endurance. Carvajal had caught a ship to New Orleans, where he lost his money in a casino, leaving him to hitchhike to St. Louis.

Brownell said he showed up at the starting line wearing long pants, leather shoes and a little beret, indifferent to the fact it was 90 degrees outside. Another one of the competitors got out some scissors and cut Carvajal’s pants off just below the knee.

There were two men from South Africa who were members of the Tswana tribe who jumped into the marathon running barefoot and did quite well, finishing ninth and 12th, respectively, despite the fact that one of them had been run off course by a dog chasing after him.

The course itself wasn’t well-planned. It followed what were then mostly dirt roads out into the city’s suburbs, and the competitors were running through the dust kicked up by cars and delivery trucks driving alongside them because nobody thought to stop traffic.

What’s more, Brownell said there were only two water stations because the conventional wisdom at the time was that people should not drink water while running so as to avoid stomach cramps.

More than a few runners dropped out of the competition before completing 26.2 miles.

“The guy who was originally declared the winner, Fred Lorz, was a well-known long-distance runner with legitimate credentials,” Brownell said, “but about nine miles into the race, he got cramps, as most of the runners were getting, because they were dehydrated.

“He hitched a ride with a car till close to the end, when he got out and ran into the stadium for the final part of the race, as a result of which he was declared the winner.”

Brownell said it was pretty quickly discovered that he hadn’t finished because other competitors had seen him driving by waving at them. Lorz, who went on to win the Boston Marathon the next year, claimed it was a joke and that he never intended to be declared the winner.

Those were just a few of the stories Brownell shared during the podcast, hosted by Lee Habeeb.

Brownell also discussed how the Olympics landed in St. Louis as well as the origins of her own interest in the Games.

“I became interested in the Olympics as an athlete, actually,” Brownell said. “From the time I was quite young, I just really wanted to compete in the Olympic Games, and one thing led to another, I got a full athletic scholarship to college, and I competed at the elite level in track and field. But I just wasn’t good enough to make an Olympic team. I competed in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic trials. My best finished with seventh, but I was lucky because I was able to convert it into an academic career.”

Brownell has attended five Olympics in person, the first in Los Angeles in 1984. She also served as editor of the book “The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Race, Sport and American Imperialism” and authored “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.”

To here the full segment featuring Brownell on “Our American Stories,” click here.

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