In 1904 the United States was a nation bristling with newfound
bravado, emerging as a major industrial and, after its victory
in the Spanish-American War, military power. The Wright brothers
had taken a plane aloft only the year before, automobile sales
were booming, motion pictures were on the brink of a golden age,
and Americans everywhere were gabbing on the telephone. The
energetic and athletic Theodore Roosevelt, waving the Stars and
Stripes and brandishing his "big stick," was in the White House.
It was, for Americans, an Age of Optimism--and a fitting time
for the nation to host its first Olympic Games.
Three years earlier the International Olympic Committee had
awarded the III Olympiad to Chicago, but when officials of the
Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the World's Fair in St. Louis,
threatened to stage a rival competition, the IOC stepped
gingerly aside, leaving the choice of host city to President
Roosevelt. As honorary president of the Exposition, he
predictably opted for St. Louis, and the IOC reluctantly agreed,
despite fears that the Games would merely be a sideshow to the
The change in venue was just the first twist to what would be
the strangest of all Olympic Games. They officially began on
July 1, with hardly a trace of the opening ceremonies such as
will take place tonight when the Atlanta Games begin, and the
competition was drawn out until Nov. 23. Unfortunatly, the St.
Louis Games were contested almost entirely by American athletes.
Because of the great distances foreign athletes would have to
travel and the ongoing Russo-Japanese War, only 13 foreign
countries sent teams. Of the 625 participants in the Games,
533 were from the U.S., and thus it was no surprise when
Americans won 238 of the 282 total medals.
Competition was so scare in some events that one of the
American medalists in archery was a Civil War veteran in his
60's. Fred Womboldt, an American heavyweight wrestler, lost his
only match in just 23 seconds and still won a bronze medal. Four
American trackmen--jumper Ray Ewry, sprinter Archie Hahn,
hurdler Harry Hillman and middle distance runner James
Lightbody--won three events each.
Piqued by the contretemps over the venue selection, Baron Pierre
de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, elected to stay
home as well, in Paris. He winced in lordly disapproval when
informed that during the Anthropology Days, an unconventional
competition for "aborigines" and "savages" held on Aug. 12-13,
an African Pygmy had put the shot 13' 7 1/2" inches and a
Japanese Ainu had tossed the 56-pound weight 3' 2". "In no place
but America," the Baron muttered, "would one have dared place
such events on a program."
The quintessential event of these bizarre Games was the
marathon, run on Aug. 30 over roads thick with dust and in
temperatures and humidity levels in the 90's. Of the 32
starters, 18 failed to finish. One runner was chased a mile off
course by an angry dog. Another, Felix Carvajal of Cuba, who
ran in cutoff trousers and street shoes, paused long enough in
an orchard to get sick eating green apples. The first man across
the finish line was Fred Lorz from the Mohawk Athletic Club of
New York, who looked surprisingly fresh--as well he might, since
he traveled 11 miles of the 25-mile course in an automobile.
Lorz confessed his deception just as Alice Roosevelt, the
President's daughter was about to crown him with a laurel
The real winner, Thomas Hicks of Cambridge, Mass., staggered in
minutes later and almost immediately fell unconscious, possibly
as much from the brandy and strychnine he had ingested to keep
himself going as from the rugged course itself. Hicks, who won
the race in 3 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds, earned his living
as a clown.
It was that kind of Olympics.