Sports Column: With dueling, tug-of-war and plunge for distance, the early Olympics were awesome
Published 8:05 am Sunday, July 25, 2021
A year late and several billion dollars short, the Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin this weekend in Tokyo.
The spectacle has become a modern staple of the sports world, but this year’s edition will be unusual on a number of fronts. The 2021 Games will still be called the 2020 Games after being delayed for a year by COVID-19, and the continuing effects of the pandemic will keep fans from attending events.
New events such as skateboarding and surfing will make their debut, baseball and softball will make a brief comeback, and golf will once again be included.
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While the lack of fans, addition of modern events and constant threat of COVID-19 forfeits will provide a different feel, however, these will hardly be the most bizarre of the 32 Olympiads held in the last 125 years.
The Olympics were cancelled four times because of the two World Wars, and three of the first four editions lasted months rather than a couple of weeks. Those early Olympics also provided some of the most interesting stories — and memorable disasters — in sports history.
The 1900 Olympics in Paris featured events like hot air balloon races, a swimming obstacle course, and shooting events in which competitors used live pigeons as targets.
The 1908 Summer Games in London lasted six months, from late April to Halloween. Figure skating events were part of the October portion of the card, since the Winter Olympics were not yet a thing. Other events included pistol dueling — competitors wore protective gear and used wax bullets — and motorboating.
And then, of course, there was the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, perhaps the pinnacle of early 20th century sports absurdity.
The 1904 Games were largely an All-American affair since no one could — or wanted to — get to St. Louis. Travel was difficult in the early 20th century, and a war between Japan and Russia had the attention of many in Europe.
The United States won 239 out of a possible 280 medals — a record that still stands — and only 10 countries competed. Of the 651 athletes who competed, only 62 were from outside North America.
Six of the American medals were won by George Eyser, a gymnast with a wooden left leg. Four others went to Frank Kugler, who won in three different events — freestyle wrestling, weightlifting and tug of war.
One of Eyser’s gold medals came in rope climbing, as he scurried up a 25-foot rope in seven seconds.
Oh, I didn’t mention that tug of war was a medal event at the first few Olympics? Six teams competed in 1904, four of them from American athletic clubs, and the Milwaukee Athletic Club came out on top.
Almost as fun and absurd was the Plunge for Distance event, which was an underwater long jump contested only at the 1904 Games. Contestants got a running start, dove off a platform, and had their distance measured after 60 seconds or they broke the surface, whichever came first. A New Yorker named Billy Dickey won with a distance of 19.05 meters.
The actual events were only the tip of the iceberg, however, when it came to the craziness in 1904.
Water polo games were played in a lake where cattle grazed and bathed, and it is believed the unsanitary conditions led to the deaths of four athletes.
The marathon, meanwhile, was the strangest of a strange Olympics.
Thirty-two men started, but only 14 finished, in one of the most brutal foot races in human history. Most of the 24.85-mile marathon — the current 26.2 mile distance would not be established until 1908 — was run in 90-degree heat on dirt roads, and there were only two water stops at the 6- and 12-mile marks.
The lack of water stops was part of an experiment to test the effects of dehydration on athletic performance. Two runners suffered severe internal injuries from inhaling massive amounts of dust, and one nearly died.
A South African tribesman named Len Tau finished ninth. He might have done better had he not been chased off course for nearly a mile by stray dogs.
A Cuban mailman named Andarin “Felix” Carvajal walked and hitchhiked from New Orleans to St. Louis after losing all his money in a dice game. Naturally, he was a fan favorite.
Carvajal took a break in the middle of the race to snack on some apples from an orchard, which turned out to be rotten. Overcome with stomach cramps, Carvajal stopped to take a nap. His final time is unknown, but he somehow finished fourth.
Fred Lorz, an American who went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1905, was the first to cross the finish line. He had only run nine miles, however, and rode most of the last 15 in a car. His deception was discovered just before he was awarded the gold medal and Lorz was disqualified.
The winner — survivor might be a better term — was Thomas Hicks. The metalworker from Massachusetts won with a time of 3 hours, 28 minutes and 53 seconds thanks largely to one of the first documented cases of doping in Olympic history.
Late in the race, trainers gave a fading Hicks several doses of strychnine mixed with brandy. Strychnine is a potent poison that can be used as a stimulant in very small doses. Hicks received enough that he was hallucinating and barely able to walk by the end of the race.
The use of performance enhancing drugs was not illegal at the time, although using a car was, and thus Hicks was awarded the gold medal while Lorz was disqualified and received a lifetime ban from competition that was later rescinded.
So, as you turn on NBC these next couple of weeks and dive into the nuances of sports you’ve never heard of, celebrate athletes who were unknown until this moment, and witness incredible feats of athleticism and perhaps a bit of controversy — all in empty arenas — just remember that it can and has been even weirder.
Ernest Bowker is the sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org