Félix Carvajal and the 1904 Olympics

I first heard of this story on Knowable here, and it seemed so crazy that I had to check it out for myself. Turns out it was true.

Félix de la Caridad Carvajal y Soto, known as Félix Carvajal or Andarín Carvajal (March 18, 1875 – January 27, 1949) was a Cuban postman and athlete who competed in the 1904 Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri. His journey there and competition were . . . rather fraught.

Known in Cuba for his walking and running feats (including traversing the entire length of the island), he traveled from his home country to compete in the upcoming Olympic marathon. His journey got off to an extremely bumpy start when his boat docked in New Orleans and he promptly lost all of his money gambling.

Now with no other way to reach the marathon, Félix was forced to hitchhike the 700 miles to St. Louis, and he only just made the start time. I’m not sure if he didn’t come prepared with the proper equipment, or if he also lost his possessions gambling, but Félix did not have appropriate marathon attire. Wearing only street clothes, he hastily chopped some of the length off his trousers to give him pseudo-shorts and began the race. According to the Smithsonian magazineFélix was only five feet tall and made quite a striking contrast to most of the other tall, leggy competitors.

The day was extraordinarily hot, and a former Boston marathon runner competing in the marathon had to drop out after running only two blocks. It wasn’t just that it was hot, either. The terrain was a nightmare. One Olympic official said it was “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”, as the marathon track was laid out over several steep hills, was incredibly dusty, and was strewn with loose rock that made footing on the hilly terrain actually quite dangerous. The track also intersected with busy roads, so runners had to dodge traffic frequently. There were also only two places on the entire 26.2 mile course where runners could get water–once at mile six, and once at mile twelve. They were forced to run the remaining fourteen miles on a blisteringly hot day on possibly the world’s most difficult marathon track without any chance for hydration.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, “James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.”

Great. So even the organizers wanted them dehydrated. Jesus wept, y’all.

Félix seemed to cope alright, and he even stopped on a few occasions to have a bit of a chat with some of the spectators and to eat fruit. He stole some peaches from a spectator’s car, and later ate some apples from a nearby tree. The apples turned out to be rotten and gave him a stomach ache, so he decided to take a nap in the middle of the race.

When he woke from his nap, he continued the race and finished fourth.


According to Wikipedia, “Carvajal returned to St. Louis the following year to run in the inaugural All-Western Marathon, where he finished third, in a time of 3:44.

“Carvajal was selected to represent Cuba in the 1906 Olympic Marathon at Athens, Greece, with his expenses funded by the Cuban Government. However, he disappeared after landing in Italy, and never arrived in Athens. He was thought to be dead, and his obituary was published in the Cuban newspapers, but he later returned to Havana on a Spanish steamer. He then turned professional and would go on to defeat American distance runner Henry W. Shelton in a six-hour race in 1907.”

But if you think that’s all the excitement the 1904 Olympics had, then you are woefully mistaken. In addition to Félix, some other unorthodox marathon runners included:

-Ten Greek men who had never run a marathon before.

-Two men of the South African Tsuana tribe who were there as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit; they shocked people by turning up at the starting line barefoot.

-Len Tau, one of the South African competitors, was chased by wild dogs more than a mile off course.

-Fred Lorz, an American bricklayer whose participation in the marathon was sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union, was initially in the lead but then got cramps at the nine-mile mark. So he decided to hitch a ride with one of the accompanying vehicles and waved at spectators and fellow runners while he took a rest for eleven miles. He eventually got out of the car and continued running. One of the officials saw him cheating and ordered him off the marathon course, by Lorz ignored him and finished in just under three hours, “winning” the race.

All the American spectators started cheering that an American won, and Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice even placed a wreath on his head. She was just about to put the gold medal around his neck when officials caught up with him and exposed the cheating. The crowd turned furious and started booing Lorz, who tried to save face by saying that he only finished the race for a laugh and never intended on accepting the honor. Despite the fact that the gold medal was just about to go over his head. People were pissed.

-Earlier this year I wrote another post about Thomas Hicks, one of the early favorites to win the marathon, whose trainers not only refused to give him water during the race, but instead fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites to keep him going (with small doses of strychnine being commonly used as a stimulant at the time). This was the first known example of “doping” in the Olympics, but since there were no rules against performance-enhancing substances, it wasn’t a problem for anyone except Hicks, who almost died from strychnine poisoning.

Upon hearing that Lorz had been disqualified, Hicks’s trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, and made him wash it down with brandy. He seemed to pick up the pace, but then started hallucinating and nearly collapsed several times. His trainers had to carry him over the finish line. He was still the first person to cross the finish line legally.

It took four doctors about an hour to get him in a fit enough condition to even leave the race track. Hicks had lost eight pounds over the course of the race. Eight pounds in about three and a half hours. I hope he fired the shit out of those trainers.

He went on the next year to win the Boston marathon with precisely zero performance-enhancing substances.

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One Response to Félix Carvajal and the 1904 Olympics

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 5 Years | BizarreVictoria

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