The Wildest Race Ever: The Story Of The 1904 Olympic Marathon, by Meghan McCarthy
I first heard about this particular race from a Sports Illustrated feature that dramatized this shambolic Olympic race, but the SI crew may have gotten it from this book. Admittedly speaking, although the marathon is not usually the most dramatic of races, it does inspire a great deal of interest despite its length. Just about everything that could have gone wrong in a race of this stature did, and one wonders about the professionalism that went on in the planning and logistics of this race. Running on dirt roads, being fed rat poison, suffering the ill effects of contaminated water, and chocking on the dust that comes from passing vehicle traffic should not be connected with the marathon racing at the most prestigious athletic event the world has to offer in the Summer Olympics. Clearly the state of support for athletics in the early 20th century was not up to the standards of contemporary athletics, as inadequate as those may be for many former athletes, but it is shocking just how bad these athletes had it while trying to race a marathon, and yet this is a true story, albeit a shocking one.
In this book, the author tells the sordid tale of the 1904 marathon, showing us not only how the race was run but the sort of conditions that the athletes involved had to survive, and even giving a post mortem about the race to show how some of the racers managed to not quit racing after this terrible debacle. In a non-standard marathon that was shorter than regulation (but still long at over 24 miles), the route was changed at the last minute because storms had made the original planned course impassable because the dirt roads could not handle rainfall. The new course had not been adequately scoped out, though, and racers faced a great deal of trouble, from inadequate drinking facilities, including water that made some of the runner sick, inadequate food that led one of the racers to steal some fruit and gorge himself on apples because he had apparently not eaten for days before the marathon, and led one racer to struggle to victory on a mixture of rat poison and egg whites. I’ll just take the power bar and Gatorade, thanks. One of the racers even cheated by hitching a ride from a car for most of the trail, and only a few racers are said to have finished the race.
Given the professionalism of athletics at present, it is remarkable just how much athletes had to suffer through in order to gain Olympic glory. Considering that my own great-grandfather was a track and field athlete during the early 20th century, I have a lot more respect for the primitive conditions and lack of support faced by many athletes who were trying to bring glory for their country than I did before, as my great-grandfather was not the sort of person to complain about the past. The people here, though, not only survived a race organized and run with criminal levels of incompetence, though, but they continued to race in the future, some of them gaining later glory in other races. And having survived this race with their health and sometimes honor intact, those people deserved much better races than this one. It is to be praised that every Olympics marathon is far better run than this one, and that no one has to deal with the sort of oppressive circumstances that these men suffered from in order to race in the Olympics.