The Boston Globe - perhaps jealous of all the publicity New York is receiving from the R-Roid scandals -- claims some Boston area fame today with a story on the infamous 1904 Olympic doping scandal. Thomas Hicks, a Cambridge area athlete, doped with strychnine for the Olympic marathon. Using a potent poison like strychnine sounds dangerous, however in the limited world of doping with stimulants, the compound represented one avenue of gaining an advantage over competitors. Athletes never looked back from there.
While the media currently fixate on a pinstriped athlete from New York, it was a skinny townie from Cambridge whose chemically enhanced victory in the 1904 Olympic Marathon first sparked widespread debate about drugs in sports.
For athletes in the 21st century, the elixir of choice is steroids. More than 100 years ago, Thomas J. Hicks opted for a vile concoction of egg whites and brandy laced with strychnine, the active ingredient in rat poison.
And the scoop on strychnine:
And while reputed performance boosters from this era range from frighteningly dangerous to downright laughable, it was the supportive attitude of the American public that is most shocking.
"Back in those days, the use of performance-enhancing substances was not the awful thing it is today," said Daniel M. Rosen, the author of "Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today."
Rosen said it was not Hicks's chemical consumption that caused the 1904 controversy. Rather, the outrage stemmed from the strychnine cocktails not being available to all Olympic runners in the searing, 90-degree heat.
"Hicks was kind of a hero for doing everything he could to win," Rosen said. "But he damn near killed himself in the process."
Strychnine doping continued after the leap...
Interesting comments that suggest performance, at any cost and any ethics, is often encouraged by various means. We love big performances and superhero feats, even if those performances are fueled by dangerous drugs.
The Globe discusses the history of performance enhancement, and the New York Times prescient criticism of same:
Ancient Romans and Greeks consumed botanical stimulants, and chewing cocoa leaves has been a part of South American culture for centuries. As organized athletics evolved in the 1800s, there were accounts of swimmers and bicyclists drinking cocaine tonics before and during races.
On Dec. 1, 1895, the New York Times published the first widely circulated editorial against stimulant use in sports.
"We feel sure that all true athletes would disdain any such injurious and adventitious aids," the paper proclaimed. "There are no drugs which will help one to win a game that could not be won without them, and the general effect of drug taking . . . is distinctly bad."
And like BALCO almost a century later, the 1904 marathon scandal was supported by shadowy, sleazy, co-conspirator enablers:
One constant through the history of sports doping has been the shadowy presence of suppliers and enablers, although it is not quite clear how Hicks became acquainted with Charles J.P. Lucas, the man referred to as his "handler."
A Cambridge resident who told people he graduated from Harvard Medical School, Lucas is mentioned in the annals of amateur athletics as the record-holder for such now-defunct specialties as stone gathering and potato races. He routinely showed up at sporting events claiming some sort of inflated capacity, and the 1904 Olympics were no exception. Accounts differ as to whether Lucas was there as a marathon official or as the manager for Hicks.
St. Louis in August is hardly ideal for long-distance racing, and the broiling heat was accentuated by a 3 p.m. start. The field of 32 filed out of Francis Stadium and into the rural countryside, where the only reported hydration stops were a water tower and a well. The rutted dirt roads were clogged with auto and horse traffic, and as Martin wrote in "The Olympic Marathon," massive clouds of grit caused a number of racers to abandon before the halfway point, including one who fell unconscious by the side of the road.
At 19 miles, Hicks stopped to a walk. Lucas, who had been following in a car, providing water and sponges that he denied to other runners, decided it was time for something stronger...
According to Lucas's account in his book, "The Olympic Games 1904," he administered to Hicks 1/60th of a grain of strychnine (about 1 milligram) tucked inside two egg whites. Hicks jogged on for another mile, but soon became "ashen pale." Lucas determined another dose was in order, this time washed down by a glass of good French brandy.
Hicks had barely enough energy to crest the hill leading back into the stadium. Delirious and miserable, he was probably unaware that the cheering was somewhat subdued. His final time was 3:28:53, but as far as the crowd was concerned, Hicks had finished second.
However, there was a Rosie Ruez-type finish in store for the eventual doped 'winner':
A surreal Olympic scene became even stranger thanks to a runner named Fred Lorz, who had a reputation as a jokester. Lorz was one of the first to drop out, and he had hitched a ride in an auto. But the car broke down 5 miles from the finish, so he jogged the rest of the way to the stadium, playing to the applauding crowd.
President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, was about to present the gold medal to Lorz as Hicks appeared. When questioned by fuming Olympic officials, Lorz readily admitted he was just kidding.
Hicks collapsed after the finish and had to be carried into an automobile himself. He later told reporters he had lost 10 pounds, "and you can see that I could not push myself any faster."
The remainder of the article discusses briefly the course of doping...well worth reading.
Although it is best known as a poison, small doses of strychnine were once used in medications as a stimulant, a laxative and as a treatment for other stomach ailments. A 1934 drug guide for nurses described it as "among the most valuable and widely prescribed drugs". Strychnine's stimulant effects also led to its use historically for enhancing performance in sports. Because of its high toxicity and tendency to cause convulsions, the use of strychnine in medicine was eventually abandoned once safer alternatives became available.