Crossing the line

Kathryn Harkup wrote for The Guardian of 21 Jul 2016:

“…The first case of strychnine doping dates back to the 1904 Olympic Games held in St. Louis. Back then things were a little more relaxed…

The 1904 Olympic marathon made history for several reasons. It was the first to see black athletes take part: Len Taunyane and Yamasani (Jan Mashiani). Neither of them was registered as a competitor in the games and they had in fact come over to St Louis from South Africa to take part in the World Fair. Yamasani finished twelfth and Taunyane came in ninth, but might have done better if he hadn’t been chased nearly a mile off course by aggressive dogs…

Carbajal started well but decided to take a break from the brutal race (a very hilly course and full of choking dust kicked up by the support vehicles traveling alongside the competitors) and stopped in an orchard to eat some apples. The apples disagreed with him and so he took a nap to recover. He still finished fourth.

The top competitors in the race were Frederick Lorz, a bricklayer by trade who trained at night after he finished his day job, and Thomas Hicks, a brass worker from Massachusetts. Lorz dropped out at the ninth mile and got into a car to be driven back to the stadium to collect his things. The car then broke down at the nineteenth mile and Lorz decided to jog the rest of the way. He was first to cross the finish line but was stripped of his gold medal when organisers found out Lorz had completed much of the course by car. Lorz claimed it was a joke but no one else saw the funny side.

Hicks fared better. He took an early lead but was soon flagging. Photos taken during the race show an exhausted Hicks being held upright by two men. As well as physical support, Hicks was also given chemical support in the form of strychnine. Strychnine is a powerful stimulant of motor neurones, those that control muscle contractions. Too much strychnine, around 100mg, can result in whole body convulsions that can kill by paralysing the muscles for breathing. The lowest known lethal dose was a mere 36mg.

Hicks was given approximately 1mg of strychnine sulphate and some brandy, which appeared to revive him, but not for long. So, he was given a second dose of strychnine. When he crossed the finish line (behind Lorz) he collapsed and was too weak to collect his medal. Much more “help” from his team and Hicks might have been killed. But he did recover, and lived until the age of 76, though he never competed again.

Despite taking a stimulant on two occasions during the race, Hicks was never stripped of his medal. Strychnine was not a banned substance, though this quickly changed, and even the brandy he drank was not a reason to stop him being awarded gold. He is still, quite rightly, listed as the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon.

Even more incredibly, Hicks was not the last Olympic athlete to take strychnine. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Chinese volleyball player Wu Dan was found to have taken strychnine. The lengths athletes are prepared to go to win is staggering, as the many recent sports scandals have shown. As the spotlight turns on the Rio Olympics we can only hope no one would be desperate enough to try anything as awful as strychnine.”

From: Noel Coward – a Biography (1995), by Philip Hoare:

“(Coward) collapsed in his dressing-room, and a doctor was summoned to give him a strychnine injection and put him to bed, where he stayed for a week. Dr Desmond MacManus wrote to Dean from Ebury Street on 7 October, ‘Mr Coward has been examined by me this morning and is suffering from severe nervous exhaustion. He has been ordered by me to remain in bed & will not be fit to act for at least a month.’.”

“(Coward) admitted to using marijuana only once, in New York, when he had bought a joint and smoked it in his hotel room. He felt so strange that he called a doctor, who put him to bed and promptly lit up the remainder of the cigarette as he said it would be a shame to waste it.”

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