Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Postman Comes in 4th

Felix Carvajal de Soto, Olympic marathoner, was apparently born on this day in 1875 in Cuba.

Felix Carvajal's tale, quirky though it may be, is one that perfectly captures the amateur ideal of the modern Olympics, of the joy of competition for competition's sake. A 5'-tall postman from Havana, Carvajal was a local phenom as a footracer, and when he got it in his head to enter the marathon in the 1904 Olympics, he raised his money for the trip to St. Louis by staging races and socking away the winnings. He got as far as New Orleans, however, when he lost his purse in a crap game, so he had to hitchhike the rest of the way, getting to St. Louis just in time to show up on the starting line in street shoes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a beret. Discus thrower Martin Sheridan took pity on the Cuban and held up the starting gun long enough to cut Carvajal's pants off at the knees.

In 90 degree heat, Carvajal bipped along the 26-mile, 385-yard course without apparent stress or strain, stopping occasionally to practice his English with bystanders, as some of the pre-race favorites collapsed and took sick. To quench his thirst, he raided an orchard for some green apples -- which turned out to be his only mistake. The apples apparently gave him stomach cramps, which caused him to lose a little ground as American Thomas Hicks suffered his way to a first place finish -- but only after being administered strychnine and brandy by his handlers, a little bit of doping not yet considered illegal.

Carvajal -- in street shoes, with stomach cramps, and in 90-degree heat -- finished fourth and disappeared into obscurity, a lone longshot competitor from a distant land who enjoyed a heroic moment in the Olympic sun.

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