WORLD / EUROPE
France chases two medals from the 1904 Olympics
Going for gold
Published: Apr 06, 2021 05:18 PM
It has taken 117 years, but long-distance runner Albert Corey may finally be nearing home, bringing along with him, his two Olympic silver medals.

Corey was declared an American by the organizers when he won silver in the marathon at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, Missouri. But now the French want him, and his medals, back. 

Clement Genty points at copies of a picture of Albert Corey, double medalist at the 1904 Olympics, in Abzac, Southwestern France, on March 31. Photo: AFP

Clement Genty points at copies of a picture of Albert Corey, double medalist at the 1904 Olympics, in Abzac, Southwestern France, on March 31. Photo: AFP

A local councilor in his hometown of Meursault is seeking to set the record straight, asking the French Olympic Committee to press the issue with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

Clement Genty, a councilor, engineer, and amateur historian holds up a faded black and white photo, in which Corey looks like the archetypal amateur in his oversized sleeveless vest, crumpled shorts, and laced leather shoes. 

Yet this penniless son of Burgundian winegrowers bagged what should have been France's only Olympic medals at the 1904 Games. 

"A beautiful story," says Genty. "I learned of his existence in a newspaper and did some research."

Absent without leave 

Corey was born in Meursault in 1878, the year that the village became the first in the Cote d'Or area to be hit by phylloxera, which ravaged the vines. 

Etienne Corey, Albert's winemaker father moved to the Paris suburbs and in 1896, Albert enlisted in the French army. 

There he discovered a talent for endurance running. He broke the 160 kilometers record in 1899 but on January 2, 1903, he went absent without leave. A year later, he turned up as a strike-breaker in the huge Chicago slaughterhouses.  

Getting into local athletics was not easy for a man with broken English who had arrived in Chicago, The Washington Times wrote in 1905, as "practically a tramp."

When he learned that the Olympics were going to be held on American soil, he revealed he had run in the "Paris Marathon" in 1900. 

This was true, but he played on the confusion with the Olympic Marathon of the same year to make people believe that he had participated in a much more prestigious event.

Strychnine 

The ploy worked and he went to St Louis representing the First Regiment Athletic Association of Chicago. 

Because the St Louis Games were so hard and expensive to reach from outside North America, they attracted few international entrants. Corey would have been the only Frenchman.

"But he belonged to an American club. He was therefore considered American, according to the rules of the time," Genty told AFP. 

These were the first Olympics at which gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded.  

The marathon was run in the hottest part of a sweltering late August day over a hilly, dusty course that, because the race distance had not yet been standardized, was 40km long. 

With only one water stop along the course, more than half of the 32 participants dropped out. 

Corey, on the other hand, boasted "I could have done one more lap."

He crossed the finish line third but the "winner," Fred Lorz, was disqualified for hitching a ride. 

Gold instead went to British-born American Thomas Hicks who, fuelled by strychnine mixed with brandy, completed the course in 3 hours 28 minutes 53 seconds to beat Corey by six minutes. Corey was almost 13 minutes ahead of the bronze medalist. Corey also won silver along with four Americans in a team that won a 20-mile (32km) relay - although he is not referred to as American in the records for this one race and the medal was assigned to a "mixed" team.

'Funny story' 

The US media was under no illusion that Corey was anything other than French.

They hailed the "success story" of this "Frenchman," a "slaughterhouse worker," who became the "New Star for Marathon."

In October 1908, the Buffalo Evening Times wrote: "It must be nice to train like Corey. The Frenchman who won the Marathon race declared that he owed his success to having trained on champagne [sic]."

Olympic historians have long classified Corey as French but his marathon medal is credited to the United States and the IOC appears unwilling to change that.

"There is no question of changing the country to which these medals are awarded," its press office told AFP.

Corey's bid to win another medal at the 1908 Olympics in London failed, however, when he declined France's invitation to represent them in favor of opting to run for the US, who then proceeded not to invite him. 

He won the 1908 Chicago Marathon but in 1909, Corey was hit by a car, and never regained his former level of performance. 

He returned to France in the summer of 1910 and resumed his military career. He died in 1926 in Paris, presumably of tuberculosis. 

His great-grandson Serge Canaud, 69, learned of Corey's unknown past, thanks to a phone call from Genty.  

"I was stunned," he told AFP from the small Jura village of Moirans-en-Montagne, where he is living in retirement. 

"I've never heard of this in our family: America and the Games. We knew nothing about it."

"It's a funny story," he said.
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