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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 12th October 2011

After yesterday’s rather heavy topic, I thought I’d go for something a little lighter today, though it is still on the theme of truth and lies and how we describe them.

Although I live in Scotland I am close enough to the border to be able to pick up TV transmission from the north-east of England. I tend to watch the BBC’s local news for the north-east because the Scottish news is mostly about Edinburgh and politics whereas the north-east news has more items that are relevant to me.

For example, the story that sparked this blog is about the Kielder Marathon and the woman who runs Kielder’s commercial activities used to be employed at the Alnwick Garden. So, I can’t help wondering how she’s reacting to the story that the runner who was, originally, awarded third place had travelled part of the way by bus.  Even as Rob Sloan was being interviewed for TV on his third place finish the man placed fourth, who knew he hadn’t been passed by anyone to take the third place he’d been in all along, was preparing to tell the organisers that something had gone on.

When the organisers began to make enquiries they soon found people who said they had seen him on one of the buses being used to ferry spectators and runners who had pulled out to the finish. My first reason for blogging about this is because it reminded me of the time this happened during the 1904 Olympic Games.

Travelling to the USA was no easy matter and, as a result, only 12 countries were represented at the games. Even so, some of the competitors for the 11 non-host countries were Americans with some tenuous link to the country they represented. And it wasn’t just this small entry field that made the 1904 games less than the Olympic movement hoped for.

First across the line in the marathon was an American called Fred Lorz but it took only a short time before suspicions were aroused. People said they had seen him waving from a vehicle along the route and, when challenged, Lorz freely admitted he had ridden for quite a distance after becoming exhausted. It is said that the vehicle he was in broke down short of the stadium so he completed the journey on foot and was surprised when he was acclaimed the winner. He appears to have claimed that he got caught up by events and wasn’t able to tell anyone he was not the rightful winner.

After the error came to light, the gold medal was awarded to Thomas Hicks. Hicks was an American citizen but, having been born in England, he was competing for the UK. But Hicks own marathon was not without incident. He had collapsed from exhaustion around fifteen miles into the event and his support team gave him strychnine, from Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree, mixed with egg whites and washed down with brandy to revive him.

Thomas Hicks 1904 Olympic marathon

Some reports suggest that he required another four ‘revivers’ before reaching the stadium and that he was so intoxicated that his coaches held him up, with his legs still running but not in contact with the ground, to get him over the line. Though his feet are on the ground in the picture they may not have stayed there.

I usually tell this story if the Q & A session after one of my talks brings up the point about poisonous plants having medicinal uses. Strychnine is, of course, well-known as a murder weapon and, today, the idea of using it as a tonic amazes the audience.

As above, the possibility of repeating the story of Thomas Hicks’ marathon ‘win’ is only my first reason for choosing Rob Sloan’s story for today’s blog. My second reason is to do with the way the story unfolded and what was said about it.

Immediately after his disqualification Mr Sloan loudly proclaimed his outrage and denied any wrongdoing. Then, on Tuesday morning, he is said to have told a BBC reporter that he had been on the bus. Later that morning, however, he was again claiming to have done nothing wrong and it took a statement from the organisers saying Mr Sloan had admitted to them that he did not complete the course to settle the matter.

The event director responsible for the disqualification was former Olympic athlete, Steve Cram. Cram is quoted as saying "Mr Sloan made a mistake and has apologised to us for the confusion it has caused."

Now it seems to me to be quite hard to make a mistake about whether or not you boarded a bus rather than running the full distance and Steve Cram’s choice of language seems to be very restrained. I’m interested in what prevented Mr Cram was directly stating the Mr Sloan had lied about what happened because it is hard not to come to that conclusion. Its relevance to this blog is that I faced a similar situation in deciding how best to describe the flatly contradictory statements made by Professor Knottenbelt which are the subject of yesterday’s blog


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