The first London Olympic Marathon

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What everyone knows about the marathon at London’s first (1908) Olympics – the extension of the distance from 25 miles to its present distance of 26 miles and 385 yards in order to accommodate a start at Windsor Castle – turns out to be the least interesting thing. There was no Royal conspiracy (even through there may have been some unnecessary planning by the Games’ organising Royalists). Focussing on the distance distracts us from the race itself, which was extraordinary.

As David Davis tells in his new book, Showdown at Shepherds Bush, racers had a very different training regime in those days. The favourite for the marathon, Tom Longboat, a Native American from Canada, drank and smoked heavily. He and his rivals relied on whisky or strychnine to revive them when they tired, or cold baths applied externally (the only strict “no” appears to have been a prohibition on drinking water to cure the runners’ thirst).

The crowd of 100,000 people waiting at the stadium in the White City for the finish of the marathon were read the names of the leading runners: originally, Thomas Jack and Jack Pack Price (both English, neither had ever previously run a marathon), later Charles Hefferon of South Africa, and then for the last two miles Dorando Pietri of Italy.

Pietri’s arrival in the stadium was far from a victory procession; “As I entered the stadium the pain in my legs and in my lungs became impossible to bear,” he wrote in the Italian magazine Sport Illustrato several years later, “It felt like a giant hand was gripping my throat, tighter and tighter. Willpower was irrelevant now. If it hadn’t been so bad I would not have fallen the first time. I got up automatically and launched myself a few more paces forwards. I no longer knew if I was heading towards my goal or away from it. They tell me that I fell another five or six times and that I looked like a man suffering from paralysis, stumbling with tiny steps towards his wheelchair. I don’t remember anything else. My memory stops at the final fall.”

Jack Andrew, the clerk of the course and Dr Michael Bulger of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association eventually lifted Pietri and pushed him over the line:

As Pietri finished, a second runner, Johnny Haynes of the USA, was just two minutes behind. In all probability, were it not for the assistance given to Pietri by Andrew and Bulger, Haynes would have won. The American sports association duly appealed and Pietri was disqualified.

I’d recommend Davis’ book. It’s written in a blood-and-thunder, 400 metres runner’s style. Everything is in the present tense, and the writer is searching – constantly – for arresting detail.  He focuses a bit too much on Johnny Haynes for my liking (Haynes being the least interesting character of the Pietre-Haynes-Longboat troika). But what carries Davis to the line is the history itself, and above all Pietri’s story.

Pietri’s defeat proved his making: one paper dubbed him “the man who won, but lost, and then won”. Awarded a special prize by Queen Alexandra, he was signed up by a promoter and and sent on a tour of London music halls. Newspapers raised public collections for him. Crowds cheered his departure from London. He raced professionally over the next three years, making an extraordinary £200,000 in prize money and twice beating Haynes.

Pietri’s triumph was made possible by his audience’s understanding of his sport. The 1908 marathon was the first ever raced in England. Merely running the event was seen to be an achievement at the very limit of human stamina. It dominated the Olympic Games in the same way that sprinters dominate in a digital age. Articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association took it for granted that marathon running did permanent serious damage to the heart. Pietri had given absolutely everything to finish – and he was loved for it. Those of us who have run and suffered the event should recall his name with pride.

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