The greatest race in history: No one could have imagined the drama of the 1908 Olympic Marathon… not even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
22:06 GMT, 27 July 2012
The Marathon at the 1908 London Olympics was the hottest ticket of the Games – the biggest competitive race ever run.
And it didn’t disappoint, with an extraordinary climax that created the world’s first Olympic celebrity, a heroic loser who refused to be defeated. One of those lucky enough to see it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was reporting for the Daily Mail.
‘I do not often do journalistic work,’ he explained later. ‘But on the occasion of the Olympic Games of 1908, I was tempted, chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat.’
Pietri is helped over the line by Jack Andrew (with the megaphone) and Dr Bulger
The 1908 Games should never have taken place in London at all. They were supposed to be in Rome, but when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906 the authorities in Turin and Milan objected to resources being diverted at a time of national crisis.
Virtually by gentlemen’s agreement, Britain, led by Lord Desborough – the man Vanity Fair dubbed the ‘greatest sportsman of his age’ at the time – agreed to step in and host the Games.
So it was that on 24 July, White City stadium was filled to capacity; the crowd of 90,000 was the largest the world had ever seen. Out of 55 runners who started, only 27 were plodding towards the finish.
As the first of them approached the stadium, there was a murmur from the streets outside and all eyes were glued to the tunnel through which they’d enter. Guns fired a salute and a man with a megaphone announced to the royal box that the diminutive Italian athlete Dorando Pietri was in sight.
‘But what an appearance it was,’ ran the Mail’s report. ‘The great Olympic cheer for which everybody had been waiting was throttled at its birth. Through the doorway crawled a little, exhausted man… He seemed bewildered by the immensity of the crowd.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
'He turned the wrong way… with the dreamy air of one whose faculties were absolutely exhausted…’ Officials steered him the right way. ‘He trotted for a few exhausted yards like a man galvanised into life; then the trot expired into a slow crawl, so slow that the officials could scarcely walk slow enough to keep beside him.’
With only 385 yards to go Dorando – a 22-year-old pastry cook from Carpi, near Bologna – collapsed. Conan Doyle described the scene: ‘Good Heavens, he has fainted; is it possible that even at this last moment the prize may slip through his fingers Every eye slides round to that dark archway. No second man has yet appeared. Then a sigh of relief goes up. I do not think in all that great assembly any man would have wished victory to be torn at the last instant from this plucky little Italian…
‘Thank God, he is on his feet again – the little red legs going incoherently, but drumming hard, driven by a supreme will. There is a groan as he falls once more, and a cheer as he staggers to his feet.’ The clerk of the race, Jack Andrew, initially held off helpers but medical officer Dr Michael Bulger overruled him. Each time Dorando fell, the pudgy doctor massaged him to keep his heart beating. Dorando’s penultimate fall happened yards from Conan Doyle’s seat. ‘I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed expressionless eyes,’ he wrote. ‘Surely he is done now’
The band struck up The Conquering Hero as American Johnny Hayes entered the stadium. Dorando had only 20 yards to go, and Jack Andrew all but held him up as he breasted the tape before collapsing.
The Italian flag was raised but the American lodged an appeal. Dorando’s time was 2hrs, 54 mins, 46 sec; Hayes’s 2hrs, 55 mins, 18 sec. Queen Alexandra applauded by beating a tattoo on the floor of the royal box with her umbrella.
But Conan Doyle lamented: ‘Even as I write there comes the rumour that he has been disqualified. If true, it is indeed a tragedy.’ He admitted, though, that the judges could not have made a different decision.
Conan Doyle launched a Daily Mail appeal for him that raised 308 15s (around 29,000 today), which Dorando, now a national hero, donated to charity. ‘I am certain that many who saw his splendid effort in the stadium… would like to feel that he carries away some souvenir from his admirers in England,’ the author wrote.
The race begins at Windsor Castle
The next day, the Queen presented Dorando with a silver gilt cup. A workman stepped from the crowd to donate a shilling saying, ‘That’s all I’ve got, old man; take it. You’re a good sportsman’, and a lady unclasped her bracelet and fastened it to the Italian’s wrist.
Was Dorando robbed of victory by over-zealous assistance, as he himself believed Bob Wilcock, of the Society of Olympic Collectors, says, ‘Things were different then. This was the first race over 20 miles in Britain since the 1880s. Nobody had experience of a marathon.
'But they knew the legend of Pheidippides running 25 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens and then dropping dead, and were terrified of it happening in front of the Queen. They acted out of good human nature.’
The race had begun outside the nursery at Windsor Castle at the request of Princess Mary, so her children, including Prince Albert (later King George VI, father of the Queen), could look on as she signalled the start of the race. Her whim forever changed the nature of the race – before then, a marathon was 24.85 miles, but the extra trek from the castle, along with other route changes, made it 26.22 miles, the distance still used today. The Mail published a map of the route days earlier.
Dorando had breakfasted on steak, while Hayes ran on 2oz beef and two slices of toast and a cup of tea, and during the race gargled with brandy. Most runners relied on beef extract; Oxo was the official Olympic caterer. Alcohol was allowed.
Scot Thomas Jack, an early leader, ‘had recourse to refreshment’ at the Crooked Billet Inn and dropped out before the sixth mile. South African Charles Hefferon, in the lead at 24 miles, anticipated victory with a glass of champagne only to finish after Hayes. Dorando ran clutching a bamboo grip and chanting ‘vincer o morir’ – win or die.
That night Dorando said, ‘I felt all right until I entered the stadium, and then, when I heard the people cheering and knew I had nearly won, a thrill of emotion passed through me and I felt my strength going… I never lost consciousness, and if the doctor had not ordered the attendants to pick me up, I believe I could have finished unaided.’
Dorando went on to make a fortune racing professionally. Later that year in New York he beat Hayes; they met three more times, and he won each time. He retired in 1911 to open a hotel in his home town, and died in 1942 aged 56. A statue was raised to him in Carpi in 2008, the centenary of his finest hour. It is called Dorando the Winner.
The 1908 Olympic Games, The Great Stadium And The Marathon: A Pictorial Record, by Bob Wilcock, 14, www.societyofolympiccollectors.org.