The story of Dorando Pietri's Olympic marathon back in 1908 remains one of the classic stories of past Olympics games. In a recent article in The Guardian by Simon Burnton the drama and overall hullabaloo of the first Olympic marathons is wonderfully retold with background information that brings in drama, a bit of comedy, and cheating of, well, Olympic proportions. At the first Olympic Games marathon in Athens in 1896, the third place finisher was disqualified. During the Paris games of 1900, course markings were so poor that "athletes could be seen running randomly through most of central Paris, " More strange occurrences were an American athlete who "finished fifth but insisted that nobody had overtaken him all day" and another American who claimed to be run over by a cyclist as he was gaining on the leaders. In the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis, the first place finisher traveled most of the route in a car. The eventual winner of that race used strychnine as a performance enhancer. That is just a brief introduction to Olympic marathoning prior to the London 1908 games.
Of course, London 1908 was the race that officially determined the full distance of a marathon to be 26 miles 365 yards due to the Queen who wanted her children to see the start of the race and then she herself wanted to have the best seats in order to see the finish. The distance of the race was stretched out to accommodate her whims. The finish line crowd included the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was an interested spectator. Those extra added yards would lead to the eventual undoing of race leader Dorando Pietri. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later penned these lines after the arrival of the race leader:
"We are waiting anxiously, eagerly, with long, turbulent swayings and heavings, which mark the impatience of the multitude. Through yonder door he must come. Every eye in the great curved bank of humanity is fixed upon the gap. He must be very near now, speeding down the streets between the lines of shouting people. We can hear the growing murmur. Every eye is on the gap. And then at last he came."
It is definitely worth the read to head over to the article, even if you think you know all about what happens at the finish. A wave of anti-Americanism at the British games created an atmosphere where Pietri "had" to win the race in order to beat the fast approaching 2nd place runner, who just happened to be an American.
With an American victory the only alternative, every man, woman and child in the stadium would have happily picked up Pietri and personally carried him over the line. And that, more or less, is what happened, with the Italian bundled to glory by a posse of Brits.
There is a wonderful collection of 14 photographs from the race which can be found here.
Here is a newly published book on the 1908 Olympic Marathon: Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze.
This video has pictures and some video footage of the 1908 Olympic Marathon including video of Pietri stumbling into the stadium and at the finish. I am not sure what Jim Peters and Abebe Bikila are doing in some of the footage.
This is all video footage of Pietri and the marathon. I can't understand the audio.
The first song Irving Berlin ever wrote was called "Dorando" about the Olympic runner. You can listen to it here if you are in England. I think "White Christmas" was a much more "mature' song.
I feel-a much-a bad like anything
All the night I nunga canna sleep
It's a my pizon Pasquale
He say we take da car
And see Dorando race a-"Long-a-ship"
Just like the sport, I sell da barbershop
And make da bet Dorando he's a win
Then to Madees-a Square
Pasquale and me go there
And just-a like-a dat, da race begin
He run-a, run-a, run-a, run like anything
One-a, two-a hundred times around da ring
I cry, "Please-a nunga stop!"
Just then, Dorando he's a drop!
Goodbye poor old barber shop
It's no fun to lose da mon
When de son-of-a-gun no run
He's a good for not!
Dorando, he's a come around next day
Say, "Gentlemen, I wanna tell-a you
It's a one-a bigga shame
I forgot da man's a-name
Who make me eat da Irish beef-a stew
I ask-a him to give me da spaghett
I know it make me run a-quick-a-quick
But I eat da beef-a stew
And now I tell-a you
Just like da pipps it make me very sick