Tuesday, March 13, 2012

(More) Olympian Heroics

This is part two of a rather peripatetic series of posts about Olympian heroics. Part one, you may recall, was about Andarin Carvajal the plucky Cuban postman who prefaced his 1904 marathon with a 600 mile walk to the event and a forty hour (probably involuntary) fast.

The 1908 marathon held in London has an equally interesting narrative. I suspect this event always produces an heroic performance from somebody - usually not the winner and 1908 was no exception.

The race was run from Windsor in Berkshire to the White City stadium in the west of London. The stadium was still there when I first moved to London but it had by then been reduced to hosting greyhound racing. It was demolished a few years later to make way for  additional offices for the BBC.

The marathon distance had historically been agreed at around 26 miles but in a late change for 1908 it was decided that the competitors would also run a circuit of the stadium at the end of the race so the finishing line would be in front of the royal box. The race therefore became 26 miles and 385 yards which is the distance it continues to be run today.

The hero of the 1908 marathon was undoubtedly Dorando Pietri.  I've seen him variously described as a pastry chef and also an ice cream salesman, he came from a modest background in Italy. Five feet two inches (1.59m) tall and slightly built he was already an established and well known long distance runner. 

The race was run in the afternoon of a humid English summer. It was keenly contested in the early stages but by the time it reached the stadium Pietri had what appeared to be an unassailable lead. He was however utterly exhausted. He entered the stadium believing he had won only to be confronted by a gaggle of officials who required him to complete the extra yards that had been added to create the dramatic finish. Delirious and confused he staggered erratically on the track surrounded by a crowd desperately encouraging him to complete the race. 

He continued to stumble and stagger about the track and fell five times. Each time he fell he was nursed and then physically picked up and encouraged onward a few more strides. Of his total time of 2h 54min 46s, ten minutes were needed for that last 385 yards (350 metres). He finally crossed the line and despite the agonising last ten minutes was still in first place. He collapsed and had to be carried from the track on a stretcher - many spectators believed he had died.

Crossing the line in second place was the American athlete Johnny Hayes. The American team lodged a challenge claiming that Pietri had received too much assistance - the challenge was upheld and Pietri was disqualified. 

Watch the following short video (longer ones are available on YouTube) - sorry the commentary is in Italian - it's heartbreaking.


Terra Shield said...

I totally love stories like these. Poor man, though.

Before the Beijing olympics four years ago, the sports channel here had a series of documentaries about Olympics from the past. Your post reminded me of that.

nursemyra said...

Ah... all that effort....

Nota Bene said...

I wonder whether Johnny Hayes was proud of his achievement...I'd understood that the race was lengthened (hence the lap) so that the royal family would get a proper view of the marathon runners from their box

King of Scurf said...

Terra: They're interesting to research but it's an evening lost in Wikipedia and YouTube.

nursemyra: They awarded him a special losers medal.

NB: It was a fair challenge although I understand the reason Hayes was so far behind was he'd got thirsty and stopped to drink champagne and that rather slowed his pace.