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Date
05 Aug 1948
Tags
London 1948

Etienne Gailly - Athletics


The men's marathon at the 1948 Games was a curious affair. Two of the three medallists had never run the distance before and the man who led the way for most of the race ended up staggering across the line, almost unable to move. And yet, despite losing the title, he won the affection of everyone who watched.

He was Etienne Gailly of Belgium, running his first marathon and driven on by a streak of utter determination that stemmed from his wartime experiences. He had escaped from German-occupied Belgium in 1943, aged just 20, and had made his way through France before being arrested in Spain. He spent six months in prison there before being released with orders to return to Belgium. Instead, he travelled to Britain, via Portugal and Gibraltar, in order to join the Belgian free forces, and trained to become a parachutist. He mixed his military training with athletics, and then joined the airborne invasion in 1944.

The devastation of war moved him. He promised to win a gold medal for his country, or else to drive himself to exhaustion in the effort, and as a fine runner, he chose the marathon as his sport. His results in distance races were good, but not spectacular, but his resolve was iron.

Before the race, Gailly and his coach had decided that he would aim to run in 2hrs 30mins, and they laid out a pattern accordingly. He was to ignore his rivals, keep an eye on his stopwatch, and stick to the timetable.

To his surprise, Gailly was leading at halfway and remained in front for some time. After 32km, he was finally passed by Korea's Choi Yoon-chil, and then Argentina's Delfo Cabrera, another rookie marathon runner. Choi soon retired, exhausted and Gailly decided to put on a spurt to retake the lead from Cabrera. Only as they entered the stadium did his body give up, whereupon Gailly's pace dropped to walking speed.

Memories went back to London's 1908 Marathon, when the leader, Dorando Pietri, staggered over the line. Cabrera passed first, then Britain's Tom Richards, and Gailly nearly collapsed just before the line. But he held on, stumbled over the line, and won bronze – a reward for utter, unquenchable, determination.

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