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24 Jul 1908
London 1908

Marathon man Pietri wins hearts but no gold

History will forever tell that Dorando Pietri did not win the marathon, but his tale is certainly the most colourful.

He had already suffered some misfortune on the international stage: in 1906, at the Intercalated Games in Athens, he had been leading the race by five minutes when gastric illness struck him down and he was forced to withdraw. He recovered to win the Italian championships a year later and, by the time he took to the start line on 24 July 1908 alongside 55 rivals, seemed in prime condition to feature among the medal contenders.

This edition of the marathon had etched itself into history before the competition had even begun. It was, by decree of the King, to begin inside the grounds Windsor Castle, away from the public, before working its way along 26 miles and 385 yards to the stadium. There had not been a precise length for a marathon course before – it had always been around 26 miles – but this slightly extended version this would become the standard length for all subsequent events, to the present day.

The instructions to the competitors look pleasingly precise: hotels along the route with names such as the ‘Crooked Billet’ and ‘The Swan’ had been commandeered for their ablution facilities if required, while each competitor was to receive a flask of Oxo – the official caterers – along with soda, rice pudding, raisins, bananas and milk. They were to make sure that, at worst, they took the train from Paddington to Windsor at 1.30pm to be ready for the start.

When the race began, at 2.33pm, 100,000 people were already inside the stadium in anticipation of its conclusion. Later, it would be estimated that a million may have been waiting outside. Pietri, who was 22 years old and worked as a pastry chef, was on the fourth row at the start line and began the race slowly. The rain of earlier in the Games had eased and this was a scorching day, but that was no concern for an athlete from southern Europe and he began to make some headway, running alongside South Africa’s Charles Hefferon (the two “watched each other as if they were alone”) while Frederick Lord and Jack Price took on the lead.

Hefferon eventually took the lead with Pietri and the Canadian Tom Longboat behind him, while their competitors began to fade. By the 18-mile mark it was a two-horse race, Longboat having been reduced to walking, but Hefferon was three minutes and 18 seconds ahead of Pietri. Over the next six miles, though, the Italian found remarkable reserves of energy and, just before the race reached Wormwood Scrubs at around the 24-mile mark, he made what the Report later called “the fatal spurt” that finally saw him pass his opponent. He led as the race reached the stadium itself, but by now he was beginning to suffer that effects that had accounted for so many of his fellow runners earlier. When he reached the running track, he went the wrong way.

“Dorando was almost unconscious when he reached the cinder path,” reads the Official Report, “and turned to his right instead of his left. The slope from the archway was apparently the final stroke. He collapsed upon the track.

“As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and attendants rushed to his assistance.”

In fact, the receipt of medical attention automatically disqualified Pietri from the race, but he was eventually spirited to his feet and, after a further four stumbles, crossed the finish line. By now, the American Johnny Hayes was on the way to completing his own lap without fuss. He crossed the line 32 seconds after Pietri, and his country’s officials swiftly lodged an objection to what still, at that stage, seemed to be the Italian’s victory despite the evident flaws in his run. It was upheld, and Hayes took the win – but Pietri had stolen the hearts of the crowd as well as those in his home country. An Italian magazine would later describe his disqualification as “draconian and pitiless”, while Pietri was said only to have begun to revive upon news that the Queen was to give him a Gold Cup as a token of her “gracious sympathy”.

Pietri would never win an Olympic medal, although his heroics in London set off a chain of events that worked in his favour. That November, he took part in a specially-arranged exhibition race against Hayes in New York – a one-on-one marathon around a track – and won; the same occurred the following March as he toured America on the back of his new-found fame. The British writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Daily Mail newspaper opened a fund through which Pietri might open a bakery in his home town of Carpi. It raised £300 – a huge sum in those days – and eventually went towards a hotel that he and his brother opened in 1911. He had retired by then, at just 26, but his legacy – and that of the entire 1908 race – lived on.

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