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London's first Olympic Marathon 1908

Friday August 10, 2012


The Marathon - the climax of the two weeks in the Olympic stadium.   At the first London Olympics in 1908 the stadium games had opened to rain.   But the day of the Marathon - Friday, 24th July - was bright, sunny and hot.     For  two weeks Great Britain's track and field athletes had been losing to the US champions through contests dotted with scandal and bad feeling.  In the Marathon - the ultimate test of endurance - the British hoped to redeem their national pride. 




The Marathon race was invented for the revived Olympics in 1896.  It was inspired by the legend of the herald Pheidippides, who ran from the plains of Marathon to carry the news of unexpected victory all the way to Athens without stopping (some 24 miles or more) - an effort that, according to the story, cost him his life: he was only able to cry Victory! and then promptly died.

The Greek government donated a special trophy, a statue of this dying herald, to go to the winner along with the Olympic gold medal.

In 1908, the British Olympic organisers set the longest course so far run for the Marathon.   It came out as 26 miles 385 yards (42.195) - which, in 1924 became the internationally accepted distance for the Marathon footrace. 






On Friday, 24 July,  at 14.33    55 runners from 16 nations,  set off from the terrace of Windsor Castle (the posters promised 70 runners, but they exaggerated.)




The runners set off down Caste Hill with Tom Longboat, the Canadian champion in the lead.

Nothing quite went to plan.    The day was one of the hottest of that summer - the temperature rose to 78 degrees F (26 degrees C) - and at the time the ideas of rehydration were somewhat basic.  

Many trainers thought it was bad to drink water;  they bathed their runner's faces in Florida Water instead, and gave them oranges to suck.
















The sponsors of the Marathon course - OXO - offered hot and cold Oxo in handy flasks.    As the miles passed, there was also use of 'stimulants', such as brandy and champagne.  

And strychnine - used at the time as a performance inhancer.   Although you had to be careful to administer the right dose or you could kill your man.


Tom Longboat - the Canadian favourite - indeed, althought leading most of the way, collapsed and exited the race at the 20th mile, it was said, due to a misapplied dose of strychnine.   (Rumours were rife that it had been given to him by his manager, a Toronto Gambler, who was betting against him.)


One by one the British contenders fell out.   Back at White City, the stadium was packed with 80,000 people and the police had to close the doors to stop anyone else getting in.   



Just by the finish line, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was jotting down notes for a piece commissioned by the Daily Mail.

'We are waiting, eighty thousand of us, for the man to appear; waiting anxiously, eagerly with long turbulent swayings and heavings, which mark the impatience of the multitude.  Through yonder door he must come.'

 By the 26th mile, communications with the stadium had broken down. The home crowd knew that the last British contender had fallen out.   Their hopes were pinned on Lincoln born, Charles Hefferon, who was running for South Africa.

However, at the 26th mile, a well-wisher gave Hefferon a swig of brandy to encourage him on.   It gave him cramp.   He limped on towards the stadium.





 Most of the crowd had no idea who the small figure that staggered into the stadium, with a three minute lead, was.  


It was the Italian Dorando Pietri, severely dehydrated (according to his brother, Ulpiano, he had been running on Chianti, the wine of their region).


Confused, he tried to turn the wrong way around the stadium.  Officials shepherded him back in the right direction.

Then he fell, and got up and fell again.    

By the third fall the track doctor was massaging his heart.   The crowd thought they were watching a re-enactment of the dying Pheidippides.   The stadium was transfixed with the drama of it.     Dorando had finally fallen 30 yards from the finish line just in front of the royal box, where Queen Alexandra herself had got to her feet, watching on tenterhooks.    For the next runner had made it into the stadium and was coming on under his own steam - Little Johnny Hayes, the Irish American from New York.  


In the end, feelings reached such a pitch, that with the Clerk of the Course, J N Andrews supporting one elbow, and the track doctor, Dr Bulgar, at the other, Dorando Pietri was assisted over the line and the Italian flag run up the winner's pole.


Pietri was stretchered off and the word went out on the wire that he had died in the effort.   32 seconds after he had crossed the line, John Hayes crossed it under his own steam.  'In the excitement of the moment,' wrote the New York Times, Hayes 'failed to get even from his own countrymen the reception he deserved.'

Pietri was later disqualified for receiving help across the line, but the next day, at the prize giving, Queen Alexandra produced a special silver gilt cup for Pietri which she presented to him with a handwritten note commending him for his heroic run.

Johnny Hayes got the marathon trophy donated by the Greeks, along with his Olympic Gold medal.

His teammates took him and it on a triumphal tour around the stadium on a kitchen table.










From the public's point of view, there were two Marathon winners that year.    Pietri, the hero who immitated Pheidippides (or nearly) and, more prosaically, the athlete who made it across the line alone and won Olympic gold.


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great,thanks for sharing this.

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