The Man Who Lost A Race But Won The Hearts Of Millions
The story of one man’s determination and courage to finish a race
“It is horrible, yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describing Pietri’s finish.
Johnny Hayes was furious. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. Ahead of him was Dorando Pietri being helped across the line by race officials. Hayes called it foul play rather than the spirit of the Olympics. He desired nothing more than to be recognized as the greatest marathon runner in the world.
Hayes had let ego take over. It turns out, he was a rather sore loser.
Some had suggested it was in retaliation for Fred Lorz at the previous Olympic Games. Lorz, despite 90-degree heat, had arrived back into the stadium looking fresh like some modern-age Superman. He raced around the stadium on his victory lap with the energy and enthusiasm of a man unaffected by the rigors of marathon running. Suspicions were confirmed when Lorz had been found guilty of cheating and promptly stripped of his title. Lorz, suffering from cramp during the race, was taken by car back to the stadium.
Emblazoned with the stars and stripes on his chest, Hayes felt aggrieved. After he completed his circuit of the track without drama, he promptly lodged an appeal. Race favorite Charles Hefferon, the South African who was leading at the 24-mile post, also launched an objection against both Pietri and Hayes. He believed that Hayes had also received assistance as he entered the stadium as reported by the Press Association.
Hefferon withdrew his complaint, the Americans did not and Pietri was disqualified, a measure described by Sport Illustrato as “draconian and pitiless”.
It was to be the first time a marathon would exceed the official length of 26 miles. Princess Mary wanted her children to witness the start of the race and for the Queen to have the perfect view of the finishing line. Outside the nursery, at an extra 385 yards, the starter pistol went off. In 1924, this strange distance was officially accepted as the standard length for marathon races. Those extra 385 yards were to prove extremely important in the course of this race.
Daily Mail’s correspondent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of 100,000 people squeezed into the White City stadium in London. Doyle would remark in his autobiography that he only turned up because he “was tempted chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat.” Estimates had as many as a million people locked outside for what proved to be the biggest drawcard at the Olympics.
At roughly every five minutes or after each mile, a telegram was sent back to the stadium and read out aloud. First Thomas Jack and then Jack Price led the way. The crowd cheered wildly on hearing an Englishman may win the race on home soil. Then for most of the second half of the marathon, Charles Hefferon, the South African was in front. He was fading fast as they came round the last leg of the race.
Rumors circulated after, but never proven, that Pietri’s handler gave the Italian an invigorating shot of strychnine (not illegal back in 1908). With less than 2 miles to the stadium, he sprinted past a shocked Hefferon. The skinny 5ft 2in pastry chef was looking unstoppable.
Inside the stadium, the crowd turned towards the gate and waited for the first sight of the leader. Theatrtricaly, Pietri entered the stadium looking confused and bewildered. He stumbled in the wrong direction and had to be ushered back on course. Jack Andrew, the clerk of the course recalled in a letter;
“As Dorando reached the track he staggered and after a few yards fell. I kept would-be helpers at bay, but Dr Bulger went to his assistance. I warned him that this would entail disqualification, but he replied that although I was in charge of the race, I must obey him. Each time Dorando fell I had to hold his legs while the doctor massaged him to keep his heart beating.” Source The Guardian.
Dr.Bulger was concerned for Pietri’s condition and rightly so. Suffering from dehydration, Pietri fell several times and struggled to regain his feet. Eventually, held upright by an official, Pietri stumbled across the line 32 seconds ahead of Hayes. His last fall was 385 yards away.
Pietri’s penultimate fall took place a few yards from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s seat. “Amid stooping figures and grasping hands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the long, black hair streaked across the bow. Surely he is done now.”
Pietri’s determination won the hearts of the world, except the American team. As soon as Hayes was finished, he launched his objection and Pietri was promptly disqualified. Hayes had got his gold and was carried on a stretcher for a victory lap around the track.
Pietri’s time for the distance was 2 hours 54 minutes 46 seconds. He was rushed immediately to the hospital where he hovered near death for two and a half hours following the race.
Queen Alexandra was dismayed that the brave Italian would go home empty-handed. At her own expense, she had made a special gold cup which she presented to Pietri at the medal ceremony.
For Pietri, life would never be the same again.
The New York Times arranged two races between himself and Hayes in 1908 and 1909. On both occasions, Pietri won. The first took place inside Madison Square Gardens and ran over 262 laps of an indoor track filled with 20,000 fans. A race the New York Times described as “the most spectacular foot race that New York ever has witnessed”.
One spectator would even write a very bad tune called ‘Dorando’ inspired by the Italian. Fortunately, this was only the beginning of the songwriter’s career and he had time to correct himself with the more endearing classics such as ‘White Christmas’ and ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Thanks, Irvin Berlin!
In Carpi, Italy, on the centenary of this most famous moment, a giant statue was unveiled in the town center. The statue is called ‘Dorando the Winner’.
As for Hayes, he would go on to train the 1912 US Olympic Team. At his home club in New Jersey, they proudly display what amounts to the first Olympic gold medal to be won at the modern marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.