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

Reuben Salsa
Nov 25, 2020 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Dorando Pietri of Italy, on the verge of collapse, is helped across the finish line in the Marathon event of the Olympic Games in London, 24th July 1908. He was subsequently disqualified and the title was given to John Hayes of the USA. Photo in the public domain.

“It is horrible, yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describing Pietri’s finish.

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”.

The Race

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.

Post 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.

Image for post
Image for post
Queen Alexandra presents a special cup to Dorando. Photo in the public domain.

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.

YouTube video posted by Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share…

Sign up for Lessons from History

By Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history.  Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Reuben Salsa

Written by


Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Reuben Salsa

Written by


Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store