Let the Games begin!

Friday, 27 July, 2012

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle covered the 1908 London Olympics for The Daily Mail. “I do not often do journalistic work, but I was tempted chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat,” he recalled in his autobiography. Upon seeing the fatigued Italian marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, entering the stadium at White City, Doyle wrote: “It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.” Pietri fell in front of the press box and Doyle commented: “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 brow. Surely he is done now. He cannot rise again.”

When Pietri entered the stadium, he took a wrong turn and fell after officials redirected him. He got up and fell four more times in front of 100,000 spectators. Each time the officials helped him up and with their assistance, he crossed the finish line in first place.

Dorando Pietri

Dorando Pietri was born in 1885 in Correggio in the province of Reggio Emilia. He made his running début in Bologna in 1904, finishing second in the 3,000m. When training for the 1908 Olympics, he ran 40 km in 2 hours and 38 minutes in Capri, a remarkable result for the times. The London marathon began at 2:33pm on 24 July and the weather was particularly hot by British standards.

“It would be no exaggeration,” The New York Times wrote the following day, “to say that the finish of the marathon at the 1908 Olympics in London was the most thrilling athletic event that has occurred since that Marathon race in ancient Greece, where the victor fell at the goal and, with a wave of triumph, died.”

Mid-race, Pietri is said to have drunk a mix of brandy and strychnine (used as rat poison today), but he blamed his collapse on too much steak for breakfast. Sports nutrition has changed a lot since the 1908 Games as can be seen from the testimony of Joseph Forshaw, who won the bronze medal. “We followed the plan adopted at previous marathon races, eating a good breakfast of steak, following this with two raw eggs, some tea and toast,” he said. “On the way we took nothing but water, except four miles from the finish, having a stitch in the side, I took a drop of brandy.”

Because of the help Pietri had received, he was disqualified and the gold medal was given to Johnny Hayes from the USA, who had finished second. As a compensation, Queen Alexandra gave him a gilded silver cup and Conan Doyle urged The Daily Mail to start a fund to help Pietri to open a bakery in his native Italy. The fund reached the sum of £300, of which Doyle contributed the initial £5. Pietri’s last race was in Göteborg in October 1911. He was 26 and in three years as a professional athlete he earned 200,000 lire in prize money, an enormous sum for the time. He invested his earnings in a hotel, but was not as successful an entrepreneur as he was athlete, and the hotel went bankrupt. He moved to Sanremo and lived there until his death at the age of 56 in 1942.

Let the Games begin!

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