The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: an Italian hero at the London 1908 marathon.
In 1908, for the first time at an Olympic Games, the marathon was run over a distance of 42.195 km, corresponding approximately to the distance between Marathon and Athens in Greece. The race began in Windsor Castle so that the children of the royal family could see the start, and finished at White City Stadium - the real reason why the race course was exactly 42.195 km long. In total, 55 competitors from 16 nations began the race, with only 27 of them finishing.
As it was the first time the race had been run over that distance, the runners had little idea of the challenge ahead of them. The field began fast – probably too fast – and several athletes are listed as having led the race, including Thomas Jack, Frederick Lord and Charles Hefferon. The last of those athletes was overtaken by Dorando Pietri at around the 39 kilometre mark. Pietri, an Italian runner and pastry shop assistant, had begun running in 1904 after witnessing a race that had passed by his city.
But when he entered the stadium, Pietri started to feel dehydrated and began staggering all over the track. Exhausted, he fell down and was helped back to his feet by the officials. Once again he fell down, and again he was pulled up from the ground at the same time an American athlete named John Hayes was closing in on him. Eventually, Pietri managed to cross the line in first place, but the American delegation filed a complaint based on the fact that Pietri had been helped illegally by the umpires.
Pietri was disqualified and Hayes was declared the winner, while South African Charles Hefferon (who finished third) was awarded 2nd place. However, the legend of Pietri was was just taking shape. Queen Alexandra recognised his courage by awarding him a gilt cup, while all the participants were given a Diploma of Merit. The London 1908 marathon was often referred to in the media as the “race of the century”. Furthermore, the Italian, who had become a worldwide hero, was later honoured by having a London street named after him: White City's Dorando Close.