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July 27, 2012 9:33 pm
It is probably the first memorable sporting action photo: a tiny moustachioed man, bent backwards, eyes closing in fatigue, a handkerchief slipping off his head, flanked by burly officials as he finishes the marathon at the London Olympics of 1908. The man was Dorando Pietri, an Italian baker’s apprentice. The then-new sports media complex made him the first global sporting celebrity. Since Pietri, the myths that the ancient Greeks told about the gods, medieval Christians about saints, and the Victorians about soldiers and explorers, have been told about athletes.
Early last century, when Pietri began running beneath the porticoes of his hometown Carpi, the marathon was just being rediscovered. The course for the London Games was set by Queen Alexandra, who decided that for Princess Mary and her children’s convenience the race should start beneath the nursery at Windsor Castle. The finish line in the White City stadium was 26 miles and 385 yards away – which remains the marathon’s official distance today.
Back then, the best preparation for running a marathon was believed to be steak for breakfast, followed by frequent rehydration with alcohol but not water. (Canada’s Tom Longboat, the favourite, abandoned the London race after reportedly overdosing on champagne.)
Pietri had also taken strychnine – today typically used in rat poison – and by the time he approached White City he understandably felt a little addled. He later recalled seeing “a grey mass in front”, which proved to be the stadium. He added, “After that, I remember little.”
The stadium was packed far beyond capacity. The crowd was delighted to see that the frontrunner was not American: during that Olympics, Britain versus the US had emerged as the first great international sporting rivalry. Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper wrote, possibly accurately: “Since the glory of ancient Rome declined and the huge Coliseum fell into ruins, never had a bigger crowd applauded the triumphal arrival of a winning athlete.”
But it soon became obvious that Pietri was struggling. He began running the wrong way around the track. When officials redirected him, he fell over. He got up, then collapsed again. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was watching from yards away, reporting for the Daily Mail. (“I do not often do journalistic work, but I was tempted chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat,” he later explained.) He wrote in the Mail: “It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.”
The crowd – including Queen Alexandra – began urging the officials to help Pietri. Fatally, the officials did. Pietri kept collapsing, but eventually they practically pushed him across the finish line. Conan Doyle was impressed: “No ancient Roman had known how to accept the laurels of victory better than Pietri.” Seconds after Pietri, the New Yorker Johnny Hayes, a sales clerk at Bloomingdale’s, trotted over the line. Quite naturally, Hayes pointed out that Pietri had been aided. After much debate, and with fights erupting in the stands, Hayes was declared the winner. Pietri fell unconscious, and several newspapers prematurely reported his death.
There is no celebrity without mass media. If you could choose anyone on earth to write up your drama in 1908, it would be Conan Doyle in the Daily Mail, which in 1902 had become the bestselling paper on earth, with circulation topping one million. Newspapers around the world reprinted Conan Doyle’s article. He also started a collection to help Pietri set up his own bakery. Throw in the newfangled action picture by an unknown photographer, and Pietri’s story went global. Irving Berlin’s first completed song (packed with racist stereotypes of Italians) is called “Dorando”. That action photo, says David Davis, who chronicles the race in his new book Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, “captured the instant when sports became ‘modern’.”
When London hosted the 1948 Olympics, interest in Pietri reawakened. One British newspaper published an interview with the great man, by then supposedly 65 and running a pub in Birmingham. The organisers of the 1948 Games sent him an official invitation to attend. Regrettably, it turned out that the real Pietri had died in 1942. (Similarly, the organisers of this year’s Olympics invited The Who drummer Keith Moon – dead since 1978 – to play at the closing ceremony.) All that remains of Pietri in London today is a Dorando Close in White City. Appropriately for a man made by media, it borders the BBC media village.
What moved the world in 1908 was the sight of an ordinary man attempting something extraordinary. Nowadays people dressed in Donald Duck costumes run double marathons for charity, but in 1908 completing a marathon was considered an almost superhuman feat. Pietri was Everyman. That distinguishes him from the Olympic heroes of this London fortnight.
Most of them have lived since childhood in a higher realm of top-performance sport. They represent an infinite advance on Pietri. But it was much easier to see ourselves in him.
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