Italian Dorando Pietri put on such a courageous display finishing the Olympic Marathon in London in 1908 that, although he was disqualified for receiving assistance by the umpires, he won the hearts of the public at large and wrote his name in Olympic history.
No other Olympic event is so imbued with such symbolism and mythology as the Marathon. The legend goes that Pheidippides was dispatched from the battlefield of Marathon to bring to Athens the news that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides ran the entire journey without stopping whereupon arriving at his destination he exclaimed the victory, keeled over and died of exhaustion.
In 1908, the Marathon was a haphazardly organised event. Organisers of the earliest Olympics were looking for an event that could promote the Olympic ideal and to popularise the event while recalling the glory of ancient Greece. The Marathon, despite some teething problems including the1900 Paris Olympic Marathon route not being clearly marked out which resulted in competitors seen running all over the city looking confused, it is the Marathon of 1908 and the performance of Dorando Pietri that galvanised the event and sparked ‘Marathon Mania’ all over the world.
Pietri name is forever etched in the history of the event, which now is traditionally the last Athletic event on the Olympic calendar and finishes inside the stadium. On the 24th July 1908 over 100, 000 people crammed into the White City stadium to witness the end to the Marathon, while estimates put the number of spectators along the route at over a million.
They weren’t disappointed as they witnessed tat day an overwhelming display of personal courage and the will to win. Pietri Dorando was a 22-year-old pastry chef from Correggio in the Provence of Reggio Emilia and it was he who was the first runner to enter the stadium. The crowd noise that greeted him seemed to send him stumbling backwards and he then proceeded to stumble exhausted along the track toward the finish line.
He fell five times on the track and each time he was helped up by the umpires. Their act of kindness was ill-fated however as they effectively lost him the race. One of the umpires who came to his aid later wrote of it.
"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. Each time he arose we kept our arms in position behind (not touching him) to prevent him falling on his head, and as he reached the tape he fell back on our arms."
Eventually it was the umpires who pushed him over the line just as Irish-American runner Johnny Hayes approached the line. The crowd were ecstatic and although Pietri was disqualified, he had won the hearts of all and was catapulted to overnight international stardom.
The next day the New York Times wrote, "It would be no exaggeration, 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. While illustrious writer and author of the Sherlock Holmes series was covering the race for the Daily Mail wrote, "It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame. 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. He cannot rise again.”
Pietri continued to race until 1911 accumulating enough wealth to allow him to retire. He invested his earnings in a hotel he opened with his brother. However, the hotel went bankrupt and he moved to Sanremo, where he lived until his death, of a heart attack, at the age of 56.
"Though it's true that I lost the race I won in fame, and started along a road that has taken me a very long way," Dorando wrote. "My current life is so happy that the race seems to me like divine providence."
by Hugo Mc Cafferty