The IV Olympiad 1908

Dorando Pietri’s marathon run

To become the defining symbol of an Olympiad, an athlete will normally have won one or more gold medals. That was the case with Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens and Nadia Comaneci, to name but a few. However, in the 1908 Olympic Games, an athlete who didn’t even make the podium captured the hearts of a nation and became the face of the games.

The Games, held in London, were billed as a contest between New World and old – the brash parvenu Americans versus the stiff-upper-lipped British. In the event, a tragicomic character from Italy was to upstage them all.

Even Dorando Pietri’s entrance into the sport of athletics is the stuff of legend. In September 1904 Pietri had been standing in the doorway of the delicatessen where he worked when the champion road runner sped past, during a 10 km (6 mi) race. The desire to race overcame him and, hitching up his apron, he matched strides with the champion all the way to the finishing line without breaking sweat. A star was born.

By the time of the 1908 Olympics, Dorando had already run a marathon in an astonishingly quick time of two hours 38 minutes. It was therefore no surprise that, coming into the stadium, he had gained himself a lead of over three minutes. From here on in, things began to go badly wrong for the Italian. Just feet from the line his legs turned to jelly and he collapsed. First aid was administered and when he came round the doctor and a steward helped him to his feet.

Unable to teeter more than a few steps, he dropped and was picked up again, before being helped across the line. The crowd of 100,000 roared their approval. But the Americans, whose athlete Johnny Haynes finished second, objected. Poor Pietri was subsequently disqualified.

When was Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run: July 24 1908

Where was Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run: Between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium, London, UK

You should know: The 1908 Marathon was extended by 350 m (1,155 ft) so that it could start at Windsor Castle. It is quite possible that, had it been run over the previous traditional distance of 42 km (26 mi) Dorando would have made it across the line unaided. He did, however, become the darling of the games and a special medal was struck in his honour.

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