Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run

Despite being considered a successful Olympiad that set standards for subsequent games, the original London Olympics in 1908 were mired in controversy from the beginning– the American team refused to dip the flag before King Edward VII at the opening ceremony; their top runner was disqualified for obstructing the path of British runner Wyndham Halswelle, and for a re-run, the US track team walked out.

The games were never to be at London. It was passed from Rome to London after the 1906 eruption of Vesuvius forced Italy to relocate Olympic funds to rebuilding Naples. A stadium had to be hastily built at White City in west London for £44,000 next to the 1908 Franco-Britannic Exhibition. Everything was dismal — the lack of competitors meant the host nation taking a clean sweep in many sports, a medal record Britain would never match again. Swimming was conducted in muddy, murky outdoor waters. Less than remarkable games like tug-of-war and bicycle polo were introduced.

However, no match garnered more media attention than the notorious marathon. At the request of the King, the marathon started at Windsor Castle and ended right in front of a royal viewing box, adding additional 385 yards to the Classical marathon distance of 26 miles, and permanently altering the Olympic marathon distance. Its literal frontrunner was Italian confectioner named Dorando Pietri; Staggering through total exhaustion, Pietri won but was soon disqualified for receiving generous but misplaced assistance from two umpires, J.M. Andrew and M.J. Bulger seen above guiding him to the finishing line.

The games were already marred by the British referees, turning blind eye to many such infractions in the name of nonchalance, bonhomie, and amateur good fun. The American Olympic Committee once again complained loudly and their boy John Hayes indeed took home the gold medal. Widespread public sympathy however went to the Italian, who was presented with a specially commissioned Gold Trophy by Queen Alexandra. Arthur Conan Doyle took up his cause and raised money for Pietri to open his own pastry shop; Irving Berlin wrote an ode to him. In a rematch in Madison Square Garden, Pietri later beat Hayes. (See Telegraph)