The guy who won and lost

Dorando Pietri became a worldwide celebrity and his remarkable story in London sparked off a marathon craze, writes GULU EZEKIEL.

If you want to win something, run the 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run the marathon.


Phidippides, a professional runner who according to legend carried the news of the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, inspired the idea of a marathon race at the modern Olympics. Upon his arrival he is said to have blurted out, "Be joyful, we win" and then dropped dead of exhaustion.

When the ancient Greek tradition of holding the Olympic Games was revived in Athens in 1896, it was a Greek farmer, Spiridon Louis who enthralled the nation by winning the gold. That gave a great boost to the Olympic Movement and the race as well. Ever since that event, marathon retained its romantic ethos. Twelve years later, at London, the marathon would once again be the talk of the Olympics. But this time it was a tiny Italian, Dorando Pietri, who captured the hearts of the public, though he was disqualified in the end.

Pietri entered the long distance running on a whim. Four years before the London Games, he was a 19-year-old working in a pastry shop in the Italian town of Carpi. His boss sent him to post a letter and he promptly disappeared for four hours. On return he explained that he had delivered the letter himself, running the entire round distance of 50 kilometres! Within a couple of years he was running competitively.

Like most of the events at London, the marathon too was expected to be a contest between the British and the Americans. Throughout the Games, the competitiveness between the two sporting giants began to build up into animosity and hostility.

The race began at Windsor Castle, the required 26 miles from the finish at White City stadium. But it was extended by 385 yards for the convenience of the royal family. As one of Princess Mary's daughters was celebrating her birthday, it was agreed that the start would be under the windows of the nursery. After this Olympics, the extra distance would be enshrined in the marathon.

It was warm by London standards and over the first 18 miles, with the lead constantly changing, some of the early leaders went too fast and fell victim to the muggy conditions.

South African Charles Hefferon hit the front, taking a four-minute lead at the 20-mile mark. Pietri had moved steadily through the field and was the closest challenger. But both made critical mistakes.

Hefferon accepted a glass of champagne from a spectator and less than a mile later began to suffer from stomach cramps and dizziness. Pietri, encouraged by the cheering crowds, picked up his pace too soon and was exhausting himself. As Hefferon struggled, the spectators began to slap him on his back in an effort to encourage him. But their goodwill only made it worse for him and a half-mile from the stadium he was overtaken by Pietri.

The American runners were hanging back, waiting to pounce. Pre-race favourite Johnny Hayes, Joseph Forshaw and Alton Welton were running strongly, cutting down the gap. Hayes was pleased with his running and was looking confident. He knew he had more in reserve. He had not eaten or drunk anything during the race.

By the time Pietri entered the stadium he was fully exhausted. The doctors should have carried him away, according to the rules, when he fell for the first time. Dazed, he headed off in the wrong direction. But in sympathy the officials rushed forward to help him to his feet and pointed him the right way.

One newspaper reported: "It seemed inhuman to leave Dorando to struggle on unaided and inhuman to urge him to continue." He had reached the stadium first. But the final few hundred yards to the finish line appeared an uphill task for him. In the words of the official report, "It was impossible to leave him there, for it looked like he might die in the presence of the Queen."

Again and again he was struggling to get on his feet and had to be aided by doctors and officials. It was an agonizing and painful sight. And to add to the spectators' consternation, it was the American Hayes who had by then entered the stadium, passing Hefferon. This was the last straw for the British officials. Though they were well aware it would disqualify Pietri Dorando instantly, the head organiser Jack Andrew got hold of Pietri and guide him to the finish line after he had collapsed for the fifth time just yards from the end. While Hayes crossed the finish line in good shape, Pietri Dorando was carried away on a stretcher. The Americans immediately lodged a protest and Hayes was promptly declared the winner. Hefferon was second and Forshaw was placed third. There was, however, deep sympathy for Pietri. That night it was announced at a banquet that Queen Alexandra would present him with a cup similar to the one the winner had received (medals were not there during those days in the Olympics). The idea apparently came from the writer Arthur Conan Doyle who had been one of the officials assisting him on the track. At night, recovering in hospital, Pietri felt he could have won without the assistance. "I never lost consciousness and if the doctor had not ordered the attendants to pick me up I believe I could have finished unaided." The next day he turned up at the stadium and was presented a special cup by the Queen. Overnight he became a worldwide celebrity and his remarkable story in London sparked off a marathon craze. Both he and Hayes were offered good money to turn professionals.

By November a race between the two was staged indoors at Madison Square Gardens in New York. They ran 261 laps of the track with Pietri winning by 45 seconds. By 1910 he had beaten Hayes consistently and won 88 of his 128 long-distance races. In Pietri Dorando's own words: "I'm not the winner of the Olympic marathon. But as the English say, I'm the guy who won and lost his victory."