The Olympics: Classic Moments

With the world on lockdown and this years Olympics having to be postponed until next year, what better time for a fun story from the Olympic archives.

And where better to start than the 1908 London Olympics? Nowadays, we’re used to seeing people running marathons. And we’re used to seeing runners grab water bottles from the many watering stations along the course. It’s essential. But, in 1908, the idea of having strategically placed tables along the route filled with water bottles hadn’t occurred. Gentlemen drank champagne, not water. And everyone knew that Brandy was an excellent pick-me-up – guaranteed to give you that extra bit of vim. So…

Yes, you guessed it, the runners were fortified with refreshing glasses of champagne and brandy along the route. I expect you’re thinking – What? Won’t that dehydrate them even more? Or make them slightly drunk?

You’d be right. And there was another wrinkle – up until 1908, the marathon distance had been 25 miles. But we Brits wanted the race to be run from Windsor to White City and that was 26 miles. And Queen Mary wanted the race to end underneath the royal box, so they added another 385 yards around the stadium track.

For one competitor those extra 385 yards would be to too much.

The race began at Windsor on a warm July day. The runners were much taken by the free drink. So taken was Canadian Tom Longboat – the pre-race favourite – that he passed out after 17 miles (surfeit of champagne.) Next went the man in second place, South African, Charles Hefferon, who stopped to take an extra glass of champagne from a well wisher and succumbed to dizziness after 18 miles.

The Italian Dorando Pietri, who had eschewed champagne in favour of brandy, took the lead and was well ahead after 25 miles. Then came the extra mile and 385 yards. By the time he entered the stadium he was paralytic – and singing snatches of light Italian opera. So confused was he, that he ran (staggered) the wrong way around the track, fell down five times, was helped up five times, occasionally carried, and then escorted over the line to rapturous cheering.

Except from the American who came second and ran the right way around the track. Effect number two of all that champagne and brandy – a fight broke out. You cheated. I won. Oh no you didn’t. O sole mio…

The American was eventually given the gold medal but such was the feeling of injustice that a special medal was presented to Pietri by Queen Alexandra. And Irving Berlin wrote a song about him. He may not have won the race over 26 miles and 385 yards, but he won the hearts of the world. He’d been first to the stadium and had run the last few miles whilst paralytic, and everyone knew how difficult that was.

Here’s a video of the 1908 marathon. I leave you to decide who won.


Chris Dolley is a New York Times bestselling author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

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