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The 1908 Olympics in London stands out for many reasons. It is considered the first truly modern Olympics that featured its own specially built stadium. It presented the first version of what would later become the Winter Games. It saw the first African American to win a medal. It was also influential in the development of marathon racing, marking the course at 26.2 miles and creating the event’s first superstars.
Tom Longboat, Johnny Hayes and Dorando Pietri were all men of humble beginnings in Canada, New York and Italy, respectively. Their lives would intersect in London with varying results. Historical fact tells us Longboat - the heavy favorite after a series of wins in Canada and Boston - dropped out around the mid-point. Pietri stunned the crowd when he surged to the front and entered the stadium with a 10-minute lead. He shocked the world further with his bizarre behavior in the final stretch brought on by a combination of fatigue and dehydration (runners at the time were fed brandy or whiskey during a race because water was considered a cause of cramps). Johnny Hayes finished second. Protests from the American delegation that Pietri was helped across the line resulted in his disqualification and a gold medal for Hayes.
The controversial finish only fueled interest in the endurance race. With 1908 Olympics in the books, sports promoters sought ways to exploit the event for financial gain. Marathon races at Boston and in Canada were amateur-only events. Participants could not earn wages for running and - worse still - access was free. Sports promoter Pat Powers saw a way around the problem. He built an inside track at Madison Square Garden and promoted a showdown between Hayes and Pietri - now an international celebrity - to determine the true champion, and followed up with a series of derbies between Pietri and Longboat. Thus the marathon became a spectacle. The professional marathon circuit may have been short-lived but it was a crucial piece that kept the event at the forefront of athletics until the 1912 Olympics.
In less than capable hands this would have been a “did not finish.” There’s just so much going on from the buildup through the resolution. David Davis, however, tells the story with a light and fleeting pace that’s easy to digest and simply captivating. His painstaking research is evident in the details as he described the rags-to-riches stories of the three marathoners who helped make the sport popular, and he pulled no punches when it came to explaining the competitive - and exploitative - nature of the various athletic associations and promoters of the time. The result is a mesmerising book for runners and sports fans just in time for 2012 London Summer Games.