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An Italian Hero

I was passing the time in a reading room recently, working my way through the newspapers of the day, as one does, filling in bits of crossword puzzles, dozing and drinking tea, though not necessarily in that order. Stuffed away in a corner was the remnants of a backcopy which I idly glanced through until I came across an article about a marathon runner. This was a character who had been briefly introduced to us at school but I had never really got acquainted with him as he was quickly pushed back out of my mind to make way as we moved on to Corn Law, Tariff Reform and other more important matters. This was not the original marathon runner, Pheidippides the soldier who fought in the battle of Marathon, ran to Athens to deliver the good news and then dropped dead, but a pastry shop assistant whose achievements were no less remarkable in that he completed the 1908 event, lost the gold medal, but won the hearts of millions of people around the world.

Dorando Pietri began his running career in an almost casual fashion, perhaps by accident, when, in 1904, he took part in a local race at Carpi which featured Pericle Pagliani, the then top runner in Italy. According to accounts available Pietri was still in his working clothes when he ran but he beat Pagliani. A few days later he participated in a 3,000 metre race at Bologna and won! What had prompted him to do that, bravado, a bet with his pals or Italian dottiness and eccentricity, is unknown but during the following years he began his rise to international fame. In 1905 he won the Paris 30 km race, his first international success and in 1906 won the qualifying Italian marathon for the Athens Olympic games, held later that year. During the Athens marathon he retired from the race, due to an intestinal illness, while he was in the lead by 5 minutes. By 1907 he was the undisputed long distance champion of Italy, for every event from 5,000 metres upwards.

At the 1908 London Olympics the day of the marathons race was an unusually hot one by UK standards (78 degrees F) and this took its toll on all of the 56 starters. Three-quarters of the way in to the race Pietri was in second place and several minutes behind the leader but when he was told Hefferson was having trouble he increased his pace and a few miles later overtook him. After entering the stadium for the final lap his troubles began when he took a wrong turn and was redirected by an official. He then fell from exhaustion but was helped back to his feet and struggled on. Different stories give varying counts of the times he fell, all we know is that it happened several times and each time he was helped on his way by officials and Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, who happened to be standing by. Of his 26 miles and 365 yards, taking 2 hours, 54 minutes and 46 seconds the final lap had taken 10 minutes to complete [no one actually timed this section so we only have anecdotal information]. And only in the final moments had any other competitor entered the stadium!

Several theories have been put forward to explain his condition on entering the stadium – excessive heat, his efforts in the final half of the course to speed up, gargling with wine during the race – but these are speculative. And the nearest he got to using drugs was to take balsamic vinegar during training.

From any of the BW photographs available of those final moments many differences between Pietri and a modern athlete can be seen. There is even a difference between himself and the officials surrounding him. There is no imagery or PR at work, he is noticeably small, skinny, one might say weedy, the very picture of the underdog and this had an immediate appeal to the masses. He had finished by will and determination.

Immediately after the race the USA team lodged a complaint which was accepted by the committee and Johnny Hayes, who came in second, was awarded first position. Undoubtedly the USA [why are they such poor losers?] complaint was technically correct, Pietri had been redirected, assisted and helped to his feet by officials who should have had no influence on his performance. But whatever anyone wants to say no one can alter those staggering ten minutes when he was in the stadium alone. That is an impressive lead to have gained, coming up from behind, by any standard.

In the months following he was invited to America to compete in a tour of races. Twice he competed against Johnny Hayes and twice he beat him. Of the 22 races he participated in on tour he won 17. He continued his professional racing career for another 3 years and retired after winning his final race at Goteburg, Sweden.

He died in 1941, at the age of 56, of a heart attack.

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