LONDON (Reuters) - As exhausted runners enter the final stages of men’s and women’s marathons at the London Olympics they may silently curse Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and a pastry chef who was disqualified from the race in 1908.
While Greek soldier Phidippides only had to run 25 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C., they will have to keep going for 26 miles and 385 yards, a distance first covered in the 1908 London Olympics.
For much of the 1908 race, pastry chef Dorando Pietri led as more than half his rivals gave up long before the finish line. As the Italian entered the stadium, however, he stumbled and fell to the cinder track before being helped across the finishing line by concerned officials.
Pietri was disqualified. Unwittingly, he had received “outside assistance”, a rule which can still be applied under the International Association of Athletics Federation’s modern rule book.
The Italian forfeited the gold medal, which was presented instead to the runner-up, Johnny Hayes of the United States. Pietri did, though, accept a silver cup presented to him the following day by Queen Alexandra.
Conan Doyle, working as a journalist, turned the gallant Pietri into a hero through his writing about the race for London’s Daily Mail.
The public clamour for such sporting melodrama saw the first global marathon boom, with Pietri and Hayes running races as a professionals for the next four years.
Peter Matthews, the former editor of the Guinness Book of Records and one of the specialist athletics commentators working at the third London Olympic Games, acknowledges that the marathon race may have been as much a Conan Doyle creation as was Sherlock Holmes.
“Clearly the Dorando story captured public imagination,” Matthews told Reuters, referring to the tale which is known by the Italian’s first name.
The marathon was part of the programme at the first modern Games in 1896 and was staged on the ancient road from the scene of the battle of Marathon to Athens, around 25 miles.
But in 1908, royal requests were taken into account. The race started at Windsor Castle, beneath the royal nursery bedroom, and it demanded a lap of the track in the White City Stadium in west London to finish beneath the Royal Box. It all added up to 26 miles and 385 yards.
The distance of the race varied slightly during the next few Olympics. It was permanently fixed from the 1924 Paris Olympics when they opted for the distance of London’s storied race.
The following are excerpts from Conan Doyle’s report in the Daily Mail on July 25, 1908.
“The great Olympic cheer for which everybody had been waiting was throttled at its birth. Through the doorway crawled a little, exhausted man... He seemed bewildered by the immensity of the crowd.
“He trotted for a few exhausted yards like a man galvanised into life; then the trot expired into a slow crawl, so slow that the officials could scarcely walk slow enough to keep beside him.
“Good Heavens, he has fainted; is it possible that even at this last moment the prize may slip through his fingers? Every eye slides round to that dark archway. No second man has yet appeared. Then a sigh of relief goes up. I do not think in all that great assembly any man would have wished victory to be torn at the last instant from this plucky little Italian...
“He was within a few yards of my seat. Amid stooping figures and grasping hands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the lank black hair streaked across the brow.
“It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.”
Editing by Nigel Hunt