MILAN (Reuters) - A new statue of Dorando Pietri bears scant resemblance to the little Italian in his most famous moment.
Moustachioed Pietri led the marathon at the 1908 London Olympics before collapsing through exhaustion on the home straight and having to be helped over the line.
After initially being declared the winner, he was disqualified for receiving assistance but still entered sporting folklore because of his wobbly-legged determination.
“His luck was not to win. Today the myth of Dorando is one of the biggest of the Olympics,” Ivano Barbolini, coordinator of the Dorando Pietri centenary committee, told Reuters.
Commemorating failure is never easy to do and so the centenary statue to be unveiled in his home town of Carpi, near Modena in northern Italy, looks rather different to what passers-by might expect.
Tall, muscular and bare-chested, the monument seems more of a metaphor for his strength of character than a true representation of an unusual Italian hero.
“It will be in the most strategic position in Carpi. The image of him running is very beautiful,” Barbolini said.
Even for the early 1900s, Pietri’s background was not that of a traditional athlete.
He was working in a confectioner’s shop in 1904 when a 10km road race passed the front door. Having joined a sports club a year earlier, the story goes, Pietri decided to ditch his apron and run after the leader of the race.
They crossed the line together and Pietri was hooked.
From then on he competed in events all over the world but it was in London that he became a symbol of the Olympic Games without even winning a medal.
A street near the site of the 1908 Olympic Stadium in White City is named Dorando Close in his honor while Irving Berlin penned a song about him.
Stories abound about what actually happened at the end of the race.
Reports say he tried to run the wrong way round the track when he entered the stadium, having set off from Windsor Castle as a virtual unknown.
Officials, who had mixed up his first and second names on the start list, directed the man who became known as ‘Dorando’ the other way.
Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, working as a journalist in the stadium, said Pietri stumbled several times.
With a handkerchief wrapped around his head and utterly delirious, Pietri struggled to lift his heavy boots as officials repeatedly picked him up and virtually pushed him over the line.
American runner Johnny Hayes, beaten by Pietri in later races, finished second but was awarded gold after the U.S. team demanded Pietri be disqualified.
“Everyone in sport remembers Dorando but no one remembers the winner Hayes,” Barbolini said.
What is certain is that Pietri was given a gold-plated silver cup by Britain’s Queen Alexandra the day after the race as compensation for losing the medal.
That cup, stored in a safe in a bank in Carpi, made a rare appearance at this year’s London marathon in April as part of the centenary celebrations.
Many other events are planned before and after the large statue is unveiled at a roundabout in Carpi on July 24, exactly a century to the day of Pietri’s most famous race.
Members of the centenary committee were granted an audience with Pope Benedict last week, thanks to the help of the Bishop of Carpi. The visit was to show how important Christianity was to the athlete during his career.
A traveling exhibition, the issue of special stamps, a concert and a marathon around the province of Modena are among the other events commemorating Pietri, who died aged 56 after a heart attack.
A century after Pietri’s exploits, Olympic champion Stefano Baldini hopes to reaffirm Italy’s love affair with the marathon by retaining his title in Beijing in August.
Editing by Clare Fallon