Showdown at Shepherd's Bush


It’s not a stretch to say that the marathon is the most historic footrace in the world … and much of that history is almost too strange to be believed.  At this summer’s London Olympics, the marathon returns to the scene of one of the most bizarre stories in the history of the race.
 
Most folks know the ancient Greek origins of the marathon; very few, however, recognize how pivotal the 1908 London Olympic Games were in cementing the marathon as one of the preeminent athletic pinnacles and cultural touchstones of the 20th Century.  The story is brilliantly told in Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, a newly released book by David Davis which chronicles three remarkable runners whose paths converged on a fateful day in London.  With another London Olympic marathon just around the corner, the timing of the book is just about perfect. 
 
Dorando Pietri was a determined and hard-nosed Italian who almost literally ran himself to death right in front of the Queen and 80,000 spectators. Johnny Hayes was a working-class Irish-American who rose from meager beginnings to achieve athletic immortality.  Tom Longboat was an Onondaga Indian from Canada whose sheer athletic talent was rivaled only by the severity of the persecution that followed him to every corner of the globe.
 
The book also delves into the history of distance running and the modern day marathon.  Some facts will be familiar; it was at the London Games that the event distance was officially determined to be 26.2 miles.  Others will be bizarre; before key events, competitors often had breakfasts of milk and beer, and during long footraces, a runner “in extremis” was often instructed to down a shot of whiskey.   Perhaps it’s not surprising that of the 55 athletes who entered the 1908 race, less than 30 finished.
 
One of the dropouts was Longboat, the world record holder considered one of the best athletes in the world, who collapsed in the middle of the race.  The first runner to enter White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush was Pietri, who proceeded to run in the wrong direction and collapse several times while attempting to make his way around the track.  Race officials assisted him to his feet and finally directed him toward the finish line.
 
Pietri was initially declared the winner, but it was the American Hayes who history records as the 1908 Olympic marathon champion.  Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance, but his determination personified the spirit of the Games, and he became an international celebrity.  Queen Alexandra awarded him a gold cup in recognition of his effort, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle solicited the London Daily Mail to start a fundraising drive for Pietri to open a bakery in his home town of Carpi.  All three runners went on to enjoy continued success in the sport, and are credited with triggering the first marathon boom among recreational athletes.
 
Marathon runners aren’t international celebrities anymore, but our hope is that the 2012 Olympic marathons capture the world’s attention in the way the race did more than a century ago – hopefully not for any particular calamity, but as a celebration of the magnificent athletes who compete in one of the world’s most difficult events.
 
Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush is available from Amazon.com as well as other retailers.  The 2012 women’s Olympic marathon takes place on August 5th, and the men’s race concludes the Games on August 12. 


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