On the morning of July 24, 1908, the rains that had bedeviled the London Olympics surrendered to blue skies and a sodden heat. An excited hum disturbed the dawn as streams of Londoners exited the Wood Lane Underground station and hurried toward the Olympic Stadium as if drawn by hypnosis. The smart set chugged past in the newest, coolest toy—a motorized vehicle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stood in the press area of the Stadium, preparing to cover the day’s proceedings for the Daily Mail newspaper. On tap were wrestling and swimming finals, as well as the pole vault, but to Conan Doyle and the 80,000 spectators, reporters, Olympic officials, and royalty jammed inside the enormous sporting cathedral, as well as the tens of thousands of bystanders gathering along the twenty-five miles of roads leading to the Stadium, only one event mattered.
GREAT MARATHON RACE, read the headline in the Standard.
CROWNING EVENT OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES, the Graphic proclaimed.
Conan Doyle didn’t require the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to understand what was at stake. The home team had endured a disastrous Olympics to this point. Foul weather led to poor attendance during the first week, and then the United States’s well-trained squad had stomped the Brits’ best on the track. Worse, their blustering Irish-American leader, James E. Sullivan, had whipped the press into hysterics by charging that the hosts were not behaving like honorable sportsmen.
To representatives of the British Empire, which prided itself as the birthplace of modern sports and the adjudicator of all matters concerning fair play and sportsmanship, this was the ultimate insult. Sullivan might as well have thumbed his nose at the Queen of England, who was, this very moment, journeying to the Stadium to observe the finish of the marathon.
Today was the last full day of what the press were calling “The Battle of Shepherd’s Bush.” The previous week’s humiliations and escapades would be forgotten and forgiven, Conan Doyle surmised, with a British victory in the marathon. What’s more, the pundits on both sides of the Atlantic favored the chances of the twelve-strong English team. If Alex Duncan and James Beale could repeat their magnificent showing in the April Trials, when they navigated over muddy roads and through freezing sleet on much the same course, the gold medal would be theirs. Victory by one of the lads from the territories, from Canada or South Africa, would suffice, Conan Doyle conceded, so long as the bloody Stars and Stripes didn’t show on the flagpole again.
The sun penetrated Conan Doyle’s tweed suit, and he retreated into the shade. It was going to be a hot one.
* * *
Adjacent to the press area, a parade of Olympic officials, led by Pierre de Coubertin, was finding their seats. A diminutive man with a frothy, jet-black mustache that threatened to engulf his face, the baron should have been in his glory. He had almost single-handedly engineered the revival of the Olympics in 1896, giving the ancient Games an international twist. A confirmed Anglophile, Coubertin had entrusted the 1908 Olympics to London on short notice, after Rome was forced to bow out. The London Games’ lead organizer, Lord Desborough, had proved himself worthy, cutting a favorable deal to ensure the construction of the grand Stadium—the first such structure to be built for the modern Games—and attracting the world’s top athletes.
But myriad shortcomings were overshadowing Coubertin’s Olympian achievement. The 1900 Olympics, located in his hometown of Paris, had been a dreadful flop. So, too, were the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. He considered the 1906 Athens Games to be nothing more than a flagrant attempt by Greece to usurp his vision and become permanent Olympic host. And now, the near-daily controversies involving the United States and the English teams were further undermining his authority. Every evening, Sullivan was haranguing the press and lobbying for Coubertin to be replaced.
As Coubertin glanced at the program for the marathon, it was apparent that his future, and the future of the Olympic Movement, was up for grabs.
* * *
On the day that he became an overnight sensation, Dorando Pietri woke in a nondescript room in a nondescript house in the Soho area of London. He stayed in bed for a few moments, letting his body awaken to the moment.
Few journalists recalled Dorando Pietri from two years ago, when the skinny Italian ran with the leaders at the Athens marathon before cramping up and dropping from the race. His credentials as Italy’s top distance runner, and one of the best on the continent, meant little to the gathered media in London. Every newspaper in England and North America misspelled his name. When the experts weighed the chances of the field, he was ignored in favor of the consensus picks: Britain’s Alex Duncan, Fred Lord, Fred Appleby, and Jack Price; South Africa’s Charles Hefferon; and, of course, Canada’s Tom Longboat.
The twenty-two-year-old Italian had waited two years for redemption. He was so determined that he had run two marathons in the past forty-five days to ready himself for London. Today, he vowed, he would prove that he was the world’s top endurance runner. Today, he vowed, he would become an Olympic immortal.
He said a quick prayer, thinking of his parents and his first and only love, Teresa, back home in Carpi, then went to breakfast with his brother, Ulpiano. He dug into a steak and sipped cup after cup of hot coffee.
He nodded to his brother. “Vincerò o morirò,” he said.
Dorando repeated the phrase: “Vincerò o morirò.”
“I will win or I will die.”1
* * *
Johnny Hayes woke to sunshine. It took him a moment before he recognized his surroundings: the Chequers Inn in the town of Uxbridge, his third hotel in as many weeks. He and the six other American marathoners had just moved here so they could be near the start of the race.
He went down and consumed a light breakfast—steak, toast, and tea—and listened to final words of advice from coach Mike Murphy. “Mind, you gentlemen, this heat’ll bake the starch right outta ya,” the bowler-wearing sage from the University of Pennsylvania warned. “Stay the pace, and run your race.”
The twenty-two-year-old Hayes nodded. He didn’t talk much. Standing just under five foot four, he was probably the smallest man in the field. But “Little Johnny” was anything but frail. He had grown up in the rough-and-tumble tenements of New York, the son of Irish-American immigrant parents who had died before he reached age nineteen. He had watched his younger siblings get dragged off to an orphanage, and, to earn a living, worked one of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the city—digging underground to build New York’s newfangled subway.
Running marathons came as something of a relief. The race, Hayes found, was about absorbing enormous pain, physical and mental, and then driving through it to the finishing-post. He got good quickly. Between 1906 and 1908, he attained three top-five finishes at the prestigious Boston Marathon and a victory at the Yonkers Marathon.
The press disparaged the chances of Hayes and the other American marathoners. They were a young bunch, and they had done their training in Brighton, far from the London spotlight. Johnny and the other Irish-American marathoners, Mike Ryan and Tom Morrissey, talked about how much satisfaction they’d get in stomping the Brits on their own turf but, truth be told, they weren’t much troubled by the English runners.
As he grabbed his gear and prepared to leave for the start, Johnny Hayes was worried about only one opponent: Tom Longboat.
* * *
From his room at the White Hart Hotel, the most famous and controversial athlete at the 1908 Olympics peered down at the spectators and policemen crowding the streets below. Tom Longboat stood almost 5 foot 11 and weighed 140 pounds, topped by an unruly shock of black hair. His bronze, muscular legs, which were featured in newspaper photographs, had carried him to the world’s record at the 1907 Boston Marathon. He was a Canadian celebrity as well as a hero among his fellow Onondaga Indians on the Six Nations Reserve west of Toronto. He hadn’t lost a race over fifteen miles in three years and was the overwhelming favorite in today’s race.
But the Yanks were at it again. Even today, on the morning of the marathon, James E. Sullivan was claiming that Longboat was a professional athlete and should be barred from the all-amateur Olympics. The negative publicity was clouding what Longboat and Tom Flanagan, the runner’s manager and promoter, saw as a golden opportunity. If Longboat were to follow up his Boston triumph with a victory in London, he would be crowned the greatest distance runner of all time. There would be no athlete as famous in the world—not baseball’s “Georgia Peach,” Ty Cobb, nor the African American heavyweight boxer, Jack Johnson. A post-Olympics bonanza of exhibitions, endorsements, and personal appearances awaited.
There was another problem besides Sullivan’s accusations. Flanagan had brought Longboat to train in Ireland before the Olympics. In his last session, Tom had collided with a buggy. His knee was sore, and the rest of his body felt sluggish, like maybe he’d left his legs on the road to Kilmallock.
A knock on the door. “You up, Big Chief? Time to get ready,” said Lou Marsh—Flanagan’s assistant—on the job as always.
Longboat grimaced as he pivoted toward the door.
* * *
Due west of the Olympic Stadium, the village of Windsor bustled with a festive atmosphere. Children on holiday dodged horse-drawn carriages. Special trains leaving from Paddington Station chugged into the Royal Station and deposited spectators, journalists, athletes, and officials. The statue of Queen Victoria gleamed like a magnificent bronze sentry, and Union Jack flags sprouted on storefronts like tricolored mushrooms.
Jack M. Andrew took little notice of the swelling crowd. The organizer of the marathon walked down Windsor’s steep cobblestone main street to double-check that the runners would be able to spot the distance-indicator at the one-mile mark. Overenthusiastic fans had stolen others along the course; thankfully, this sign was positioned perfectly.
Determining the marathon route had been the most challenging aspect of Andrew’s job. This was the first international marathon ever raced in London (or England, for that matter), and he had agonized over every inch of the course. With the start from the grounds of Windsor Castle and the finish inside the Stadium, he had created the longest marathon in Olympic history. It was such an odd and random distance: Whoever heard of a marathon measuring 26 miles, 385 yards?
Andrew put on his straw bowler, the words CHIEF CLERK spelled out on the ribbon, and glanced at his pocket watch. The start couldn’t come soon enough.
* * *
Dorando Pietri rode the special competitors’ train from Paddington Station to Windsor. He was led to an area that had been turned into temporary dressing rooms for the runners. The pungent odor of liniment lingered in the air.
Dr. Michael Bulger and a small staff of physicians checked Dorando’s heart and cleared him to race. Dorando changed into his running togs: a white shirt, leather shoes, and his signature pair of bright red pantaloons that extended nearly to his knees. The number 19 was affixed to his chest.
He walked outside. The sun’s rays broiled his jet-black hair, and he placed a white pocket handkerchief atop his head, with knotted corners to secure it.
He caught sight of his adversaries—Hefferon, Lord, Duncan. They looked fit. And there was the legendary Longboat, smiling and chatting with several people. He was stolid, much larger than Dorando expected.
No one spoke to him.
I will win or I will die.
* * *
The American team arrived late and dressed quickly at the Windsor railway station. Johnny Hayes slipped into the American uniform: white shorts with red piping on the side and a white shirt with a red-white-and-blue, stars-and-bars emblem across his chest. He wore number 26.
He conferred with George Cameron, one of two cyclists who would accompany him during the race. He checked the sky, and the thinnest of smiles creased his stoic face. The sultry heat was a blessing because it negated the one element he lacked as a runner: speed.
He repeated Murphy’s advice like a mantra: Stay the pace, and run your race.
* * *
Tom Longboat slowly put on his kit: an all-white uniform with a gigantic red maple leaf on his chest. He pulled on dark socks and leather ankle boots and tied a belt around his waist. Atop his head he placed a white skullcap. He was assigned number 72.
As soon as he stepped outside, the overflowing crowd yelled out his name. One fan screamed to take his photograph.
He obliged, flashing his infectious grin, then turned to greet an old acquaintance, George V. Brown, from the Boston Marathon committee. Newspapermen scurried to ask Longboat about James E. Sullivan’s latest broadside.
Tom’s attendant, Lou Marsh, hustled him away.
* * *
Officials with green ribbons around their straw hats escorted the runners past the spectators and through Sovereign’s Gate into the peaceful calm on the grounds of Windsor Castle. They strolled past Princess Mary and her children taking shelter beneath a shady tree.
Jack Andrew arranged the fifty-five men into four rows on a gravel pathway just beyond the East Terrace of the Castle, near the memorial for Queen Victoria’s favorite dog, Dacko. The runners readied themselves and stared ahead at the road leading toward the town of Windsor.
There was, suddenly, silence. Princess Mary pressed an electric button and, moments later, the runners burst off in a pack.
The 1908 London marathon—the final skirmish in the Battle of Shepherd’s Bush and the most controversial race in Olympic history—had begun.
Copyright © 2012 by David Davis