The 1908 Olympics, held at Shepherd’s Bush, England, came at a pretty interesting time in world history. For instance… On December 31, 1907, a 700 lb. glittering ball dropped at Times Square in New York City – the first time in what would become a New Year’s Eve tradition. In May of 1908, an oil well was struck in what’s now southern Iran – the first discovery of petroleum in the Middle East. In September, the first Model T rolled off the Ford assembly line in Detroit. Hawaiian George Freeth introduced surfing to southern California later that fall. In December 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight boxing champ.
And at the 1908 Olympics, held in London, England, an Italian, an American, and a Canadian duelled for the title of the world’s best marathoner. The Italian won, was disqualified in favour of the American, and the Canadian collapsed and DNF’ed. That contest not only cemented the modern Olympics as a permanent fixture in our world, but also launched marathoning as a huge craze. It was the first wave of marathoning, and it hasn’t subsided yet.
Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze tells the story of a world in change, of the century’s first running celebrities, and of a sport many of us love with a fierce passion.
It’s a grand story, and Davis tells it well. Like all really good sports journalism, it carries you along with same sort of energy as the subjects of the writing. But, like good journalism of any kind, it digs deeper too. In this case, it’s about the world as it was, and as it was becoming something very new and very different.
A quick look at the main players:
Tom Longboat, for instance, though he was probably the best distance runner of his time, had to struggle constantly against a nasty racism that denigrated him and his talents. Longboat, an Onondaga from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, won the Boston Marathon in 1907 in a record time of 2:24:24 (on the old 24-1/2 mile course). He collapsed Near the finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon, but won a rematch later in the year at Madison Square Garden. He then turned professional, and in 1909 at the same venue won the title of Professional Champion of the World in another marathon.
Hayes was a scrappy Irishman from the tough part of New York city, and was ever fighting to prove himself in the larger world. Hayes started his athletics career with a fifth place finish at the 1906 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:55:38. He improved on that the following year by finishing third in Boston with a time of 2:30:38 and winning the inaugural Yonkers Marathon. In 1908 he finished second, 21 seconds behind Thomas Morrissey in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:26:34 and thus qualified for the London Olympic Games.
Dorando Pietri was a poor Italian from a small town, and had to struggle to find the means to get to running’s big events (until he found fame and fortune as the winner of the Olympics). Pietri débuted in a distance race in 1904, finishing second in a 3,000 meter event in Bologna. The following year he achieved his first international success, winning a 30K race in Paris. On April 2, 1906 Pietri won the qualifying marathon for the Olympic Games to be held in Athens that same year. However, in that race he had to to retire because of intestinal illness. He was leading by 5 minutes at the time. In 1907 he won the Italian championships. He was by then the undisputed leader of Italian long distance races, from 5000 metres to the marathon.
Around these three athletes was a complex world of promoters, gamblers, fans, and naysayers. Not much different from today’s sports world, to be sure, but it was all very new at the time. On the way to the 1908 Olympics, there was a growing rift between amateur athletes (the ideal of the English upper-classes) and professionals (a more modern and much grittier world view). That rift grew wider and clearer with the numerous “grudge matches” between Longboat, Hayes, and Pietri (and a host of other, less well-known, runners) which took place in England, the U.S., and Europe. There was a lot at stake in these matches, which were staged in places like Madison Square Gardens, and to sold-out crowds numbering up to 30,000 people. National sentiments were sharpened, large sums of money were won and lost, and runners’ health was placed at risk because of the grueling schedule. (Not to mention the “performance enhancements” of the day, which included, for example, a mix of brandy and strychnine given to runners who flagged.) The hoopla was part business, part entertainment, and partly the growth of a sport. Because of the 1908 Olympics, marathoning secured its place in the popular imagination, and the Olympics themselves became an institution.
To date, I’ve run five marathons. I’m a recreational, not an elite, marathoner. Crowds don’t follow my running career, and no-one (as far as I know, anyway) has bet on my finishing times. But it’s a good feeling to know that I’m part of a tradition like this one. David Davis has given me that, and I’m grateful. This is a good book – read it, and you’ll probably feel much the same as I do.