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Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush

'Showdown' is a peek into a fascinating moment in time at the Olympic Games.

By Ross AtkinStaff Writer / August 9, 2012

Showdown at Shepherd's Bush By David Davis St. Martin's Press 320 pp.

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One of the most enduring photographic images from any Olympics is wobbly-legged Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri approaching the finish line with a various officials and British bobbies providing close escort. The year was 1908, at the first of three London Olympics, which makes the snapshot especially interesting as a field of male runners prepare to toe the line for the closing event at the current London Games.

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The 1908 race is described as the most controversial in Olympic history by David Davis, who chronicles what happened before, during, and after this landmark event in Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze. The story focuses on three runners: Canada’s Tom Longboat, Italy’s Dorando Pietri, and America’s Johnny Hayes.

The controversy surrounds the end of the race, which saw 56 competitors head off on an uncharacteristically warm day in London from Windsor Castle.

As it turned out, Longboat, the pre-race favorite and an Onondaga Indian who hadn’t lost a race longer than 15 miles in thee years, dropped out well before the finish. Pietri was the first into the stadium. Confused, he began to circle the track in the wrong direction and had to be redirected. Exhausted, he collapsed on the cinders fives times, causing such concern that medical attendants came to his aid.  Revived just enough, he staggered, accompanied by a phalanx of nonrunners, to victory – or so it appeared.

Hayes arrived next. American officials, however, felt he was the true winner and lodged a protest claiming that Pietri was unfairly assisted. When it was upheld, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes awarded the gold medal.

In retrospect, there was much that made this race and the 1908 Olympics, covered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for The Daily Mail, a fascinating moment in time.

For starters, the Olympics were still young and struggling. In fact, it wasn’t altogether clear – after a few “flops” – what the future held, so 1908 was a pivotal year for the Games. Adding to the challenge, Rome, which originally was scheduled to be the host, reneged on short notice in order to deal with the aftermath of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption.

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