Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush
'Showdown' is a peek into a fascinating moment in time at the Olympic Games.
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London, therefore, helped save the Games. The centerpiece of its hosting effort was a new 80,000-seat stadium, the first ever built for the modern Olympics. It was located in pasture land in West London known as Shepherd’s Bush and served as an all-in-one venue. Besides the running track, the stadium included a cycling track, a platform for gymnastics and wrestling, and a swimming pool in the infield. While the stadium was state of the art, announcements to the crowd were made using a large megaphone.Skip to next paragraph
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The packed stadium made a fitting end point for the marathon, which Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics, envisioned as a signature event. At least symbolically, it bridged the modern Games with Greece, where the myth of a war messenger’s valiant long-distance run from Athens to Sparta originated.
Although there was no official marathon distance, that used in London – 26 miles and 385 yards, allowing the race to finish in front of the stadium’s royal box – would become the international standard.
This was an early period in high-level sports competition generally, which showed itself on a number of fronts, including training. Pietri, for example, ran two marathons in the 45 days leading up to the Games, ill-advised preparation by today’s standards. Professionalism and drugs were also issues. Hayes, who once had been a New York subway tunnel digger, essentially was paid to train by Bloomingdale’s department store. And Longboat’s manager and promoter set up his charge as the proprietor of The Tom Longboat Athletic Cigar Store in Toronto from which Longboat sold products that bore his image.
The period after the 1908 marathon was a window on changing athletic fortunes and trends. Pietri would become “the man who won, but lost, and then won.” As a consolation for his heart-wrenching disqualification, Queen Alexandra presented him with a polished gold trophy. Film clips of the London race were shown in nickelodeons and vaudeville halls, which led to a New York promoter arranging two match races “at the full London distance” between Pietri and Hayes in smoke-filled Madison Square Garden. It was like a heavyweight prize fight atmosphere. The rivals even entered the arena wearing bathrobes.
Pietri won the first race of 262 laps around the cramped oval and a rematch to emerge as the superstar of a marathon mania, which spawned a flurry of prize money events that died out with the start of World War I in 1914.
Pietri, who become known to his fans simply as “Dorando,” lost his post-Olympics fortune, including a 54-room luxury hotel in his hometown of Carpi, after the war. Thereafter, he worked as a driver. He died in 1942, six years before the Olympics returned to London, where a street – Dorando Close – is named for him. The trophy the queen presented him for his heroic marathon effort reportedly remains in an Italian vault.