MARATHON OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS (IV) – London 1908: JOHNNY HAYES (1886-1965) vs. DORANDO PIETRI (1885-1942)

Hayes in 1908
Pietri in 1908

This time around, although Hayes was the official winner of the Olympic marathon, I feel compelled to write also about Pietri, who could be regarded as the people winner, because his effort successfully captivated public hearts.

The 1908 Olympics were to take place in Rome, but a volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 1906, that severely affected Naples, made the Italian government renounce to the Games, as they could be seen as an unnecessary expense. Therefore London took the chance of organizing the Olympics, building for that purpose a big stadium in White City.

The marathon distance was increased from 25 to 26 miles, so it could start in Windsor Castle, and later on increased again in an extra 385 yards, in order to have the finish line just in front of the Royal Box in the stadium. This distance of 26.2 miles would be established as the official distance for the marathon in 1921.

Pietri lived in Capri, stood 5ft 21/2 tall and worked in a confectionary shop. He started running in 1904, winning the qualifying marathon race for the Olympic Games held in Athens in 1906. By 1907 he was the Italian long distance undisputed leader (from the 5000m to the marathon), and was capable of running a preparatory 25 miles race in 2.38.

As for Hayes, he was born in New York from an immigrant Irish family. He wasn´t new to the marathon, as had finished 5th in the 1906 Boston Marathon, 3rd in 1907 (winning also the Yonkers Marathon), and 2nd in 1908, which qualified him for the Olympics, while improving his times from 2.55 to 2.30 and 2.26.

On 24 July 1908, with hot weather for British standards, started the marathon with 56 competitors. South African Charles Hefferon was a strong race leader. By mile 20 he was 4 minutes ahead of Pietri, which was running second, with Hayes on third position. His strong early pace would be his biggest mistake, as entering the last stages he started feeling badly. Pietri, which has paced himself more conservatively at early stages, reached him with only 2 miles to go. His pursuing effort would also cause him problems when entered the last mile suffering from fatigue and dehydration. Entering the stadium he got the wrong direction, and fell exhausted four times in his lap to the stadium, needing help to continue every time. He somehow manages to cross the finish line in 2.54.46, with 10 minutes spent to run the last 400 metres. A few seconds later, and with no much attention, Hayes crossed also the finish line in 2.55.18. The help from the umpires to Pietri meant his disqualification, therefore crowing Hayes as the official winner of the Olympic marathon.

Pietri´s efforts hadn´t gone unnoticed for the British public. The Queen presented him with a silver cup, similar to the one offered to the winner, as a symbolic reward. Arthur Conan Doyle, which was covering the race for the Daily Mail and wrote about it, launched a subscription campaign to raise money with the intention of helping Pietri open a bakery in his town, that finally reached £300.

Pietri became a celebrity, and run against Hayes in two more exhibition races held in the Madison Square Garden in New York, over 262 laps, that proved very popular (20 thousand spectators), winning both. He continued running professionally, doing a tour of American races where he was the main attraction, and winning in 17 out of 22. Back in his country in 1909 continued racing for 2 more years, achieving the victory and PB in his last marathon in 1910 in Buenos Aires (2.38.42). After three years competing professionally he had won a lot of money for the time, although his entrepreneurial efforts didn´t go as well, and after going bankrupt moved to San Remo to direct a car workshop.

Hayes also became popular, despite losing in every later confrontation with Pietri. He became the US coach of the marathon runners for the 1912 Olympic Games, and later coached the Columbia cross-country team. He settled in New York and started a successful career as food broker.

Pietri was the first loser winner. Without those last 400 yards he would have been the winner in his own right, but his place among the marathon legends was already there.

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Pictures in the public domain used under Creative Commons Licence

Pietri during the race
Hayes during the race
Pietri crossing the finish line
Pietri receiving medical assistance after finishing the marathon

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