16 October 2017

Dorando Pietri - marathon runner

Athlete who made his fortune from famous disqualification

Dorando Pietri with the silver cup presented to him by Queen Alexandra
Dorando Pietri with the silver cup
presented to him by Queen Alexandra
The athlete Dorando Pietri, who found fame and fortune after being disqualified in the 1908 Olympic marathon, was born on this day in 1885 in Mandrio, a hamlet near Carpi, in Emilia-Romagna.

In an extraordinary finish to the 1908 race in London, staged on an exceptionally warm July day, Pietri entered the White City Stadium in first place, urged on by a crowd of more than 75,000 who were there to witness the finish, only for his legs to buckle beneath him.

He was helped to his feet by two officials only to fall down four more times before he crossed the finish line.  Each time, officials hauled him to his feet and walked alongside him, urging him on and ready to catch him if he fell.  The final 350 yards (320m) of the event accounted for 10 minutes of the two hours, 54 minutes and 46 seconds recorded as his official time.

Eventually, a second athlete entered the stadium, the American Johnny Hayes, but Pietri had staggered over the line before he could complete the final lap.

The American team was already unpopular with the British crowd, partly because of a row about a flag at the opening ceremony. They lost even more support after they lodged an objection to the result. 

Pietri, a small man of 5ft 2ins who looked older than his 22 years, was hailed for his pluckiness by the White City crowd, who felt he deserved the gold medal.  But the Games organisers were obliged to uphold the American complaint, on the grounds that the Italian had received assistance.

Pietri races ahead of the field in the 2008 Olympic Marathon
Pietri races ahead of the field in
the 1908 Olympic Marathon
The outrage at this decision extended even as far as the British Royal Family.  Queen Alexandra had taken a particular interest in the race, even arranging for the start line, originally set for a street outside Windsor Castle, to be moved inside the castle grounds so that her children could watch. This extended the distance to 26 miles 385 yards, which has remained the official distance for marathons ever since.

Inside the stadium, with the finishing line placed directly in front of the Royal Box, Queen Alexandra is said to have been so thrilled to see Pietri stagger across the line and be acclaimed the winner that she joined the applause of the crowd by banging her umbrella on the floor of the box.

When she learned he had been disqualified, the story goes that she was so disappointed on his behalf that she insisted his efforts be recognised and arranged for a silver and gilt cup to be inscribed, which she presented to him during the closing ceremony.

This gesture caught the public imagination to such a degree that the Daily Mail began a fund for him, which the celebrated author Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been commissioned by the newspaper to write a report of the race, launched by donating five pounds.

The Mail told its readers that money raised would help Pietri, a pastry chef by trade, to open a bakery in Carpi. In the event, the appeal realised £300, which in 1908 was a sum comparable with more than £28,000 today.

Pietri is helped across the line at the finish of the race
Pietri is helped across the line at the finish of the race
With that money and his subsequent earnings as a professional – he was invited to compete in lucrative races all over the world, including a 22-race tour of the United States – he was able eventually to open an hotel.

Apart from making his fortune, cashing in on celebrity status that extended even to having a song written about him by Irving Berlin, Pietri was able to use his American tour to remove any doubt that he was a worthy winner in London.

In a rematch staged over 262 laps of a special track built at Madison Square Garden in New York in November, 2008, in front of a 20,000 crowd, Pietri defeated Johnny Hayes, repeating the win four months later.  In all the Italian won 17 of the 22 races on the tour.

Pietri retired from competition in 1911, after a career lasting just seven years, which had been interrupted by two years of national service.

Sadly, the Grand Hotel Dorando in Carpi was not a success and in time was closed, after which Pietri moved to the Ligurian resort of San Remo, where he ran a taxi business until he died in 1942, having suffered a heart attack.

The Piazza Martiri is Italy's third largest square
The Piazza Martiri is Italy's third largest square
Travel tip:

Carpi, situated 18km (11 miles) north of Modena in the Padana plain, became a wealthy town during the era of industrial development in Italy as a centre for textiles and mechanical engineering. Its historic centre, which features a town hall housed in a former castle, is based around the Renaissance square, the Piazza Martiri, the third largest square in Italy. Italy’s national marathon has finished in Carpi in 1988 in honour of Dorando Pietri, who is also commemorated with a bronze statue by the sculptor Bernardino Morsani, erected in 2008 on the 100th anniversary of the London Olympic marathon, at the junction of Via Ugo da Carpi and Via Cattani, about 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the centre of the town.

Luxury yachts in the harbour at San Remo
Luxury yachts in the harbour at San Remo
Travel tip:

San Remo, the main resort along Liguria’s Riviera dei Fiori – Riviera of Flowers – is a town steeped in old-fashioned grandeur with echoes of its heyday as a health resort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with broad streets lined with palm trees and luxury villas.  The harbour is still filled with expensive yachts and the casinos attract wealthy clientele. San Remo also has an old town of narrow streets and alleyways and is famous as the home of an annual pop music contest, the Sanremo Festival, where winning is still a considerable career advantage for up-and-coming Italian performers.

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