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A fallen hero of the Games

Special to The Times

Half a lap.

Just a half-loop around the track, and the gold medal for the marathon at the 1908 London Olympics was his.

But for Dorando Pietri, exhausted and dehydrated after running 26 miles under a harsh sun, 385 yards might as well have been one mile. Five times he fell; a hush fell over the crowd, broken only by fervent cries.

“Let him alone!”

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“That’s not sport!”

Finally to the finish line, aided by two officials, in a time of 2:54:46, whereupon Pietri collapsed. No one knew whether he would survive.

One hundred years ago, on the day that the plucky Pietri concluded his gold-medal dreams in a London hospital, the Olympic movement was in serious trouble.

The dream-child of Baron Pierre de Coubertin had foundered since its modern-day beginnings in 1896. The inaugural Games, in Athens, were sparsely attended, with only 176 athletes from 12 countries represented. The 1900 (Paris) and 1904 (St. Louis) Olympics were mere sideshows for the world’s fairs they accompanied.

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“The 1900 and 1904 Games had been so terrible,” says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, “because they didn’t have the best athletes in the world competing against each other. No one cared.”

De Coubertin’s vision was further marred when Rome, the host city for the 1908 Games, withdrew at the last minute following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. London, the replacement, had scant time to prepare.

But mighty Britannia was the birthplace of organized sports, and the 1908 Olympics were well-planned and forward-thinking. For the first time, countries selected the athletes for their teams, ensuring top competition for the Games, with 2,023 participants from 22 countries. The Brits erected White City Stadium in West London -- the first stadium built specifically for the Olympics. The steel-and-concrete oval was so vast that swimming events were held in a 100-meter pool within the infield. A rabid press corps descended to chronicle every controversy at the “Battle of Shepherd’s Bush.”

On July 24, 1908, an estimated 75,000 spectators filled White City Stadium to await the conclusion of a newfangled competition called the marathon. The race was invented in 1894, when one of De Coubertin’s collaborators, linguist Michel Breal, suggested adding a long-distance test to the 1896 Olympics. The contest began in the town of Marathon and concluded in Athens as a way to commemorate a storied moment in Greek history.

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De Coubertin approved the 40-kilometer race (about 25 miles) despite the fact that few athletes alive had ever trained for -- much less competed in -- anything longer than three miles. Thus was born what one writer has called “the most audacious of races.”

In 1908, the course began at Windsor Castle and ended 26 miles later at the stadium. Once inside, runners had to complete a partial lap, measured at 385 yards, so as to finish in front of the royal box. (In 1924, the odd and random distance of 26 miles 385 yards became the marathon standard.)

The favorite was Canada’s Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian who had captured the 1907 Boston Marathon in record time. The U.S. entered seven runners, including a slight Irish American lad named Johnny Hayes. Italy’s Dorando Pietri went unheralded; many reporters believed that Pietri was his first name.

Tens of thousands of spectators lined London’s roads to cheer on the 55 runners (from 16 nations) sweltering in the afternoon heat. Longboat held the lead at the 17-mile mark, when he suddenly dropped out. Unconfirmed reports indicated that he had ingested strychnine, the performance-enhancer of choice during this era.

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Wearing red pantaloons that reached his knees and a white kerchief to shield his dust-covered hair, Pietri took control at the 25-mile mark. But he had reached the edge of human endurance; he collapsed repeatedly, only to be aided to his feet. “He was helped by the officials,” says Olympic historian Bill Mallon, “in clear violation of the rules.”

A groundbreaking photograph captured Pietri’s desperate last effort at the finish, supported by two attendants (one of whom was falsely identified as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes). Medical staff carried away Pietri as the Italian flag was hoisted. Meanwhile, Hayes entered the stadium and completed his lap.

The U.S. team lodged a protest. Pietri was disqualified and Hayes awarded the gold medal. Hayes’ victory was the last for a U.S. Olympic marathoner until Frank Shorter broke through in 1972.

Hayes was the champ, but Pietri was the hero. The next day, after he was released from the hospital, Queen Alexandra presented him with a silver cup. Photographs of the race’s conclusion -- among the first sports-action images ever produced -- appeared in newspapers around the world.

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The media uproar turned Pietri into an international star. Afterward, he, Hayes, and Longboat turned pro and crisscrossed the U.S. in a series of big-money races. Their well-publicized duels, including an indoor, mano a mano match in New York’s Madison Square Garden, created the first marathon craze in this country. Irving Berlin marked the occasion by writing his first hit song, titled “Dorando.”

This year, one century later, Hayes finally escaped Pietri’s considerable shadow, when he was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y.

But their legacy extends beyond the track; their memorable race, during the most memorable of the early Olympic Games, helped save the nascent Olympic movement from oblivion.

“Had the debacles of the 1900 and 1904 Games been repeated, the Olympic movement probably would not have survived or, at best, deteriorated into little more than a minor sporting organization with little influence,” according to Mallon and collaborator Ian Buchanan.

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It’s clear, too, that from that point, sports would no longer be perceived as “leisure activity,” practiced only by the wealthy and the titled. Now, sports would be many things: athletic spectacle featuring well-trained competitors and the aura of celebrity; commercial enterprise, complete with stadium deals and corporate sponsorships; unscripted entertainment for an increasingly urbanized society with discretionary income; and endless fodder for a voracious media.

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