Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze

  • David Davis
  • Thomas Dunne Books
  • 320 pp.
  • July 17, 2012

As the Summer Olympics return to London in 2012, the sports journalist focuses on a contentious marathon raced over a century ago and three men who competed for running glory.

Reviewed by Jay Price

Long-distance runners have come a long way — pun unavoidable — since Johnny Hayes, Dorando Pietri and Tom Longboat dueled for fame and glory in the marathon at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. And, as David Davis suggests in Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, the distance traveled is due, in large measure, to these men.

Davis isn’t the first author to overreach in immortalizing a sporting event and come up short — see David Maraniss’ Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World.

Unfortunately, the sporting craze trumpeted in Davis’ subtitle lasted only a few months, until promoters had wrung every last box-office dollar out of the controversial finish at the London Games, where an exhausted Pietri, an Italian pastry maker, crossed the finish line first but was disqualified after collapsing several times in the final lap and being propped back up by sympathetic officials, making Hayes, a onetime sandhog who helped build the modern New York City subway system, the Olympic champion.

It would be another 60 years before the marathon moved from the once-every-four-years periphery of sports back to center stage, this time as part of the running boom that spurred masses of weekend athletes to test their endurance alongside elite runners in events like the New York City Marathon.

And because Pietri, Hayes and Longboat and their brethren are long since dead, Davis is dependent on public records, race results (do we need to know the winning time of every neighborhood road race surrounding the London Games, especially at a time when distances were only casually calibrated?) and the florid newspaper and magazine accounts of the day, including those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, moonlighting from his duties chronicling the fictional adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

As a result, the main characters in this drama remain as two-dimensional as the black-and-white photograph of Pietri wobbling rubber-legged toward the finish in London, bent backwards like a drunk approaching the limbo bar after one too many apple martinis, with suit-and-tie-clad officials on either side, waiting to catch him should he fall again.

Hayes, Pietri and their peers competed in a different sporting world, one where common wisdom held that drinking water before or during a race was a bad idea, likely to cause cramps, while a timely nip of brandy or whiskey at the 20-mile mark — or the occasional medicinal dose of strychnine — might serve as a pick-me-up for a flagging runner.

Presumably, what didn’t kill them made them stronger.

The idea of the marathon as a sporting event — loosely borrowed from the legend of Pheidippides, a soldier who ran to Athens to declare victory for the home team in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., before keeling over dead — is only a few years older than the modern Olympics, begun in 1896.

The London Games of 1908 marked the first time a stadium was built to host an Olympiad, and the first time the marathon was run at 26 miles, 385 yards, the distance from Windsor Castle to Shepherd’s Bush. It also marked the start of a tradition of American flag-bearers refusing to dip the Stars and Stripes before royalty; even if, as Davis tells us, the epic line attributed to discus thrower Martin Sheridan — “This flag dips to no earthly king” — didn’t surface until three decades after Sheridan’s death.

Just as enduring were the themes of racism, nationalism, drug use and phony amateurism that touched Hayes, Pietri and Longboat, and have plagued every Olympics since.

Longboat, a Canadian Onondaga Indian and the favorite going into the 1908 Games, was subjected to the stereotypes so often attributed to native peoples.

Hayes ran his way out of the tunnels to what may have been a just-for-show job at retailer Bloomingdale’s.

In the swirl of “marathon mania” that followed the 1908 Games, all three runners turned professional, and took turns playing the role of redemptive victor and embittered also-ran in a series of marathon match races.

But it was Pietri, the tough-luck loser at the 1908 Games, who was the most widely embraced, first by sympathetic Londoners, and later by crowds of Italian-Americans in New York and San Francisco.

Perhaps because of the iconic photos of his wobbly finish — and now, Davis’ book — he seems destined to stay that way.

Leave it to Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter, to sum it up, in one sentence, after a Pietri impostor appeared at the 1948 Olympics, six years after the runner’s death: “Dead or alive,” Smith wrote, “he remains the most celebrated loser in the long catalogue of international high-jinks.”

Jay Price, an award-winning columnist for the Staten Island Advance and Sport magazine, is the author of Thanksgiving 1959. Visit his website at

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