A Scion Society of The Baker Street Irregulars
Editor’s Note: In light of the current Olympic Games in Rio, I decided now would be a good time to reprint this 1995 article. This is being done with some reservation. The last paragraph of this article and the original photograph caption above emphatically states that Arthur Conan Doyle assisted the Italian marathoner to finish the race. ACD was at the race, not as the track doctor, but as a journalist. There is an excellent article HERE that sets the facts and identities correct and goes on to laud ACD’s involvement in the Olympic movement. It is highly recommended that you also read that article. The Society of Sherlock Holmes of France also has a webpage that features ACD’s writing on the 1908 Olympic Marathon.
And now, Ed Rochette’s 1995 article……
There were no coins for the Olympic Games of London in 1908. Collectors must therefore settle for badges and medals. There was much else to be had at the IVth Olympiad, however, both good and bad.
1908 marked the first restrictions on entries, the first time that gold medals were awarded and the first time that the chosen host canceled for lack of funds. Rome, due to financial difficulties, had shed its host role after less than two years.
On the same side of the coin, the games were staged under the worst of legendary bad British weather, judging of the events was notoriously biased and anti-Americanism was very much in evidence. The Olympic Games of 1908 coincided with the 125th anniversary of the independence treaty of the 13 American colonies, a loss that Britain apparently had not yet forgotten or forgiven.
For the opening ceremonies honoring the participating governments, only the Stars and Stripes failed to be raised on the stadium flag pole. The Americans retaliated by not dipping the colors when passing the royal box, beginning a tradition applicable to all foreign heads of state to this day.
The U.S. press was to later report that “American complaints grew louder as the competition progressed. British judges and organizers were a pervasive presence, often urging on their athletes. The American officials complained that they were never allowed near the competition, thus finding it hard to counteract the home field advantage.”
This favoritism was one of many such incidents that helped give the games of 1908 it’s best remembered tale, a story that has far outlived the animosities of perceived bias. It also provided the raison d’etre for a book, Replies To Criticism of the Olympic Games, published by British officials and alibi of their actions.
No history of the 1908 games is complete without mention of the marathon and the Dorando Pietri, the man who almost won. July 24 was one of London’s muggiest days of that summer. Still, thousands of spectators lined the 26-mile route from Windsor Castle to the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush. An additional 385 yards was added to allow the runners a turn around the stadium, another London first. (The official length of the Olympic marathon will later become 26 miles, 385 yards.)
Ninety thousand people jammed the stadium that late July day for the running of the marathon. More than double that number lined the route. The British runners, eager to impress the hometown crowd, took off with bursts of speeds for an early lead, but without thought of pacing themselves. They faded into the pack well before the midpoint was reached in the marathon.
Entering the last half of the race, two runners found themselves in the lead: Dorando Pietri, representing Italy, and Charles Hefferon, a South African. Three Americans, John Hayes, Joseph Forshaw, and Alan Welton, disciplined runners all, continued to pace themselves.
Within sight of the stadium, Hefferon passed Dorando. Sure of himself, Hefferon accepted a glass of champagne from a well-intentioned bystander. Congratulatory slaps on the back as he passed, coupled with cramps from the bubbly, threw Heffron off pace.
Dorando, becoming known by his first name only, responded to the roar of the crowd. Picking up his pace, he passed Hefferon. When Dorando came into the site of the stadium crowd, they raised a cry of disbelief. Word had reached them much earlier that the man from South Africa was far ahead. If a Briton was not ahead, a runner from the Empire would have to do, and the spectators were expecting a man from the Empire!
Once inside the stadium, as he neared the finish line, Dorando suddenly took off in the wrong direction. Track officials joined the chase, grabbed him and pointed him the right direction. The little Italian staggered a few feet more before collapsing on the track. Now Dorando had the sympathy of the crowd, while the race officials were afraid that he might drop dead from exhaustion – and in front of the Queen!
The track doctor rushed to give Dorando first aid and helped him to his feet. The glassy-eyed, rubber-legged Dorando staggered on a little further before collapsing a second time. Sympathy overcame reason. The doctor and other track officials literally carried Dorando toward the finish line.
During the commotion, a second runner entered the stadium. When head race official Jack Andrews realized that it was not Hefferon but an American racing toward the finish line, he ran out on the track, grabbed Dorando and shoved him across the finish line. Andrews then ordered the Italian flag raised on the victory flag pole.
After John Hayes crossed the finish line unassisted, Andrews load through his megaphone, “Dorando, the winner!” It took four hours, almost half the time it took to run the race, before Hayes was officially declared the winner after prolonged and heated argument.
The Americans lodged a protest as Dorando was carried from the track on a stretcher. For a short while he hovered between life and death, but he was back the next day to accept a special trophy prepared on the order of Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed the event.
In the hearts of most, the little man from Italy had won. Although he had no gold medal, he did have a special award from the Queen. Dorando was to insist for the rest of his life that he would have one had the doctor and the track judges left him alone.
Dorando’s name has faded from history except among marathon runners and Olympic historians. The same of the doctor, however, lives on, although he is far better remembered for his fiction than as a practitioner. The doctor was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who gave the world its most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes!
This article originally appeared in the March 27, 1995 issue of World Coin News.
Thanks to the 7th Garrideb, Bob Fritsch, for sharing this article with us.
A prolific writer, Edward C. Rochette has authored several numismatic books, including The Romance of Coin Collecting, Medallic Portraits of John F. Kennedy and Making Money: Rogues and Rascals Who’ve Made Their Own. For many years, he wrote a weekly coin column nationally syndicated by the Los Angeles Times and a monthly column for COINage magazine, and penned his monthly column The Other Side of the Coin for the ANA’s The Numismatist magazine.