Marathon Men: Class, Race and Races at the 1908 Olympics

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July 11, 2012 in Culture & Media

Leader of the Pack: Tom Longboat (72) and Dorando Pietri (19) leaving Windsor Castle

When Olympic marathon races first appeared in the 1896 Athens games, the route was a somewhat arbitrarily chosen 25 miles and, contrary to popular myth, had no authentic origin in Greek history. By the time of the 1908 London Olympiad, the length had been even more whimsically extended to 26 miles, 385 yards – the exact distance between its starting point at Windsor Castle and the course’s terminus at a massive, barely completed stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. Among other things, trainers in those days believed it was bad for their runners to drink water while running and instead kept them supplied with shots of brandy, whisky and – in a pinch – strychnine, which was used as a stimulant.

These are just some of the many revelations to be found in David Davis’ Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, a compact book brimming with information about the outsized personalities and national neuroses that clashed at the eponymous race. We spoke with Davis, a master storyteller, who lives in Los Angeles, shortly before he left on a speaking tour.

Frying Pan News: What were some of the things that surprised you the most in your research?

David Davis: I certainly didn’t know much about Tom Longboat, an Onondaga Indian from the Six Nations. He was internationally famous in his time – and controversial. He was in the papers every day, and not just in Canada but in New York, Boston, Ireland. Another thing I learned about was the role the Irish Question played in the 1908 Olympics.

FPN: But Ireland didn’t have a team – it was still part of Britain.

Davis: Yes, and Irish members of the British team were embarrassed to have to wear British colors – even a British colony like South Africa had its own team and colors. Plus, a lot of the American athletes were born in Ireland, or their parents came over from there.

FPN: You write about the animosity toward Britain from the Irish Americans who were part of the U.S. team colored the games, which were marked by ferocious newspaper canards on both sides and protested victories – especially  the marathon’s, which was ultimately awarded to Johnny Hayes, who’d been a New York slum kid.

Davis: People like Johnny Hayes were born with these stories about what happened to their relatives back in Ireland and it certainly entered into their feelings. Before the games Hayes is riding on a train going to Brighton when it passes a graveyard and an Irishman tells Hayes, “That’s the finest sight I have seen since I struck England” – because it’s filled with dead Englishmen. 

FPN: And yet your book reveals all kinds of other fractious divides within sports at the time, both economic and racial. Different sporting activities, for example, could be traced to different classes – between athletes, for example, who came from Ivy League schools and blue-collar workers who were printers and pressmen.

Davis: Football was a big-time college sport, and rowing, archery and equestrian events were a bit on the snobby side. Baseball crossed all boundaries, though, and track and field went both ways.

FPN: I was surprised to learn of the participation of African American and Native Indian athletes in the 1908 games — wasn’t American segregation enforced strictly enough to keep teams all-white?

Davis: There were loopholes, especially for collegiate athletes like John Baxter Taylor, who had been a University of Pennsylvania student and who ran in the 1908 marathon. But there was no way African American athletes from the South would be allowed to emerge, and when Teddy Roosevelt shook John Taylor’s hand, the newspaper captions would describe Taylor as “the colored sprinter.”

FPN: The 1908 games seem much more enlightened, say, than the St. Louis Olympics four years before.

Davis: James Sullivan [president of the Amateur Athletic Union] organized an “Anthropology Day”  in St. Louis, in which nonwhites who weren’t even trained athletes were allowed to compete in special games. It was to prove that the white man was a better athlete.

FPN: Were the early Olympics as commercialized as today’s?

Davis: The 1904 games in St. Louis were tied to that city’s World’s Fair – as were the 1900 Olympics in Paris. The Paris games were completely usurped by the fair and featured some events that were not part of the Olympic program – croquet, ballooning, fish-catching. In 1908 the Olympics were staged in conjunction with the Franco-British Exhibition in Shepherd’s Bush.

FPN: How did the extension of the marathon from 25 to 26.2 miles affect the runners at the 1908 Olympics?

Davis: It was an important change. The psychology then wasn’t, “Oh my god – we’ve got to run another mile!” They just thought it’s going to be a little longer. But when you add the heat of the day and everything else it did mean a lot and it took a toll. Many runners didn’t even finish that marathon – they didn’t know how to pace themselves.

FPN: You have that great scene with Dorando Pietri, whose Italian team had traveled to England by train third class, confined to one meal a day. He had already run two marathons in the previous month, and was now completely drained, dazed and dehydrated, and he staggered into the stadium at the head of the marathon – but had to be held up.

Davis: Eighty thousand spectators were shocked speechless – was Dorando going to die in front of the Queen of England?

FPN: It seems that back then runners could stop and eat, drink and take pretty much whatever they wanted during a race. What was considered to be proper training food and drink?

Davis: Certainly for New York’s “Irish Whales” [the team's muscle contingent] you wanted to be big and hefty. It was very prescribed: You had your steaks and toast in the morning, followed by mutton. Then you took a nap!

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Steven Mikulan
Capital & Main editor Steven Mikulan is a Los Angeles writer.
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