Blog post

How Dorando Pietri lost the 1908 Olympic marathon gold medal

Italian long distance runner who turned failure into success

cropped black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri running
Antonio Davide Madonna (opens in new window) (ICCU)

The appeal of the Olympic Games comes from epic stories and great triumphs, but sometimes also from defeats. From this point of view, the story of Dorando Pietri, and his dramatic experience at the London Olympic Games in 1908, shows how a loss can turn into a victory.

Pietri was an Italian marathon runner who entered the fourth edition of the modern Olympic Games with strong medal ambitions. In previous years, he had achieved important results and was considered to be the strongest Italian runner of the time.

In 1904, the year of his sporting debut, he had won the Italian running championship. In 1905 instead, he had triumphed in a 30 kilometre race in Paris. By the end of his military service, in 1907, he won the Italian 5,000 and 20,000 metres titles.

cover of a newspaper with black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri running

In all this time, he had only once retired from a race, during the intermediate Olympic Games in Athens in 1906. Intestinal problems led to him not finishing the race, even though he was firmly in the lead.

Mindful of this experience, on the occasion of the 1908 London marathon, he decided to start at a slower pace. However, in the middle of the race he started to move up. He completed this comeback three kilometres from the finish line and was leading the race. But this effort this took had considerably weakened him. When he entered the stadium at White City, he had a large lead on the second runner - but he was exhausted.

The last 200 metres of the race were an ordeal. Firstly, he ran along the wrong path; then, he fell down - only with the support of the umpires was he able to continue. Before reaching the finishing line, he fell down again four more times. He finished the race literally sustained by an umpire and a doctor.

black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri running at the end of marathon, he looks very tired
black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri exhausted at end of a race surrounded by other men
black and white photograph of an exhausted Dorando Pietri surrounded by other men

An American athlete, Johnny Hayes, was in second place. Considering this, the US Olympic federation lodged a complaint and the result was that Dorando Pietri was disqualified.

However, the spectators watching the race were thrilled with the Italian's performance. Even the newspapers gave wide coverage to the news, thus transforming the defeat into a victory. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who followed the event on behalf of the Daily Mail, described what happened as follows:

'I am sure that no petty personal recompense can in the least console Dorando for the national loss which follows from his disqualification. Yet I am certain that many who saw his splendid effort in the Stadium, an effort which ran him within an inch of his life, would like to feel that he carries away some souvenir from his admirers in England'

black and white scan of a newspaper article in Italian

Moreover, Queen Alexandra personally gave Pietri a cup as a sign of respect for the deeds accomplished during the race.

black and white photograph of silver trophy
black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri holding a trophy

The sudden celebrity brought Dorando to the United States, where he had the opportunity to again challenge 'Olympic Gold medallist' Johnny Hayes several times. And in most cases, the Italian runner was the winner.

black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri on a newspaper cover

Upon returning to Italy, Dorando continued his sporting activity, still achieving excellent results. However, sport was no longer his main interest. He had become a sort of mythical athlete and public figure in Italy. He published a book and, thanks to the fame derived from the London games (and the consequent earnings), opened an hotel in Carpi, his hometown, and later a garage in the city of Sanremo.

black and white advert from a newspaper including illustration of a dumbbell
black and white photograph, portrait of Dorando Pietri

But there is also a dark side to this wonderful sport story. Dorando Pietri, in fact, was later a staunch supporter of fascism, actively participating in squad actions in his city. When he died in 1942, he was buried, as he explicitly wished, wearing a black shirt, one of the most known symbols of fascism and was celebrated as an hero by Mussolini's regime.

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