The book: “Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners who Launched a Sporting Craze”
The author: David Davis
The publishing info: Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages, $25.99
Find it: At Barnes & Noble.
The background: Go back to the first London Games, awarded to the city everyone with Olympic fever is headed to this week. It happened only after Rome’s plans to host it fell through.
Italy’s Dorando Pietri, already a cultural icon not allowed to be a national hero on his own turf, staggered into the stadium for the final laps running the wrong way. Yet, he still finished first. Except that American Johnny Hayes was given the gold when Pietri was DQ’d for receiving help after collapsing right in front of the finish line.
Then there’s Canada’s Tom Longboat, a Native Indian and one of the sport’s first star minority athletes. They all came from miserable upbringings, and were involved in a sport where the roads were crude (hardly paved), the shoes were worse, and few even knew how to train for such an event– many were even prevented from drinking water.
“Some observers worried tha anyone follhardy enough to run such a distance would keel over and die, just like the mythic herald. But many viewed it as a test of character for a fledling nation grasping for identity,” Davis writes on page 40.
How has this story not been told before?
“I remember, as a kid, being transfixed by the photograph of Dorando Pietri at the finish line,” said Davis, a longtime L.A.-based journalist and author, when asked what drew him to this project. “It was so compelling, so dramatic, I remember just wondering: what the hell was going on here?
“In 2008, when I researched the topic for an article about the 100th anniversary of the race, I began to realize how important the race, and the 1908 Olympics, were in modern sports. Everything that we talk about when we talk about sports today — stadium deals, performance enhancing drugs, media coverage, rivalry and controversy, athletes as celebrities — can be traced to this very moment in London.
“I knew that I was on the right track when I kept discovering these neat factoids around the race and the personalities — like the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the game-story about the marathon for the London Daily Mail and that Irving Berlin’s first hit song was entitled ‘Dorando.’ ”
Davis traveled to libraries on the East Coast and in Canada before heading to Ireland and England for his research. He also poured over files at the LA84 Foundation’s center.
“It was a revelation: newspapers were like blogs back then — everyone had one — and so the coverage of the 1908 Olympics was both pervasive and fascinating: The Irish ranting against the British; the British ranting against the US; the US ranting against the British; the Canadians ranting against the Canadians,” said Davis.
He said he was also incredibly lucky to interview relatives of several competitors from 1908, such as the son of Roy Welton, who finished fourth in that race, living in Orange County and with two huge scrapbooks about the 1908 Games.
When at the Shore Athletic Club on the Jersey Shore in N.J., Davis also got to hold the gold medal that Hayes won in 1908.
“It’s tiny, but it’s pure gold,” said Davis.
His hope is that the book reminds today’s Olympic fans about how grueling a process the marathon was a century again.
“Everything was stacked against them, and because the race was invented in 1896 for the first modern Games, no one knew what they were doing for a long time,” said Davis. “But runners like Tom Longboat and Johnny Hayes and Dorando Pietri persevered — and their legacy lives on today, as marathoners approach the two-hour barrier.”
And as long as we’re on the subject:
Davis has also written an e-book called “Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon” (St. Martin’s Press/MacMillan, 99 cents, 48 pages, at this Barnes & Noble link) which became another labor of love.
In December, 1963, Lepper came out of her hiding place in the bushes, dodged cars and infurated race officials when she entered the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City — one of the biggest races of its kind in the U.S. at that time behind Boston and Yonkers, but has since disappeared.
Davis says that the fact most East Coast-dominated media have concentrated on how women first made their breakthrough in the 1966 and 1967 Boston Marathon was enough to inspire him to tell the story of Lepper, and her training partner, Lyn Carman.
Davis ended up as the first reporter to interview Lepper in nearly 50 years.
“This was someone whom history had forgotten, and I don’t think she expected anyone to care about her story, much less pursue her, so she was very appreciative about that,” said Davis.
“I did not know that women were banned from competing in marathons — as well as other endurance running events — as late as the early 1970s. In other words, women were allowed to vote in elections for far longer than they could run distance events.
“I think the longest race in the 1960 Olympics was 800 meters. Ridiculous. So, through Merry’s story, I was able to trace how women won the right to run marathons through today, when races like the L.A. Marathon attract tens of thousands of women runners.”
Davis writes more about “Marathon Crasher” on TheClassical.org website (linked here).