From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Dorando Pietri (1885-1942) was an Italian long-distance runner wellknown for his controversial finish in the marathon at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. He finished first but was disqualified because he was helped at the end to the race. John J. Hayes was then declared winner.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an article in the Daily Mail about it: A Heroic Roman. How Dorando failed to seize the Laurel (25 july 1908), and he met Pietri to give him money (see below).
Conan Doyle souvenir of the event
Conan Doyle recalls the event in his autobiography Memories and Adventures (1923-1924) :
« I do not often do journalistic work — why should one poach upon the preserves of others?—but on the occasion of the Olympic Games of 1908 I was tempted, chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat, to do the Marathon Race for the "Daily Mail." It was certainly a wonderful experience, for it will be known to history as the Dorando Race. Perhaps a few short paragraphs from my description may even now recapture the thrill of it. The huge crowd—some 50,000 people—were all watching the entrance to the stadium, the dark gap through which the leader must appear. Then—
"At last he came. But how different from the exultant victor whom we expected! Out of the dark archway there staggered a little man, with red running-drawers, a tiny boy-like creature. He reeled as he entered and faced the roar of the applause. Then he feebly turned to the left and wearily trotted round the track. Friends and encouragers were pressing round him.
"Suddenly the whole group stopped. There were wild gesticulations. Men stooped and rose again. Good heavens! he has fainted; is it possible that even at this last moment the prize may slip through his fingers? Every eye slides round to that dark archway. No second man has yet appeared. Then a great sigh of relief goes up. I do not think in all that great assembly any man would have wished victory to be torn at the last instant from this plucky little Italian. He has won it. He should have it.
"Thank God, he is on his feet again — the little red legs going incoherently, but drumming hard, driven by a supreme will within. There is a groan as he falls once more and a cheer as he staggers to his feet. It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame. Again, for a hundred yards, he ran in the same furious and yet uncertain gait. Then again he collapsed, kind hands saving him from a heavy fall.
"He was within a few yards of my seat. Amid stooping figures and grasping hands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the lank black hair streaked across the brow. Surely he is done now. He cannot rise again.
"From under the archway has darted the second runner, Hayes, Stars and Stripes on his breast, going gallantly, well within his strength. There is only twenty yards to do if the Italian can do it. He staggered up, no trace of intelligence upon his set face, and again the red legs broke into their strange automatic amble.
"Will he fall again? No, he sways, he balances, and then he is through the tape and into a score of friendly arms. He has gone to the extreme of human endurance. No Roman of the prime ever bore himself better than Dorando of the Olympic of 1908. The great breed is not yet extinct.
"Of course the prize went to the American, as his rival had been helped, but the sympathy of the crowd, and I am sure of every sporting American present, went out to the little Italian. I not only wrote Dorando up, but I started a subscription for him in the "Daily Mail," which realized over £300 — a fortune in his Italian village — so that he was able to start a baker's shop, which he could not have done on an Olympic medal. My wife made the presentation in English, which he could not understand; he answered in Italian, which we could not understand; but I think we really did understand each other all the same. »
Conan Doyle and his wife Jean met Dorando Pietri a few days after the race. Lady Conan Doyle handed him over the £308 cheque and a gold cigarette case:
Dr. Michael Bulger erroneously mistaken for Conan Doyle
On the following photo the man on the right is often mistaken for Conan Doyle, despite the fact that he is physically very different. The two men aside Pietri are, on the left : Jack Andrew, the chief clerk of the 1908 Olympic marathon, and on the right : Dr. Michael Bulger, the medical officer in charge of the marathon. Notice the official armband on left arm of Bulger.
See the video of the Pietri arrival in the stadium and the finish:
- A Heroic Roman. How Dorando failed to seize the Laurel (25 july 1908, Daily Mail) : Conan Doyle article reporting the Dorando finish.
- To Honour Dorando (25 july 1908, Daily Mail) : Conan Doyle letter to the Daily Mail asking people to give money to a fund he started in benefit of Dorando Pietri. He gave £5 as a start.
- With the Italians (27 june 1916, The Times) : Conan Doyle article about the Italian army where he compared the qualities of the Italian soldier type with Dorando Pietri.