Thursday, June 28, 2012

Showdown at Shepherd's Bush

In this day of organized races every weekend, and when it seems like everyone you know has run a marathon, or is planning to run one, it's hard to image that the marathon as a formal sporting event is so young.  In Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, David Davis takes the reader on a tour of the birth of the modern marathon.  It's not only a history of a race, but a great snapshot of the rise of the Olympic movement and sports in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Davis recounts the development of the first modern Olympics in 1896.  The organizers came up with the idea of commemorating Pheidippides's famous run from Marathon.  They devised a race from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles.  At that time, the longest races were no more than 5 miles; the next longest race at the Olympics was 1500 meters.  With the establishment of the marathon race, which would become a highlight of the Olympics, they had "concocted an anomaly, on that would attract only the inexperienced, the ignorant, and the intrepid."  I loved the comment of the French runner who had competed in the 100 meter, then in the marathon: "One day I run a leetle way, vairy queek.  Ze next day, I run a long way, vairy slow."
The marathon stuck, and with some stumbles in intervening Olympics, came into its own in 1908 in London.  This was the first race to use what would become the standard marathon distance: 26 miles, 385 yards, a somewhat arbitrary distance to cover the course from Windsor Castle to the stadium at Shepherd's Bush.  Davis traces the lives and running careers of the participants, focusing on 3 runners.  Tom Longboat, a Canadian Indian, was a favorite going in, but dropped from the race.  The Italian Dorando Pietri finished first, but he had fallen over from exhaustion and some officials on the track helped him across the finish line, disqualifying him.  The Irish-American, Johnny Hayes was close behind Dorando and was awarded the gold due to Dorando's disqualification.

This dramatic and controversial finish made Dorando a household name.  Davis says "he was the first athlete to become globally famous because of the Olympics. . . . He remains the most celebrated loser in Olympic history."  The race also raised interest in the marathon, both for participants and viewers.  American promoters recruited these three runners and organized races in places like Madison Square Garden and baseball stadiums.  The runners travelled the country to run in these exhibition races, and cities across the country put on marathon races.  Soon, however, the world war took front and center and the first marathon craze died.  The Boston Marathon was the only race to survive.

Davis does a masterful job of placing the marathon race in the context of the history of the Olympics and sport, and putting in all the context of history.  It's an entertaining, readable history that anyone interested in popular culture and sports will enjoy.  But if you're a runner, a marathoner, one of those who is living the legacy started by Dorando and his fellow runners, you will love Davis's account.  Pick it up!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary digital review copy!

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