I grew up in a home without a television. When my parents’ TV went on the fritz, the story goes, they didn’t bother to get it fixed. So my earliest visual sports memories came not from watching television, but from gawking at the photographs in oversized books like The Wonderful World of Sport.

In the years before personal computers and the Internets, these greatest-hits books served as the visual depositories of sports’ indelible moments: “Wrong Way” Riegels at the Rose Bowl, Babe Ruth’s farewell at Yankee Stadium, Jackie Robinson stealing home, Willie Mays catching up to Vic Wertz’s drive, Yogi Berra jumping into Don Larsen’s arms, Alan Ameche in the gloaming, Y.A. Tittle’s bleeding noggin, Ali over Liston (in color!!), Bob Beamon and Smith and Carlos at the ‘68 Olympics, Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup dive.

I don’t remember when I first encountered the photograph that you see here, but I was immediately transfixed. Here was this Charlie Chaplin-esque figure, with a glazed look in his eyes, surrounded by a crowd of excited people. What the hell was going on?

The central figure in the photograph—taken by an unknown photographer from Topical Press, a British photo agency—is an Italian runner named Dorando Pietri. He was the apparent winner of the marathon at the 1908 London Olympics, but his victory was short-lived. Shortly after the photograph was taken, he was disqualified, with American Johnny Hayes, the second-place finisher, awarded the gold medal.


But the image was so compelling and confounding that I wanted to know more: Why were two men dressed in suits escorting him on the track? What was he clutching in his hands? Why did he look so distressed and why was he DQ’ed?

Years passed. Whenever I’d come across the photograph—in books like Sportscape: The Evolution of Sports Photography and Personal Choice: A Celebration of Twentieth Century Photographs—similar questions drifted into my head. Finally, after researching the 100th anniversary of the 1908 Olympics, I wrote a book about it.


First things first. This was the first action photograph to capture the climactic moment of an important sporting event. No small feat, that: Cameras and film were only just catching up to the speed of sports, to athletes in motion, and newspaper photographers were just beginning to try and capture action. By contrast, later that year, New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle left the diamond at the Polo Grounds without touching second base after an apparent game-winning hit, triggering a protest by the Chicago Cubs that led to a one-game playoff and, ultimately, the Cubs’ last World Series win in, well, forever. No image of that immortal play, known as Merkle’s Boner, has surfaced.

Look at the gentleman on Dorando’s right, the guy holding the megaphone. His name was Jack Andrew, aka “Indefatigable Jack.” Andrew was the chief clerk of the 1908 Olympic marathon. As such, he designed and laid out the course, which started on the grounds of Windsor Castle and ended inside the White City Stadium. The distance, which Andrew somewhat haphazardly arrived at, was 26 miles, 385 yards. This was the first time that the marathon was run at the distance that would eventually become the standard. (Previous marathons, which had no set distance, were about 25 miles in length.)


The gentleman on Dorando’s left, in the tweed suit and cap? That’s Dr. Michael Bulger, the medical officer in charge of the marathon. Reports surfaced later that Dorando ingested strychnine—that’s right, strychnine, which in small doses acts as a stimulant—so that he could summon the energy to finish the race. This was not the first case of performance-enhancing drug use at the Olympics, but it explains Dorando’s physical agonies.

Look at Dr. Bulger closely. Many observers have mistaken Bulger for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. This is erroneous, but also somewhat understandable. Conan Doyle was standing mere yards from the finish line that day because he was writing about the race for the Daily Mail newspaper. His brilliant game story recounting Dorando’s misery was reprinted in newspapers around the globe.


Another fact about Dr. Bulger: He was an Irishman. At the time, Ireland was under the yoke of the British, then the world’s mightiest superpower. Irish athletes who qualified for the Olympics were forced to compete for the British, a fact they bitterly resented. In fact, all of Ireland was rooting for one country to beat England in 1908: the United States.

The 1908 U.S. Olympic squad happened to be dominated by Irish-Americans, from team leader James E. Sullivan (head of the AAU) and coach Mike Murphy to superstar athletes Martin Sheridan and John Flanagan (members of the mighty Irish-American Athletic Club based in Queens) and marathon winner Johnny Hayes, whose father fled the town of Nenagh in County Tipperary to come to New York City.

The American-English clash in 1908 politicized the modern Olympic movement. It was also was one of the first true rivalries in sports, the precursor to USA-USSR, and commentators and cartoonists on both sides of the Atlantic delighted in chronicling every controversial incident during the Games: the fact that the American flag was not flying at the stadium during the Opening Ceremony; the fact that British judges disqualified an American competitor in the 400-meter finals; the contretemps over the tug-of-war competition, in which Sullivan’s accusation that the English were wearing illegal shoes was summarily dismissed. (Count me among those who think the tug-of-war should be restored as an Olympic event.)


All of this bad blood climaxed with the marathon. The race occurred on the last full day of Olympic competition, a stiflingly hot afternoon in July. The English runners were favored; their backers, by now fed up with Sullivan’s incessant complaints and the Americans’ winning ways on the track, were prepared to root for any runner, even an Italian like Dorando Pietri, so long as he wasn’t wearing the Stars and Stripes.

That explains the throng of people you can see in the background of the photograph. Some 80,000 people, including Conan Doyle and the Queen of England, flocked to witness the ending of the marathon in what was the first stadium ever built for the modern Olympics. This was only the second concrete-and-steel stadium ever constructed—after Harvard’s football stadium—and it was a harbinger of the boom that began in the U.S. the very next year, with the debut of Shibe Park in Philadelphia. See the guy raising his arm in the air on the left of the photograph? He’s a swimmer, and the Olympic pool is directly behind him. That’s how big this stadium was: a 100-yard pool fit comfortably in the infield.


And, finally, what of Dorando? You can’t tell from this black-and-white photograph, but he’s wearing bright red shorts. He’s clutching a wedge of cork in his hands. (Endurance runners often did that back in the day. The cork enabled them to clench their fists without straining the fingers or palms, and some runners believe it helped with their concentration. It was rumored that runners would hollow out the cork and use it as a drinking container for shots of brandy or wine.) The handkerchief Dorando used to shield the harsh afternoon sun from his head is slipping off. He is semi-conscious: addled by a dose of strychnine, the heat, the greater distance. He will fall unconscious shortly after this photograph is taken; some newspapers will erroneously report that he has died. By nightfall, he will be disqualified for receiving assistance from Andrew and Dr. Bulger.

But this dramatic photograph, as well as Conan Doyle’s prose, helped secure Dorando’s legend. Fans could now view, for the first time, the climactic moment of a sporting event that was causing worldwide hysteria. Dorando soon became one of the most famous athletes in the world—and, certainly, one of the first to be known by one name. Irving Berlin’s first hit song? A little ditty entitled “Dorando.”


After London, Dorando was enticed to turn professional, as were Johnny Hayes and Tom Longboat, the Onondaga Indian from Canada who was the pre-race favorite in the 1908 Olympic marathon. They sold out the likes of Madison Square Garden and the Polo Grounds in what became the first “marathon mania.” In so doing, they legitimized the marathon as an athletic event and helped revive the flailing Olympic movement.

When I looked at this photograph as a kid, all I saw was drama. I didn’t realize that it captured the instant when sports became “modern.” Everything that we talk about today when we talk about sports—stadium deals, performance-enhancing drugs, soup-to-nuts media coverage, athletes as celebrities, rivalry, mega-events, controversy over officiating—can be found in London in 1908, when the Queen of England, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 80,000 spectators, and an anonymous photographer from Topical Press witnessed a semi-conscious Italian runner stumble at the finish line in the most thrilling and controversial finale in Olympic history.


David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze (St. Martin’s).