Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade

When an exhausted Dorando Pietri was helped across the finishing line in the 1908 Olympics marathon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was there to write about it for the Daily Mail. Peter Lovesey explores how the drama and excitement of this event led Conan Doyle to become intimately involved with the development of the modern Olympics as we know it.

Dorando Pietri being helped over the line by officials to come first in the marathon at the London 1908 Olympic Games, only to be later disqualified.

There have been many exciting Olympic contests, but the 1908 race which came to be known as Dorando’s marathon has passed into legend as the most heart-rending. The image of the exhausted Italian runner being assisted across the finish line and so disqualified appears in almost every history of the Games. This was an extraordinary event. Queen Alexandra was so touched by the harrowing scenes in the stadium that she presented a special cup to Dorando Pietri. Irving Berlin wrote a song called Dorando. The King had a horse named after the runner. And a craze for marathon-running was born.

But now let us dispose of a canard. For years there has been a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of the officials who assisted Dorando at the finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon and so made the disqualification inevitable. He has even been identified as a portly figure in a straw boater pictured in the background of one of the most famous of all Olympic photographs. Sadly for the romantics, the story isn’t true. The two officials at either side of the athlete are Jack Andrew, the Clerk of the Course, holding the megaphone, and Dr Michael Bulger, the chief medical officer. The man in the background (and seen beside the stricken Pietri in other photos) is probably another of the medical team. Conan Doyle was seated in the stands.

His report in the Daily Mail (25 July, 1908) makes this clear.

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.

Conan Doyle had been commissioned by Lord Northcliffe to write a special report of the race. “I do not often do journalistic work,” he recalled in his memoirs, “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’.” The almost melodramatic scenes affected him deeply. “It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.” Nothing like it had been seen to that time, though similar scenes would occur at marathon finishes in the future. With remarkable foresight, Conan Doyle finished his report with the words, “The Italian’s great performance can never be effaced from our records of sport, be the decision of the judges what it may.”

Dorando Pietri with the cup he was presented by Queen Alexandra

It has been suggested that the cup presented next day by Queen Alexandra was Conan Doyle’s idea, but this is another distortion of the truth. In fact, Conan Doyle’s contribution was financial; he got up a fund to raise money for Dorando Pietri. A letter published beside his report in the Daily Mail stated:

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. I should be very glad to contribute five pounds to such a fund if any of the authorities at the Stadium would consent to organise it.

Nobody seemed to bother that Dorando’s amateur status might be sullied. The appeal raised the substantial sum of £308. Readers of the paper were informed that the money would be used to enable the gallant runner to start up as a baker in his own village. If the villagers were relying on him for bread, they must have been disappointed. He turned professional and cashed in on the marathon craze triggered by his race. For much of the next year he was in the United States, only returning to Italy in May, 1909. His travels lasted until 1912.

For Conan Doyle, that hot afternoon in the White City Stadium was an epiphany that convinced him of the international significance of the Olympic movement. As an all-round sportsman, he was quite an Olympian himself. Between 1900 and 1907, he played cricket for the MCC, was a useful slow bowler and once took the wicket of the finest batsman of the century, W.G.Grace. He was a founder of Portsmouth Football Club (1884) playing in goal and as a defender until he was forty-four; had a golf handicap of ten; and in 1913 got to the third round of the British amateur billiards championship. His knowledge of boxing, particularly the prize-ring, is evident in his writing, particularly Rodney Stone and The Croxley Master. And he is often credited with popularising skiing during the years he spent in Switzerland. A plaque celebrating his part in the history of Swiss skiing can be seen at Davos.

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Images from “An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’” by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Strand Magazine, vol.8, no.48, pp 657-661 (1894)

In 1910 he accepted the presidency of the English Amateur Field Events Association. Britain’s preoccupation with the more glamorous track events had left the nation far behind the USA and the Nordic countries in jumping and throwing. Britain’s showing in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, a mere two individual gold medals and five in team sports, came as a shock to a nation that had dominated in the previous century. To quote F.A.M.Webster, “a perfect wave of popular indignation swept over the country, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . . . had his attention drawn to the position.’ Conan Doyle’s own account tells us that in the early summer of 1912 Lord Northcliffe sent him a telegram “which let me in for about as much trouble as any communication which I have ever received.” Northcliffe (who in 1908 had raised nearly £12,000 to bail out the London Olympic Games) said Conan Doyle was the one man in Great Britain who could rally round the discordant parties and achieve a united effort to restore the nation’s Olympic status.

Conan Doyle was a strong patriot. It is often assumed he received his knighthood because of his literary success, but Sherlock Holmes had nothing to do with it. The honour was given mainly in recognition of the writer’s much-translated booklet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a British response to international criticisms of the nation’s role in the Boer War.

He began by writing to The Times (18 July, 1912) suggesting that in future Britain should send a British Empire team, for “there could not be a finer object lesson of the unity of the Empire than such a team all striving for the victory of the same flag.” Twelve days later came a fuller proposal with recognition that “liberal funds” were needed to form, equip and train such a team. Annual or bi-annual games should be held on the Olympic model, to accustom athletes to the metric distances and to “abnormal events” such as the discus and javelin. The Olympic Games should take priority over such traditional British competitons as Bisley, Wimbledon and Henley. His proposals on training were ahead of their time: “The team should be brought together into special training quarters for as long a period as possible before the Games, with the best advice always available to help them.”

The response was unhelpful. Some of Northcliffe’s own papers attacked the principle of investing money in amateur sport. Conan Doyle was not a man to be silenced. In another letter to The Times (8 August, 1912), he appealed to all concerned to “let bygones be bygones, and centre our efforts upon the future.” Never one to shirk controversy, he pointed out that the British Olympic Council of about 50 members was too large for executive purposes. Instead, he proposed “a nucleus of four or five from the present Olympic Association, with as many more co-opted from outside.” Only then, he felt, would they be in shape to appeal to the public for funds.

By March, 1913, the new Olympic Financial Committee was in place and he was a member. The others were the chairman, J.E.K.Studd, the cricketer and founder of the London Polytechnic; H.W.Forster, MP, a future Governor-General of Australia, and first-class cricketer; Edgar Mackay, the motor-boat pioneer; Bernard J.T.Bosanquet, a test match cricketer now best remembered for inventing the “googly”; Arthur E.D.Anderson, an Olympian from 1912; Arthur Robertson, another Olympic athlete; Theodore Cook, the Olympic fencer; Percy Fisher, representing the AAA; and J.C.Hurd, representing the swimmers.

Unfortunately for the fund-raisers, the state of the money market during the Balkan War made this, in Conan Doyle’s words to the Daily Express (24 May, 1913), “a very inopportune time to go to the public for funds”. The project was put on ice. In July, the Daily Express demanded to know when the appeal would be launched. “An ill-timed appeal for funds would be disastrous … The money market is still unfavourable,” replied Conan Doyle (4 July, 1913).

Donation form for the £100,000 Olympic appeal – British Olympic Council, Aims and Objects of the Olympic Games Fund (London, 1913) 43 – Source

Then he made an unfortunate decision to go on holiday and missed a crucial meeting. In his absence, the committee launched the appeal, not for ten thousand pounds, as Conan Doyle had planned, but a hundred thousand. “I was horrified,” he wrote in Memories and Adventures, “The sum was absurd, and at once brought upon us from all sides the charge of developing professionalism … My position was very difficult. If I protested now, it would go far to ruin the appeal.”

Immediately there was a backlash. Frederic Harrison, head of the Positivist movement in Britain, wrote (rather negatively) to The Times (26 August, 1913), “The whole affair stinks of gate money and professional pot hunting … The craze to collect Olympic dust bids fair to be another case of ‘gate’ – professionalism – years of specialist coaching. I should myself prefer to see Britain decline to enter, as not liking the terms and devices on which the show is run.”

Conan Doyle’s response (The Times, 27 August, 1913) was a cogently argued letter pointing out the scale of the scheme and the practical requirements of improving national standards of physical education. He concludes:

If Mr Harrison’s contention was that we should never have gone in for the Olympic Games at all, he might find many to agree with him. But, things being as they are, I would ask him to consider the courses open to us. One is to retire in the face of defeat and to leave the Colonies to put the Union Jack at the top where they can. As a good sportsman I am sure Mr Frederic Harrison could not tolerate that. A second is to continue with our present haphazard half-hearted methods, and to see ourselves sink lower and lower from that third place which we now occupy.

There was a real risk that the critics would torpedo the scheme and necessitate Britain’s withdrawal from the next Olympics. In the same issue of The Times came a letter from Nowell Smith, the Headmaster of Sherborne. He had spoken to many lovers of sport, he claimed, and “We are just ordinary, though, I fear, rather old-fashioned, Britons, and we think these modern pseudo-Olympic Games are ‘rot’ and the newspaper advertisements of them and the £100,000 fund for buying victories in them, positively degrading.”

The controversy raged for weeks. The Times devoted a leading article to the subject of veiled professionalism in the Olympics, pointing out that even the most amateur of sports, such as the University Boat Race, or schoolboy cricket, were funded to some degree. More subversively, the humorous magazine, Punch, published a piece strongly hostile to the Olympic Games.

Satirical illustration poking fun at the British Olympic Council’s idea that national pride could be restored through Olympic success – Punch 145 (1913):209 – Source

Conan Doyle met the crucial question head on in The Times (13 September, 1913): “I should like to ask one question and receive a definite reply from all those persons, including Mr Punch, who are making our Olympic task more difficult. It is this:- ‘Are you prepared to stand down from the Berlin Games altogether?’”

He persuaded his chairman, J.E.K.Studd, that the right way to handle this crisis was to invite the critics to a London hotel to debate the issue of Britain’s participation. It was a turning point. Studd and Conan Doyle each spoke at length and with honesty. Time, they argued, was against them. The subscriptions were slow (by October 18th only £9,500 was collected). But withdrawal from the Games would cast Britain in the role of bad losers. They admitted that the target sum of £100,000 was an “outside figure”. Studd, speaking for himself alone, said he had only accepted the chairmanship in the hope that “if successful, the work of the committee will enable Great Britain to retire from future Olympic contests without loss of dignity or prestige should she desire to do so.” Conan Doyle disagreed with this view, and said so. As he wrote in a foreword at about the same time, “No department of national life stands alone, and such a climb down in sport as would be involved by a retirement from the Olympic Games would have an enervating effect in every field of activity.”

Such straight talking was rare. The press agreed that the project deserved their support, but the damage had been done. At the end of November, 1913, Conan Doyle admitted, “The public seem apathetic on the question. … Unless prompt and generous help comes to us, the Committee will have dissolved, and the organisation, which has been laboriously built up during the last year, will have gone to pieces. The next few weeks will decide the matter.”

Of course, the matter was decided by events outside the control of sportsmen and writers.

When the First World War was over, and Britain’s participation in the 1920 Olympics was debated, Conan Doyle was no longer at the forefront. He was devoting his energies to another cause – spiritualism. Sadly, the fund-raising experience had embittered him. “This matter was spread over a year of my life, and was the most barren thing that I ever touched, for nothing came of it, and I cannot trace that I ever received one word of thanks from any human being. I was on my guard against Northcliffe telegrams after that.”

But in a modest way, there had been results. An “Olympic sports meeting”, over metric distances and including those “abnormal” field events, the discus and javelin, was held at the Crystal Palace track in 1913. And in February, 1914, Britain’s first paid national coach, Walter Knox (a well-known professional with experience in Canada and the USA) was appointed on a salary of £400 from the Olympic fund. The AAA expanded its Championships to two days and added the 440yds hurdles, triple jump, discus and javelin to its programme. Some important principles had been established.




Peter Lovesey is a novelist, best known as creator of the Victorian cop, ‘Cribb’, and one of Britain’s leading athletics historians, author of The Official Centenary History Of The Amateur Athletic Association (1979). His website: peterlovesey.com. The article above is an adaptation of one first appearing in the Journal of Olympic History, v.10 (2002).


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