As Dorando Pietri completed his controversial first-place finish in the London Olympic of 1908, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was in the stands to write a report for the Daily Mail. Here is an extract from the climax of the race.
But now the great race is nearing us.
We are waiting, eighty thousand of us, for the man to appear, waiting anxiously, eagerly, with long turbulent swayings and headings which mark the impatience of the multitude. Through yonder doors he must come.
Every eye in the great curved bank of humanity is fixed upon the gap. What blazoning will show upon that dust-stained jersey – the red maple leaf, the blue and yellow, the Stars and Stripes, or the simple numbers of the Britons? Those figures on the board tell us nothing. It is the man who has a dash in him at the end who may head the field. He must be very near now, speeding down the street between the lines of shouting people. We can hear the growing murmur. Every eye is on the gap. And 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 that 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 again 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 groping hands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed and expressionless eyes, the lank dark 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 Olympics of 1908. The great breed is not yet extinct.
Read Peter Lovesey’s article for The Public Domain Review here on Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the development of the modern Olympic movement.