Athletics at the 1908 Summer Olympics – Men's marathon

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Men's marathon
at the Games of the IV Olympiad
Dorando Pietri 1908.jpg
Dorando Pietri finishes the marathon
Dates24 July
Competitors27 from 11 nations
1st, gold medalist(s) Johnny Hayes  United States
2nd, silver medalist(s) Charles Hefferon  South Africa
3rd, bronze medalist(s) Joseph Forshaw  United States
← 1904
1912 →

The men's marathon race of the 1908 Summer Olympics took place in London on 24 July 1908. Johnny Hayes won after Dorando Pietri was disqualified for having received assistance before the finish line. For the first time in an Olympic marathon, the distance was 26 mi 385 yd (42.195 km), which would become the standard distance in 1921. 75 competitors entered the race, of whom 55 from 16 nations started, with 27 from 11 nations finishing.[1]


At a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in The Hague in May 1907 it was agreed with the British Olympic Association that the 1908 Olympics would include a marathon of about 25 miles or 40 kilometres.[2]

The British Olympic Council handed responsibility for organising the Marathon to the Amateur Athletic Association, but they had no experience at organising a road race of such a length. In late 1907, an offer was made by Jack Andrew, honorary secretary of the Polytechnic Harriers, to take over the task. This was accepted in February 1908,[3] though already, in November 1907, a route of "about 25 to 26 miles in distance" had been published in the newspapers,[4] starting at Windsor Castle and finishing at the Olympic Stadium, the White City Stadium in Shepherd's Bush in London.[5]

The Polytechnic Harriers were also tasked with organising a Marathon Trial Race, to be run along most of the Olympic Marathon route. By April 1908, a revised map of the course of the Trial Race was published, also showing the intended course of the Olympic Marathon. It had by this time been decided to fix the Olympic Marathon distance at "about 26 miles" to the stadium, plus a lap of the track (1,760 ft (536.45 m)),[5] using the Royal Entrance as the marathon tunnel, and finishing at the normal stadium finishing-line in front of the Royal Box. The April 1908 map shows the intended finish, though the White City stadium was not yet complete at that time.

The full Olympic route was thus from Windsor, via Eton, Slough, Langley, Uxbridge, Ickenham, Ruislip, Harrow, Sudbury, Wembley, Willesden, and Wormwood Scrubs, to White City Stadium.

For the official Trial Marathon on 25 April 1908, the start was 700 yards (640 m) from Queen Victoria's statue in Windsor on ‘The Long Walk’ – a magnificent avenue leading up to Windsor Castle in the grounds of Windsor Great Park. The Trial Marathon would finish about four miles short of the full distance, in Wembley.

Since the start of planning it had been hoped that for the Olympic Marathon itself the start would be on the East Lawn near the private East Terrace of Windsor Castle,[6] with the permission of King Edward VII, so that the public would not interfere with the start.[5] This permission was granted.

With the start now securely within the private grounds of Windsor Castle, the Princess of Wales and her children drove from their home at Frogmore on the far side of Windsor Great Park to watch the start of the race.[5][6][7]

Shortly before the Games opened it was realised that the Royal Entrance could not be used as the marathon entrance—it was raised to permit easy descent by the royal party from their carriages, and did not open onto the track—so an alternative entrance was chosen, diagonally opposite the Royal Box. A special path was made from Du Cane Road running due south just east of the Franco British Exhibition ground so that the distance from Windsor to the stadium remained "about 26 miles". The finishing line was left unchanged, but in order that more of the spectators would have a good view of the final yards, the direction of running was changed to "right-hand inside" (i.e. clockwise). This meant the distance in the stadium was shortened to 385 yards (352 m), and the total distance became officially "about 26 miles plus 385 yards on the track".[5] A modified version of the Polytechnic Harriers' April 1908 map was issued in June 1908 incorporating the changed ending and omitting the "Long Walk" start used for the Trial Marathon. This was published in the newspapers and in the official programme for the games.

This distance (ignoring the word "about" in the phrase "about 26 miles plus 385 yards on the track") eventually became the origin of the modern Marathon distance of "no less than 42.195 km".

According to the book The Marathon Makers by John Bryant, the first mile of the 1908 Olympic Marathon course was remeasured by John Disley in the late 1990s and was found to be 174 yards (159 m) short.[8]


The official report lists the leaders at each mile from the fourth to the twenty-fourth: Thomas Jack (miles 4–5); Frederick Lord (miles 6–14); Charles Hefferon (miles 15–24). Dorando Pietri of Italy caught Hefferon and sped up between Old Oak Common Lane and Wormwood Scrubs.

Dorando Pietri, Italy, began his race at a rather slow pace, but in the second half of the course began a powerful surge moving him into second position by the 32 km (20 mi) mark, 4 minutes behind South African Charles Hefferon. When he knew that Hefferon was in crisis, Pietri further increased his pace, overtaking him at the 39 km (24 mi) mark.

The effort took its toll and with only two kilometres to go, Pietri began to feel the effects of extreme fatigue and dehydration. When he entered the stadium, he took the wrong path and when umpires redirected him, he fell down for the first time. He got up with their help, in front of 75,000 spectators.

He fell four more times, and each time the umpires helped him up. In the end, though totally exhausted, he managed to finish the race in first place. Of his total time of 2h 54min 46s, ten minutes were needed for that last 350 metres. Second was American Johnny Hayes, with a time of 2h 55min 18s. The American team immediately lodged a complaint against the help Pietri received from the umpires. The complaint was accepted and Pietri was disqualified and removed from the final standings of the race.


These were the standing world and Olympic records (in hours) prior to the 1908 Summer Olympics.

World Record 2:51:23.6(**) Canada William Sherring Athens (GRE) 1 May 1906 (NS)
Olympic Record 2:58:50(*) Greece Spiridon Louis Athens (GRE) 10 April 1896 (NS)

(*) distance 40.0 km

(**) distance 41.86 km

Johnny Hayes set a new Olympic record with 2:55:18.4 hours.


Place Athlete Time
1  Johnny Hayes (USA) 2:55:18.4 OR
2  Charles Hefferon (RSA) 2:56:06.0
3  Joseph Forshaw (USA) 2:57:10.4
4  Alton Welton (USA) 2:59:44.4
5  William Wood (CAN) 3:01:44.0
6  Frederick Simpson (CAN) 3:04:28.2
7  Harry Lawson (CAN) 3:06:47.2
8  John Svanberg (SWE) 3:07:50.8
9  Lewis Tewanima (USA) 3:09:15.0
10  Kalle Nieminen (FIN) 3:09:50.8
11  Jack Caffery (CAN) 3:12:46.0
12  William Clarke (GBR) 3:16:08.6
13  Ernest Barnes (GBR) 3:17:30.8
14  Sidney Hatch (USA) 3:17:52.4
15  Frederick Lord (GBR) 3:19:08.8
16  William Goldsboro (CAN) 3:20:07.0
17  James Beale (GBR) 3:20:14.0
18  Arnošt Nejedlý (BOH) 3:26:26.2
19  Georg Lind (RU1)[n 1] 3:26:38.8
20  Willem Wakker (NED) 3:28:49.0
21  Gustaf Törnros (SWE) 3:30:20.8
22  George Goulding (CAN) 3:33:26.4
23  Julius Jørgensen (DEN) 3:47:44.0
24  Arthur Burn (CAN) 3:50:17.0
25  Emmerich Rath (AUT) 3:50:30.4
26  Rudy Hansen (DEN) 3:53:15.0
27  George Lister (CAN) 4:22:45.0
 Victor Aitken (ANZ) DNF
 Fred Appleby (GBR) DNF
 Henry Barrett (GBR) DNF
 George Blake (ANZ) DNF
 Umberto Blasi (ITA) DNF
 Wilhelmus Braams (NED) DNF
 George Buff (NED) DNF
 François Celis (BEL) DNF
 Edward Cotter (CAN) DNF
 Alexander Duncan (GBR) DNF
 Thomas Jack (GBR) DNF
 Nikolaos Kouloumberdas (GRE) DNF
 Anastasios Koutoulakis (GRE) DNF
 Seth Landqvist (SWE) DNF
 Johan Lindqvist (SWE) DNF
 Tom Longboat (CAN) DNF
 Joseph Lynch (ANZ) DNF
 James Mitchell-Baker (RSA) DNF
 Thomas Morrissey (USA) DNF
 Frederick Noseworthy (CAN) DNF
 Jack Price (GBR) DNF
 Fritz Reiser (GER) DNF
 Michael Ryan (USA) DNF
 John Tait (CAN) DNF
 Frederick Thompson (GBR) DNF
 Arie Vosbergen (NED) DNF
 Albert Wyatt (GBR) DNF
 Thure Bergvall (SWE) DNS
 Augusto Cocca (ITA) DNS
 Felix Kwieton (AUT) DNS
 James J. Lee (USA) DNS
 Frederick Lorz (USA) DNS
 Ivar Lundberg (SWE) DNS
 L. Merenyi (HUN) DNS
 A. B. Mole (RSA) DNS
 Hermann Müller (GER) DNS
 Paul Nettelbeck (GER) DNS
 James W. O'Mara (USA) DNS
 Georg Peterson (SWE) DNS
 C. E. Stevens (RSA) DNS
 Samuel Stevenson (GBR) DNS
 W. F. Theunissen (NED) DNS
 Alexander Thibeau (USA) DNS
 Vincent (RSA) DNS
 W. Wood (USA) DNS
DISQ  Dorando Pietri (ITA) 2:54:46.4


The dramatic finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon led to worldwide marathon fever. In a postcard sent at the time, an American spectator said he had "just seen the greatest race of the century."[9] Since Pietri himself had not been responsible for his disqualification, Queen Alexandra the next day awarded him a gold- (or perhaps silver-) gilt cup in recognition of his achievement.

Pietri and Hayes both turned professional and there were several re-matches over the distance of 26 miles 385 yards. Many other marathons adopted that distance, including the important Polytechnic Marathon. The IAAF minutes are reportedly silent as to the reason the 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km) was chosen in 1921,[10] so any conclusion must be speculative, but regardless of any possible emotional attachment to the distance of the "race of the century", the London 1908 distance had established itself worldwide by that time. Marathons became an annual event in London following the 1908 Olympics. The Polytechnic Marathon was held each year until 1996.

In popular culture[edit]

Il sogno del maratoneta is an Italian book and TV movie about Pietri's run.


  1. ^ Georg Lind was a Latvian living in London.


  • Burnton, Simon (29 February 2012). "Dorando Pietri's marathon, 1908". 50 stunning Olympic moments. London: The Guardian. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  1. ^ "Athletics at the 1908 London Summer Games: Men's Marathon". Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  2. ^ British Olympic Council Minutes[non-primary source needed]
  3. ^ "From Windsor Castle to White City: The 1908 Olympic Marathon Route" (PDF).
  4. ^ "1907/1908 sketch map of the marathon route". The National Archives, London.
  5. ^ a b c d e Bob Wilcock, The 1908 Olympic Marathon, Journal of Olympic History, Volume 16 Issue 1, March 2008
  6. ^ a b Cook, Theodore Andrea (1909). "Chapter IV. The Olympic Games of 1908. Athletics. XI.—The marathon race." (PDF). The Fourth Olympiad. Official Reports of Olympics. IV. British Olympic Association. pp. 68–84.
  7. ^ The Princess of Wales' private diary[non-primary source needed] and press reports[specify]
  8. ^ Longman, Jeré (20 April 2012). "The Marathon's Random Route to Its Length". On Olympics. The New York Times.
  9. ^ Bob Wilcock, "The 1908 Olympic Games, the Great Stadium and the Marathon, a Pictorial Record" (2008 ISBN 978-0-9558236-0-2)[page needed]
  10. ^ Martin & Gynn, "The Olympic Marathon" (2000 ISBN 0-88011-969-1)[page needed]