diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The London Olympic marathon: 1908

1908 Olympic commemoration at the BBC Media Village (built on the site of the old White City Stadium)On Friday July 24th 1908, London hosted the second most important marathon race of all time. It wasn't as important as Pheidippides' Ancient Greek original, obviously, but the London competition set the standard for all modern marathons. Previous marathons had been run over 25 miles, near enough, according to location. But the distance run in London - 26 miles and 385 yards precisely - has since been adopted as the official distance worldwide. And it's all thanks to our Royal Family being a teensy bit selfish.

The 1908 Olympic Stadium was built just north of Shepherd's Bush Green at White City (then home to the Franco-British Exhibition, now the site of the BBC Media Village). Marathon organisers needed an appropriate starting position 25 miles away, and settled eventually on Eton College way out to the west. The fifty-or-so runners would gather on Barnespool Bridge and then run their way through the Middlesex countryside to the London suburbs. But King Edward VII was keen that the race set off from nearby Windsor, so the race was extended backwards across the Thames to start outside the famous castle. And not the front of the castle either, but the East Terrace round the back, starting just beneath the window of the royal nursery. How lovely, thought the Princess of of Wales, if my children could see this marvellous race begin. So the marathon became 26 miles long, not 25, for the benefit of a five princes and a little princess.

BBC Media Village (with 1908 Olympic athletics finishing line)Meanwhile, at White City, further royal moves were afoot. The marathon was due to end inside the stadium at the same finishing line as for the other athletics races. You can still see that finishing line today, etched out in a BBC courtyard (assuming you work for the BBC, that is, or can walk past their security guards unchallenged). But Queen Alexandra wasn't happy with the status quo. She wanted a proper view of the finish, except that her Royal Box was positioned a short distance away (in the wrong direction). Two choices - either shift the Royal Box or shift the end of the race. You can guess who won. In the words of the official Olympic report at the time, "385 yards were run on the cinder track to the finish, below the Royal Box." Total marathon length - 26 miles and 385 yards. And that distance stuck.

The 1908 Olympic marathon was memorable for another reason - its extraordinarily controversial finish. As the runners entered the stadium, the Italian Dorando Pietri was in the lead. But he was extremely tired, staggering erratically towards the tape, and many onlookers feared he'd not reach the end without collapsing. A few well-meaning officials nudged and supported him towards the finishing line, to rapturous applause. But this thoughtless assistance got Dorando disqualified, and his gold medal was given instead to American athlete Johnny Hayes. Public outcry ensured that the Italian was not forgotten, and Princess Alexandra presented him with a commemorative gold cup shortly afterwards. But I bet she kept very quiet about the fact the the race would have been a mile and 385 yards shorter had her relations not interfered, and Dorando would have won outright with ease.

That's how the start and the end of the 1908 marathon panned out, but the route inbetween may also surprise you. The selected course didn't spiral round the sights of central London like the modern television-friendly event, but instead traversed the capital's rural fringe. First stop Slough (mmmm), then Uxbridge (oooh), and then a mostly Arcadian jog through quiet villages like Pinner and Eastcote. I bet it's not such a peaceful route 100 years later! So tomorrow, on the anniversary of the great race, I thought I'd find out. I'm going to attempt to travel all 26 miles and 385 yards, for real, with the aid of a decent pair of walking shoes and an Oyster card. I'll see you in Windsor in the morning, and let's hope I'm not stumbling with exhaustion by the time I reach White City.

1908 marathon route: Windsor, Eton, Slough, Iver Heath, Uxbridge, Ickenham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Sudbury, Wembley, Harlesden, East Acton, Wormwood Scrubs, White City [map] [join in]
1948 marathon route: Wembley, Kingsbury, Queensbury, Stanmore, Edgware, Mill Hill, Borehamwood, Radlett, Watling Street, Elstree, Stanmore, Queensbury, Kingsbury, Wembley [details]
2012 marathon route: Tower Bridge, [Tower, Monument, Cannon Street, Embankment, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Strand, Fleet Street, St Paul's, Bank, Aldgate]×3 Whitechapel, Stepney, Mile End, Bow, my house, Stratford [map]


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