Courage in Sport – Part Two. The Marathon Runners

Legend has it that in 490BC a courier named Pheidippides ran the distance of 40 kilometres from Marathon to Athens to bring news of victory over the Persians and dropped dead as he delivered the message.

Whether or not the story is true, there are two marathon runners in particular who displayed that same do or die spirit. At the London Olympics in 1908 an addition of 2,2 kilometres was made to the race and that has remained the distance ever since. The marathon at that Games was run on a particularly hot day and began at 2.30pm.

One of the competitors was a tiny Italian named Dorando Pietri (1.59m) who, late in the race, passed the South African Charles Hefferon to hit the front. Although he reached the stadium far in front, for the past 2 kilometres he had suffered extreme fatigue and dehydration.

Entering the stadium, he took a wrong turn and was re-directed. Almost immediately he fell to the ground in front of the huge crowd of 75000. Officials helped him to his feet but four more times he fell and each time received some assistance. Eventually he managed to finish but the final 350 metres took him 10 minutes.

A complaint from the USA team led to his disqualification but there were many who wanted to help and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been in attendance, started a fund which raised enough money to buy him a bakery and he became a celebrity. Irving Berlin later dedicated a song to him entitled Dorando.

The Miracle Mile in which Roger Bannister beat John Landy, both men finishing in under 4 minutes, seemed to be the crowning moment of the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. However, far greater drama was yet to come in the final event of the Games.

Marathon runner Jim Peters of England had recently become the first to run the distance in under 2 hours 20 minutes and went on to break the world record four times in the fifties. In the Vancouver Games race, Peters entered the stadium an incredible 17 minutes in front but began to totter sideways across the track, his legs buckling beneath him and his arms flailing in spastic, robotic jerks. He fell repeatedly, crawled a few metres, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, before somehow lurching to his feet to take another handful of steps before his legs crumbled again.

Like a boxer suffering a succession of knockdowns, he struggled again and again to his feet, his face ashen and foam gathering at his lips. This time there was no assistance from officials, despite calls from many in the crowd to stop it. A sportscaster called for order and ‘a respect of sportsmanship’.

After covering 200 metres in 11 minutes, Peters collapsed for the last time and was stretchered away, never to race again. Later, he was unable to recall any of it. The Duke of Edinburgh was moved by his ordeal and presented him with a special medal inscribed with the words, ‘To a Most Gallant Marathon Runner’.

Neither man won his race but Pietri and Peters did more than enough to justify their inclusion on any list of brave sporting heroes.