Thursday, July 24, 2008

Princess Mary’s marathon

According to a detail in her diary, Princess Mary, wife of the Prince of Wales, soon to be King George V, watched the start of the Olympics marathon one hundred years ago today and then went for a drive to Virginia Waters. That marathon has become famous for various reasons. Not only did Princess Mary herself affect the distance of the marathon (which subsequently became the standard), but the Italian winner was disqualified for being helped over the line.

The 1908 Olympics had been scheduled to take place in Rome. However, the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906 led the Italian government to divert funds for the reconstruction of Naples. London was chosen in Rome’s place, and the games were held at White City. They opened on 13 July that year, and on 24 July, exactly 100 years ago, the famous marathon race was staged.

A Wikipedia article explains how the marathon distance was established: ‘The original distance of 25 miles was changed to 26.22 miles so the marathon could start at Windsor Castle and then changed again at the request of Princess Mary so the start would be beneath the windows of the Royal Nursery.’ The marathon distance was altered again in 1912 and 1920, but from 1924 on reverted to the 1908 distance of 26.22 miles.

Born Victoria Mary of Teck in 1867, Mary was chosen to marry Albert Victor, eldest son of Edward (himself Queen Victoria’s eldest son), and in direct line for the throne. According to Time Magazine’s review of Queen Mary (a biography written by James Pope-Hennessy), she was approved of by Victoria because of her ‘lineage, decorum and diligence (constant letter writing and diary keeping)’. But Albert died, so she married the second son, George, Duke of York, in 1893. In 1901, Edward succeeded to the throne, and later the same year George was created Prince of Wales, and Mary became Princess of Wales. On King Edward VII’s death, in 1910, they became King George V and Queen Mary.

I cannot find any evidence on the internet that Mary’s diaries have ever been published, but I am sure they were used by James Pope-Hennessy in his biography. However, the ‘Official Website of the British Monarchy’ carries a photo of one page of the diary - from 24 July 1908. It reads as follows: ‘Lovely day. Sat out. At 2 we went to see the start for the Marathon Race from the East Terrace - there were 56 [sic] runners. Later we all drove to Virginia Water for tea and went on the lake. Mr Waddington arrived. We heard first that an Italian had won but he was disqualified owing to his having been helped in - an American won.’

The Italian was Dorando Pietri, and the American Johnny Hayes, but, according to an excellent Los Angeles Times article on the race, there were only 55 runners.

‘Tens of thousands of spectators lined London’s roads to cheer on the 55 runners (from 16 nations) sweltering in the afternoon heat,’ the article states. ‘Longboat held the lead at the 17-mile mark, when he suddenly dropped out. Unconfirmed reports indicated that he had ingested strychnine, the performance-enhancer of choice during this era. Wearing red pantaloons that reached his knees and a white kerchief to shield his dust-covered hair, Pietri took control at the 25-mile mark. But he had reached the edge of human endurance; he collapsed repeatedly, only to be aided to his feet. ‘He was helped by the officials,’ says Olympic historian Bill Mallon, ‘in clear violation of the rules.’ A groundbreaking photograph captured Pietri‘s desperate last effort at the finish, supported by two attendants (one of whom was falsely identified as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes). Medical staff carried away Pietri as the Italian flag was hoisted. Meanwhile, Hayes entered the stadium and completed his lap. The U.S. team lodged a protest. Pietri was disqualified and Hayes awarded the gold medal.’

In London today, apparently according to the Inside the Games website, the race is being re-enacted by the Flora London Marathon organisation, and the Royal Mail and Royal Mint are releasing a specially-designed commemorative stamp and coin cover respectively.

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