Gold medalist Dorando Petri, silver medalist Johnny Hayes, and bronze medalist Tom Longboat have long been forgotten by the general population since their victories in the marathon at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, England. Author David Davis exhumes their past in his book Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze.
It was an ambitious race as Davis describes with the start of the marathon at Windsor Castle, which required the approval of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and finishing at the Olympic Stadium in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Jack Andrew organized the marathon and Lord and Lady Desborough oversaw the construction of the stadium. In 1908, this was a huge undertaking and as Davis muses about the scene, the opulent stadium and fanfare surrounding the Olympics comprised of makeshift villages which may have been a precursor to America’s Disney World.
Davis’s exciting account of these long distance runners lives is not only a backstory about these athletes, but also an abridged version of how the marathon became a benchmark race at the Summer Olympics after the drama surrounding the 1908 competition. Davis begins the book at the finish of the race to give readers a sense of the excitement that filled the atmosphere in the stadium. Italian native Dorando crosses the line first and collapses. His motto is “I will win or I will die,” which Davis repeats several times throughout the book. Many reporters in the stands claimed he had died on the spot and declared the winner to be the next runner across the line, the Irish American favorite Johnny Hayes followed by the Native American Canadian challenger Tom Longboat. Needless to say, Dorando did not die and he won first place honors.
The individual lives of these three athletes, where they came from, how their paths led them to the 1908 Summer Olympics, and what became of them after their triumphs is articulately chronicled in Davis’s book. He retraces their steps with the sensory skills of an astute investigator and replays their lives giving readers a vivid interpretation of their hardships and tribulations.
Davis peppers his account with newspaper clippings setting the mood of the general populace’s attitude towards athletes and the Olympics at the turn of the century. One of the most interesting aspects he points out is that athleticism is widely nurtured at this time whether through neighborhood athletic clubs or President Roosevelt’s campaigns to advocate financial funding for sports in colleges. Davis shows evidence of a foundation that supports the efforts of the US Olympic Team’s organizer James Sullivan. The indication suggests politics and money from financial institutions and sponsors were heavily involved in the preparation of the 1908 Olympics.
Aside from showing how societal factors built up momentum for the 1908 Olympics, Davis also explains how the games, a competition which originated in 776 BC with the Games of Olympia in modern day Greece, became a worldwide extravaganza propelled by France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin who revived the Olympics in 1896. Davis delves sparsely into the evolution of the Olympics in the course of the early twentieth century, and pinpoints the time at which the marathon galvanized the world as being the 1908 event.
Davis’s account holds the reader’s interest and sheds light on information that explains how the Olympics became a worldwide event. Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush appeals to athletes and sports enthusiasts alike and even those outside of this realm who simply enjoy familiarizing themselves with historical events that have left an indelible mark on the wide world of sports.