Dorando Pietri being helped over the line by officials to come first in the marathon at the London 1908 Olympic Games, only to be later disqualified.
There have been many exciting Olympic contests, but the 1908 race which came to be known as Dorando’s marathon has passed into legend as the most heart-rending. The image of the exhausted Italian runner being assisted across the finish line and so disqualified appears in almost every history of the Games. This was an extraordinary event. Queen Alexandra was so touched by the harrowing scenes in the stadium that she presented a special cup to Dorando Pietri. Irving Berlin wrote a song called Dorando. The King had a horse named after the runner. And a craze for marathon-running was born.
But now let us dispose of a canard. For years there has been a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was one of the officials who assisted Dorando at the finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon and so made the disqualification inevitable. He has even been identified as a portly figure in a straw boater pictured in the background of one of the most famous of all Olympic photographs.
Sadly for the romantics, the story isn’t true. The two officials at either side of the athlete are Jack Andrew, the Clerk of the Course, holding the megaphone, and Dr Michael Bulger, the chief medical officer. The man in the background (and seen beside the stricken Pietri in other photos) is probably another of the medical team. Conan Doyle was seated in the stands.
His report in the Daily Mail (25 July, 1908) makes this clear.
Then again he collapsed, kind hands saving him from a heavy fall. He was within a few yards of my seat. Amid stooping figures and grasping hands I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the lank black hair streaked across the brow.