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Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze Hardcover – June 19, 2012
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“Showdown is a peek into a fascinating moment in time at the Olympic Games.” ―The Christian Science Monitor
“This is one book about marathoners you should probably sprint to obtain.” ―Michael Ventre on NBCSports.com
“In less than capable hands this would have been a "did not finish." There's just so much going on from the buildup through the resolution. David Davis, however, tells the story with a light and fleeting pace that's easy to digest and simply captivating. His painstaking research is evident in the details as he described the rags-to-riches stories of the three marathoners who helped make the sport popular, and he pulled no punches when it came to explaining the competitive - and exploitative - nature of the various athletic associations and promoters of the time. The result is a mesmerising book for runners and sports fans just in time for 2012 London Summer Games.” ―thecelebritycafe.com
“Showdown at Shepherd's Bush is pure Olympic gold, taking us back to a time when athletes really did run for the love of the sport. David Davis writes like they ran--clean, swift and right to the mark.” ―Allen Barra, Wall Street Journal
“Imagine The Greatest Game Ever Played with three headliners instead of two or Seabiscuit with human beings standing in for the horse. Showdown at Shepherd's Bush is a wonderfully evocative account, as well-paced as a smartly run long-distance race.” ―Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated writer and author of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure
“Davis brings the dramatic Olympic marathon of 1908 to life in this detail-rich account. A classic underdog story, the epic race between Italian Dorando Pietri, Irish-American Johnny Hayes, and Onondaga-Canadian Tom Longboat transfixed the world and established the marathon as the marquee event it is today. Although the focus is on just one event at the 1908 Olympics, the text places the marathon in the context of the evolution of the Olympics and other major sporting competitions during this period, including the World Series, World Cup, and Tour de France. Davis expertly weaves the tale of these three dynamic men into the changing political landscape of the day, detailing the racism Longboat faced as a Native American, the hardscrabble life in the tenements of New York for Hayes, and the effects of the recent unification of Italy on Pietri. Davis takes some artistic liberty when speculating about the youths of Longboat, Pietri, and Hayes since no historical documents exist about them prior to their success as marathon runners. A must-read for Olympics fans.” ―Booklist
“Sports journalist Davis recounts an influential and largely forgotten chapter in Olympic lore.
As the Summer Olympics, and all the attendant pomp and circumstance, prepare to return to London in 2012, this book serves as a reminder of the event’s less-glamorous origins and of a race that helped change its history. Tracing the beginnings of both the modern games and the modern marathon race, Davis focuses on three runners: pre-race favorite Tom Longboat, a Native American running for Canada, the largely unknown Italian pastry cook Dorando Pietri, and the scrappy Irish-American Johnny Hayes. The race became a sensation after a controversial finish, sparking a marathon craze and helping establish the Olympics as the headline-making international gala it is today. Davis has a great story to work with, and he does a solid job bringing it to life. He is assisted by the colorful characters of the athletes, Longboat in particular, and others, including United States Olympic Committee member James Sullivan, whose repeated claims of poor sportsmanship by the British hosts helped stir controversy and interest, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, whose reporting on the race helped turn it into instant legend and Pietri into an international star. The author argues convincingly that if the 1908 Games had not been a success, the Olympics might not have continued and certainly would not have taken their current form. The same can also be said for the marathon, now a major event around the world, whose distance was first established by the 1908 Olympic course.
A valuable addition to the history of the Olympics and distance running.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“It's a long-lost era, but Davis brings it to life.” ―Budd Bailey, Sports Book Review Center
“The entire book was filled with suspense… sure to be one of the best sports books of the year.” ―Michael Giltz, The Huffington Post
About the Author
DAVID DAVIS is a contributing writer at Los Angeles Magazine and a contributing editor for SportsLetter. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times and The Best American Sports Writing anthology. He lives in Glassell Park, CA.
Top Customer Reviews
SHOWDOWN AT SHEPHERD'S BUSH takes a parallel-lives approach in its early stages, sketching out the lives and times of three of the major figures in the '08 marathon: Dorando Pietri of Italy, Johnny Hayes of the U.S., and Onondaga Indian Tom Longboat of Canada. All three came from very humble beginnings and used long-distance running as a means of improving their lot -- though, with "simon-pure" amateurism still the announced and (generally) practiced Olympic ideal, they could not truly reap the financial benefits of their efforts until after the Games, when a series of match races between them and other leading marathoners launched a brief "running craze" that captivated America seven decades before Jim Fixx appeared on the scene. This was the "heroic age" of long-distance running, paralleling that of Polar exploration. Given the era's minimal understanding of race tactics and training procedures, inadequate footwear, and lack of recuperation time between races, not to mention the frequent holding of races in smoke-filled indoor arenas (such as the old Madison Square Garden), it's hard not to wince while reading about these early pie-a-pie encounters. In the course of his narrative, Davis gives us a useful potted history of early marathoning, brushing away some of the myths that have accreted around the race (e.g. the oft-repeated tale that the race was based on a courier's run to Athens following the battle of Marathon), describing the development of such early efforts at organization as the Boston Marathon, and relating the frequently shambolic details of the Olympic marathons of 1896, 1900, and 1904. The marathon at the 1906 "Intercalated Games," held in Athens in an effort to regain a bit of the prestige that had been lost as a result of the '00 and '04 Games being dominated by ongoing expositions in Paris and St. Louis, was only a bit more successful. Entering the '08 London Olympics, the future of the marathon as an Olympic event, to say nothing of the Games themselves, seemed anything but secure. But competent local organization (also well detailed by Davis) and the sparks from a bitter rivalry between the host British and the upstart Americans helped to refuel the flickering torch, and the sensational conclusion of the marathon finished the job. Save for forced breaks caused by world war, the continuation of the Olympics would never be seriously questioned again.
Dorando's heroic failure and disqualification have come to mark him as "the most famous loser in Olympic history." Certainly, Hayes, who was declared the winner, is a forgotten man by comparison. Davis performs his most useful services by reminding the reader of Hayes' accomplishment (which the British, no surprise, did not much appreciate) and in rescuing the role of Longboat, the pre-race favorite, from obscurity. Longboat failed to complete the race, partially because he had sustained an injury while training in Ireland beforehand. The extent of said training -- with Longboat's trainer-promoter putting his charge through a series of lengthy runs before curious crowds -- further points up the exploitative, almost ad hoc nature of the culture of early long-distance running.
Davis' writing gets a little too purple in places, but he accomplishes quite a lot in such a small package, providing a Cook's tour of early Olympic and long-distance history in addition to sketching out the details (in present tense, for some peculiar reason) of the headlined race. Much like THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED or SEABISCUIT, this is a "sports history book" that the wider public should be able to fully appreciate.
Davis recounts the development of the first modern Olympics in 1896. The organizers came up with the idea of commemorating Pheidippides's famous run from Marathon. They devised a race from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles. At that time, the longest races were no more than 5 miles; the next longest race at the Olympics was 1500 meters. With the establishment of the marathon race, which would become a highlight of the Olympics, they had "concocted an anomaly, on that would attract only the inexperienced, the ignorant, and the intrepid." I loved the comment of the French runner who had competed in the 100 meter, then in the marathon: "One day I run a leetle way, vairy queek. Ze next day, I run a long way, vairy slow."
The marathon stuck, and with some stumbles in intervening Olympics, came into its own in 1908 in London. This was the first race to use what would become the standard marathon distance: 26 miles, 385 yards, a somewhat arbitrary distance to cover the course from Windsor Castle to the stadium at Shepherd's Bush. Davis traces the lives and running careers of the participants, focusing on 3 runners. Tom Longboat, a Canadian Indian, was a favorite going in, but dropped from the race. The Italian Dorando Pietri finished first, but he had fallen over from exhaustion and some officials on the track helped him across the finish line, disqualifying him. The Irish-American, Johnny Hayes was close behind Dorando and was awarded the gold due to Dorando's disqualification.
This dramatic and controversial finish made Dorando a household name. Davis says "he was the first athlete to become globally famous because of the Olympics. . . . He remains the most celebrated loser in Olympic history." The race also raised interest in the marathon, both for participants and viewers. American promoters recruited these three runners and organized races in places like Madison Square Garden and baseball stadiums. The runners travelled the country to run in these exhibition races, and cities across the country put on marathon races. Soon, however, the world war took front and center and the first marathon craze died. The Boston Marathon was the only race to survive.
Davis does a masterful job of placing the marathon race in the context of the history of the Olympics and sport, and putting in all the context of history. It's an entertaining, readable history that anyone interested in popular culture and sports will enjoy. But if you're a runner, a marathoner, one of those who is living the legacy started by Dorando and his fellow runners, you will love Davis's account. Pick it up!
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary digital review copy!