Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 3, 2012

Three Men and 26.2 Miles

Author David Davis explores an earlier London Olympics, when three men contested a marathon so memorably, they touched off a mania for recreational running.

Aelfie Starr Tuff

In time for the latest London Olympics, author David Davis goes back over a century to an earlier Olympic Games in London. There, he maps the lives of three runners—Native Canadian Tom Longboat, Italian peasant Dorando Pietri, and Irish-American Johnny Hayes—crafting a vision of turn-of-the-century idealism and internationalism, culminating in the rebirth of the Olympic Games and the invention of the marathon.

David Davis. Photo by Flora Ito.
"There's the famous picture of Dorando at the finish line. I must have stared at that a billion times as a kid."

David Davis. Photo by Flora Ito.

A grand, and at times tense amalgam of monarchs, intellectuals, athletes, businessmen, and everyday folk, the 1908 Olympics served Davis as a means to explore historical realities and basic human relations. It's also a careful treatment of class, race, and ethics—not just of sports, which came as a relief to this author, who doesn't particularly like them.

In Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, Davis also touches on very modern themes, such as sports doping. In the following interview, which was conducted over the phone and has been condensed and edited for clarity, Davis tells Gelf about his own running regimen, identifies Kobe Bryant's mantra, and names his literary inspiration.

Gelf Magazine: I'm going to begin with an obvious question. Are you a runner?

David Davis: I used to be. I was never competitive, but I like to jog. I walk my dog religiously. That is my form of running these days. Although I am a huge fan of track and field—always have been.

Gelf Magazine: You pinpoint something interesting in your book: athletic mantras. For example, "stay the pace run your race" or "vincere o morire." I imagine many athletes are most likely silently saying things in their heads. If you could imagine one modern athlete and his or her mantra, what would it be? And do you have one?

David Davis: I've probably had many over the years. Sometimes you find them in odd places—maybe a fortune cookie that sticks with you. As far as a modern athlete, I'm in LA, so I'll go with Kobe Bryant, and his mantra is, "I will fucking kill you."

Gelf Magazine: Your book is about the Olympics in London over a century ago. Are you excited for the Olympics to return to London?

David Davis: We are going over to London. This will be the 11th or 12th Olympics I've attended. I've seen a lot of winter Olympics.

Gelf Magazine: I've never seen the Olympics. Your book is my introduction.

David Davis: You've never seen it live or on TV?

Gelf Magazine: Neither.

David Davis: I'm surprised.

Gelf Magazine: I don't enjoy sports, but I did enjoy your book. Anyway, on page 33 you wrote, "The number of countries represented at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was 204. There are 192 member states in the United Nations." What do you make of that?

David Davis: Good question. I don't know the requirements for nation states, but the number itself is what struck me, and in a sense, struck you—that so many countries would be so eager to be under the Olympic banner. With the Olympics it is something that is both an ideal as well as sport. It is still something that nations and individuals aspire to.

Gelf Magazine: Did you read the New York Times today? There was a piece about how poetry was previously part of the Olympics.

David Davis: It's funny, I have a friend who just got back from London—she is not a sports fan at all, and amazingly we are still friends. She was amazed by what is happening in London right now. Some of the positive effects intrigued her. There are arts competitions and concerts, and the city is energized, which is something she hadn't seen in some time. It's quite interesting. That positive element of the Olympics is always neat to see.

Gelf Magazine: Tell me about the three main characters of your book—Dorando Pietri, Johnny Hayes, and Tom Longboat—and what drew you to them.

David Davis: A couple of things. As a literary model, in terms of the structure, I was inspired by The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, by Neal Bascomb, which is about the three runners who were trying to break the four-mile barrier in the early 1950s. He follows these three very different men. Between you me and the world, his book is brilliant, and I am certainly not comparing myself. But as a form, it was an interesting way to bring out the narrative. So that was a model.
What drew me to them? Both how different they are, and how much each character has in common. They are all from deep poverty. These are people who had they never had their athletic success, you would never have heard of them: a native Canadian living on an isolated reservation; an Irish lad from a tenement in New York; and a poor kid from rural Italy. And they were all scrawny, small guys who probably suffered from malnutrition. They had that in common.
And the differences. Johnny Hayes is a way to explore the Irish-American community and how they took part in the development in New York City. Tom Longboat: I had never heard of him before I started researching the story. I had no idea how famous he was back in 1908. And this is four years before Jim Thorpe becomes a star, and the first great Native American superstar. And Dorando, he was very difficult to research. There were some language barriers. I didn't go to Italy. I went to the Six Nations reservations, to New York, to England, and to Ireland, but not to Italy. He was so intriguing, honestly. There's the famous picture of Dorando at the finish line. I must have stared at that a billion times as a kid. It is the first great action sport photo. Film is just developing at the time. That expression of his exhaustion, fatigue—I always loved that photo. And to find the story behind the photo was a lot of fun.

Gelf Magazine: Have you ever played QWOP? It's about a marathon runner, but it is so poorly designed that the runner can never really move, which is how I imagined Dorando must have looked, as I haven't seen the photo.

David Davis: It's funny, he really has a Super Mario look.

Dorando Pietri at 1908 Olympics marathon

Dorando Pietri wins the race, or so it seems

Gelf Magazine: There are a lot of anecdotes in the book about drinking booze before or during some serious athletics. Where, why, and how did this come out of fashion? I guess that is also a bigger question about the origins of nutritional science.

David Davis: Well, yeah, you know, I don't know the definitive answer on nutritional science. I know it developed in fits and starts and certainly there was a fitness movement in the 1920s when refrigeration becomes more prevalent. I didn't study that angle.
The whole thing about booze is that, yes, it is interesting. It was just part of the culture. Remember, at the time, there was no place for women in sports. It was a male world. And part of that male world also revolved around the saloons and the taverns. They were sportsmen. That's where they would hang out, making bets, finding out about the next race, fighting, and so forth. It was part of the culture.
As far as not drinking water, that was a mater of sheer ignorance. They wanted their athletes to be tough. It was completely ignorant. I think you must be alluding to the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, where they are giving the guy hot water and strychnine and you wonder, how did he survive? They could have killed the guy. And in a sense, I'm surprised they didn't.
They were experimenting. They had a different view of strychnine and also a different view of cheating. They didn't see drug use as cheating. It's the time of the industrial revolution. The body was more like a machine. Give it some drugs and it will keep going.

Gelf Magazine: That ties into my other question. Doping is present from the very beginning. Will it ever really go away?

David Davis: It obviously hasn't, has it? During the development of modern sport, doping has always been a part of it. It will never go away, but it will take different forms and change. And perhaps society's view of the morality of it also will change. Who knows? We live in a country that for a long time banned recreational drinking. Cultural mores change and times change, but I don't think doping will go away. It will stay.

Aelfie Starr Tuff

Aelfie Starr Tuff studies religion at Columbia University.







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- Sports
- posted on Jul 25, 12

Article by Aelfie Starr Tuff

Aelfie Starr Tuff studies religion at Columbia University.

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