Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: Showdown at Shepherd's Bush (2012)

By David Davis

The so-called "running boom" arguably started in the 1970's. That's when Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich in the marathon. He led a parade of Americans to championships around the world as suddenly the sports world started to pay much more attention to running. Even though the American aspect of it, at least in terms of winning races, has dropped off, marathons are still crowded in many locations.

But the boom was actually the second of its kind. The first started more than 100 years ago.

David Davis outlines the circumstances surrounding that initial burst of enthusiasm smartly in his book, "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush." As you might suspect, the Olympics and an American were behind it all, but in far different ways.

Marathon running was present in 1908 but it's tough to say it was thriving. Running 25 miles, done as something close to a stunt for the 1896 Games in Athens, was almost a curiosity. The Boston Marathon was on the sports calendar, but there weren't crowds wanting to enter.

Then in 1908, an amazing finish captured the sporting world's attention. Dorando Pietri of Italy was well ahead in the Olympic marathon in London (Shepherd's Bush was the district of London where the Games were held), but he ran out of gas as he circled the stadium. Pietri collapsed a few times, and had to be helped over the finish line. Meanwhile, Johnny Hayes of the United States was in good shape as he finished second. Tom Longboat of Canada had dropped out; he had been the prerace favorite. Those three runners take centerstage in the book.

As Davis outlines here, Hayes was awarded the gold medal when Pietri was later disqualified. But oddly enough, Pietri won the public relations battle as the public felt sorry for him. Pietri became something of a superstar by 1908 standards. He even had a song written about him by Irving Berlin; it became Berlin's first hit.

The three marathoners as well as a handful of others went on to run match races in arenas before thousands of fans, no matter how dreary in terms of spectator appeal that format might sound today. Interest in marathoning really stayed strong through World War I, when everyone had better things to worry about.

Davis did a nice job researching the back story, even getting some Italian newspapers translated for his purposes. The tale moves along smartly, and all three of the major characters are interesting in their own way. Readers today get a good look at amateurism at its worst back then, as greedy promoters and officials schemed to bend the rules and to send the money their way.

It's a long-lost era, but Davis brings it to life for a few hundred pages well here. "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush" is a nice recap of an under-publicized aspect of Olympic history.

Four stars

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