How the Irish defeated the best of Britain at 1908 London Olympics


Three English runners raced to the front and alternated in the lead for the first 10 miles. Meanwhile, a little-known American was carefully pacing himself back in the pack. John J. Hayes, the 19-year-old son of Irish immigrants and member of the Irish American Athletic Club, was clocking effortless six-minute miles with teammate Mike Ryan. Only 5’4” and 125 pounds, Hayes seemed only half the size of the big weight men, Sheridan, Flanagan and McGrath. Nonetheless, Hayes was well built, wiry and strong. He had the heart of a lion and was one of the most popular members of the American team.

About halfway through the marathon, Hayes began his move. “You’re going too fast, Johnny,” warned Ryan. “No, we’ve got to move now. Stick with me, Mike,” replied Hayes. Ryan did for a while but the hard pace that Hayes was now setting soon caused Ryan to fall back. One by one, Hayes passed the runners in front until the leaders came within sight.

By the 24th mile, it was a three-man race. Charles Hefferon, an Irishman from South Africa, was in the lead, and Dorando Pietri, a diminutive Italian who made Hayes look big, was second. Spectators ran onto the course and slapped Hefferon on the back. He wasn’t English, of course, but he was the next best thing, a British subject. Hefferon accepted a drink from one of the spectators. It was his first and last mistake of the race. Within a mile he developed stomach cramps and slowed dramatically. After a steep climb near Wormwood Scrubs prison, Pietri passed him. Meanwhile, Hayes, very fresh and strong, was closing rapidly on both of them. As the Olympic stadium at Shepherd’s Bush came into view, Hayes, the youngest man in the race, strode easily past Hefferon, the oldest.

There was something ironic about the moment: two Gaels from opposite ends of the earth meeting in London. No words were exchanged between the two runners at the time but Hayes later said: “I found out later that Hefferon was of Irish descent. If I had known, I would have talked to him.”

Hayes now set his sights on Pietri, some 50 seconds ahead and about to enter the stadium. It looked as if Hayes would have to settle for second. But as Pietri turned into the stadium with only 385 yards to go, he staggered and suddenly appeared delirious. He had, in the vernacular of marathoners, hit the wall. When he wobbled off in the wrong direction, British officials turned him around. He took a few steps and collapsed. The officials again came to his aid, lifting him to his feet, and helped him on his way. Again he collapsed and again he was lifted to his feet.

To the dismay of the British spectators, John J. Hayes himself now entered the stadium. The officials redoubled their efforts in aiding Pietri, encouraging, lifting, dragging, and pushing the tough little confection maker from Capri towards the finish.

“He staggered along the cinder path like a man in a dream,” said a reporter on the scene, “his gait being neither a walk nor a run, but simply a flounder, with arms shaking and legs tottering.”

Just short of the finish Pietri started to collapse for the fifth time. Jack Andrews, the chief British official, grabbed him and carried him across the line, some 30 seconds ahead of Hayes.

The assistance the officials gave to Pietri was a clear violation of the rules. Nevertheless, the British immediately raised the Italian flag and announced Pietri the victor. Pietri didn’t know or care. He was carried away on a stretcher, delirious and evidently near death.

Meanwhile, Hayes finished strongly, the heat and humidity not seeming to affect him. “Heat never bothers me,” said Hayes later. “My grandfather and father were bakers, and I worked in the bakery as a boy. I was used to the heat.”

Nor did the sight of the Italian flag disturb him. “I knew it was going to be all right,” he said. “They had to disqualify Dorando.”

Actually, they tried not to. It took a formal protest from the United States and several hours before the British admitted that Pietri had been illegally aided and was, therefore, disqualified.

That night Johnny Hayes and James Brendan Connolly, sat in a London hotel sipping beers until 2:00 a.m.. Connolly, the product of a South Boston Irish immigrant family, was an Olympic champion himself. In fact he was the first champion of the modern games. He won the first event – the hop, step and jump – of the 1896 Olympics at Athens. He also took third in the broad jump. He later went on to write 25 novels and some 200 short stories.

The next day Hayes and Connolly saw another Irishman, Timothy J. Ahern, win Connolly’s favorite event. Ahern set an Olympic record in winning the hop, step and jump but his mark was a foot shy of Daniel Shanahan’s world record. Since Ahern was from Ireland, his victory was chalked up in the British column. Americans then swept the high hurdles and Mel Sheppard, running anchor, led the American team to victory in the 1600-meter relay race, the final event of the games.