Tension was high at the 1908 Games because the Americans and British were feuding. In simple terms they hated each other’s guts. The British still had their empire and looked down upon their “colonial descendants” across the ocean. The Americans thought the Brits were snobs that needed to be put in their place. They bickered over everything.
There were three marathoners of note participating in the London Olympics. Tom Longboat, a Native American from Canada, was considered the favorite and recognized as the best long-distance runner in the world. The USA’s Johnny Hayes and Italy’s Dorando Pietri were the other two that would play prominent roles in the race.
Longboat ended up dropping out after 20 miles but Hayes and Pietri had enough energy to reach the stadium for the final lap.
Pietri entered first and was only 385 yards from the finish line. But he was clearly finished. He stumbled and collapsed, suffering from total exhaustion. He ended up being aided by British officials and practically carried across the finish line. Hayes finished a short time later under his own power.
Despite the fact that what the British did was clearly illegal they still awarded the gold medal to Pietri and raised the Italian flag at the awards ceremony. They probably thought it was a bonus to “stick it” to the Americans. However, a protest by the U.S. to the Olympic authorities was successful and Hayes was proclaimed the winner. Pietri had the consolation of receiving a special gold cup for his courage by the Queen of England.
The hype and controversy of the 1908 Olympic marathon buoyed interest in the sport. It created a market for marathon match races between the three antagonists and other long-distance runners as well. All three runners turned pro and profited well from the controversy.