Book Review: Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze.
By David Davis
New York: Thomas Downe Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
David Davis’s wonderful historical book tells the story of three runners who made headlines in the first decade of the 20th century: Johnny Hayes of the USA, Tom Longboat of Canada and Dorando Pietri of Italy. Although this book purports to be about the 1908 Olympic Marathon, it actually recounts the careers of these three running legends. Davis deftly interweaves the three stories using the same technique that Neil Bascomb successfully employed to cover the careers of Landy, Bannister and Santee in The Perfect Mile. Only 27 of the 224 pages are focused on the actual 1908 race, the “showdown.” The subtitle of the book explains this a little better than the main title: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze.
I make this point about the focus so that those interested in this book will know what they’re getting. But I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying it. Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush is one of the best running books to appear so far in this century. Davis has clearly put years of work into research. He has consulted 24 archives and libraries and provides 17 pages of endnotes,10 pages of bibliography and six pages of acknowledgements. One review called his research “exhaustive”; I was exhausted just imagining how hard and long he had worked. A marathon indeed!
It must have been a daunting task to research three runners from three different countries. He was fortunate to obtain the help of his Italian uncle with the material on Pietri and of Canadian Susan Reifer with the material on Longboat. Davis himself is a Los Angeles sports journalist. A contributing editor for Los Angeles magazine, he has also published in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. Though not a running specialist, Davis has a good grasp of the sport.
One of the pitfalls of thorough research is the temptation to include too much material; it’s hard to excise details that you’ve worked so hard to find. And I found that Davis sometimes provides “too much information.” I don’t think the book needs seven pages on the preliminary plans for the Games site. I was surprised to be given current details of professional baseball at three different places in this book on running. And do we need to know that Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and wine are produced near Dorando’s home in Italy? Some of the material in this book is too remote from the main topic. On the other hand, the details of Olympic politics, especially the ongoing rivalry between Britain and the USA, were pertinent as they affected the Marathon.
This book three main topics: pre-Marathon (136pp.), Marathon (27pp.) and post-Marathon (88pp.). The structure of the book works well. Davis begins with the Marathon day and the final build-up to the start. This short section ends with, “The runners burst off in a pack.” Then he provides all the background to the race (“pre-Marathon”), focusing on the biographies of the three main contestants. Davis keeps the reader’s attention by adeptly switching topics every two or three pages. He is especially good on the amateur-professional conflict that affected all three runners.
Then on page 148 the actual race begins: “Billy Clarke of Britain and Arthur Burn of Canada spring ahead at the sound of the gunshot.” Davis’s thoroughness is well illustrated by the first end-note of this chapter: “The race action and scenes are drawn from eyewitness accounts (including interviews given and/or articles written by Dorando, Hayes, Longboat, Forshaw, Hatch, Welton, Hefferon, and other marathoners in the race).” About half of his race description covers the dramatic events at the end of the race inside the stadium.
The last part of the book (“post-Marathon”) follows the race description. Right after the 1908 Olympics, Hayes, Longboat and Dorando all turned pro and headed to the USA for a series of marathon races. I found the last part to be fascinating. In front of huge crowds, the three runners began a grinding series of one-on-one indoor marathons: Pietri completed three in 39 days; Longboat three in 51 days. Despite the demands of greedy promoters, the three runners obviously couldn’t keep going at such a pace. And although the great British runner Alfred Shrubb joined the circus, the marathon craze petered out by May 1909, less than a year after the Olympics.
A fine writer, Davis works hard to make Showdown at Shepherds Bush a good read. In fact, I believe he tries too hard at times. Fully aware that this was a well-researched book, I was surprised to read, “Murphy’s words echoed in his head: ‘Run your race.’” How could Davis have known this from his research? Later, “His legs feel as heavy as pianos,” and “He replays the race in his head.” Such passages don’t fit with the factual journalistic approach of the book. Was Pietri really “transfixed” when he first saw a bicycle? Did Tom Longboat really “watch in horror as his father died suddenly”?
Only later did I read the following at the end of his book on the first end-notes page: “Unfortunately, there was no press coverage of the three runners before they started competing at an elite level. I took some creative liberty in describing their formative years, backed with as much factual information…as I could find.” I am aware that currently there is a literary trend to fictionalize in biography writing, but I don’t think “creative liberty” has a place in this fundamentally journalistic book. Unless an end-note is given, the reader can’t be sure what is factual and what is fictional. For example, I wonder whether Eton schoolboys really did cheer on the runners at the start of the Olympic Marathon. Was this an invention by the author? I suspect that in late July there were already enjoying their summer hols. I wish Davis had not included novelistic additions.
Despite my two reservations, I am confident that readers of this website will consider Showdown at Shepherds Bush an excellent addition to their library.
David Davis has written to Racing Past:
Thanks for taking the time to review "Showdown." I really appreciate that you read the book closely and thus were able to give your readers a thorough review. My only quibble was with the word "fictionalize." Yes, I took creative liberties in describing the trio's formative years, but that was based on as much factual information as possible – including their own thoughts and remembrances. For instance, the line about Johnny Hayes saying "Murphy's words echoed in his head…." is extrapolated from a post-race interview w/ Johnny in which he praised Murphy for giving him solid tactical support beforehand. Same, too, with the Eton schoolboys reference: many newspapers that day reported on their appearance, so I worked that into the scene at the appropriate place.