Dorando Pietri

Dorando Pietri (1885–1942), Italian marathon runner, whose running style in the 1908 London Olympic Games was commented upon by F. M. Alexander.

Life and 1908 London Olympic Games

Dorando Pietri first participated in cycling competitions in 1903 but soon turned to running. He became famous by winning the Paris Amateur Marathon (30 km) in 1905, and from then on participated in numerous marathons. After winning an important race in Rome in 1906, he went to the 1908 London Olympic Games as one of the favourites. The Marathon Race in London made headlines at the time and secured Dorando Pietri a place in athletics history as a ‘famous loser’.[1] The afternoon of the race, 24 July 1908, was unusually hot. Pietri was leading the race by the time he reached the stadium, but he was so exhausted that he began running the wrong way around the track, and then he collapsed. The 75,000 spectators rose to their feet in ‘breathless excitement’,[2] and doctors and officials ran to Pietri’s assistance, massaging him and helping him to his feet. He fell again and it took him more than nine minutes to reach the finishing line. The second runner to finish, J. J. Hayes of the USA, protested that Pietri had been assisted, and Pietri was disqualified. He won the sympathy of the spectators and the press, however, and was awarded a special cup by Queen Alexandra.[3] It later turned out that Pietri’s collapse was mainly due to strychnine poisoning (it was used as a cathartic and stimulant[4]) and the heat did the rest. Later in 1908 Pietri won over J. J. Hayes at a New York Marathon race before becoming professional, running mainly in the USA, 1908–09. His personal marathon record was set in 1910 with 2:38:48. He retired from running in 1911.[5] [6]

F. M. Alexander on Dorando Pietri

Alexander discusses Pietri’s use in MSI. (It would appear that Alexander made his judgements of Dorando’s use based on the many photographs which were published in British newspapers of Dorando crossing the finishing line in the 1908 London Olympic Games.)

We can find, perhaps, no better instance of the necessity for the application of the principles of conscious control to these fundamental and essential propositions of standing, walking and running, than in the photographs taken of Dorando as he appeared when he was making his last terrible efforts to reach the tape at the conclusion of the Marathon race in London in 1908. One sees that he was desperately wearied, and that whatever conscious control of his muscular mechanisms he may ever have obtained, he was at this moment completely under the domination of subconscious (or subjective) control, that he was out of ‘communication with his reason’. His body, as we see him in these photographs, is thrown back from the hips, his arms are outstretched behind him, and his legs are bent forward at the knee. As a consequence, he is compelled to use almost all his physical force in order to save himself from falling backwards. He is struggling against a tremendous gravitational pull which is dragging him away from his goal. If Dorando, magnificent athlete as he undoubtedly was, had been trained in the principles of conscious control, such an attitude would have been impossible for him, tired and exhausted even as he was. For if he had not been subconsciously controlled, he would have employed his common sense at this moment and would have acted according to the guidance of its mandate. It is at such critical moments that we have urgent need for the control of reason, for it is then that we suffer most from the loss of the animal equivalent – instinct.

         Dorando’s muscles may have been taxed to their utmost capacity, but if he had been consciously controlled he would have leaned forward, not back, and while he had the strength necessary (but a very small part of the strength he was actually expending) to prevent himself from falling on his face, that gravitational force would have dragged him on instead of dragging him back from the object of his achievement, as was actually the case. He would, in short, have been able to make the best instead of the worst use of his powers.[7]

Alexander also mentions Dorando in the ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934):

When Dorando was running in the marathon race, the runners were all dead beat, as they say, by the time there were about [word missing] or less from the winning post. You may remember the picture of Dorando. I shall never forget it. There he was, a little in front, his head back, his hands up like this, struggling to get to the post. If he had used his brain all he had to do was to drop his hands, and put his head forward, and trot on. But he did not.[8]


There is a youtube video containing footage of Dorando entering the stadium, struggling, and then crossing the finishing line.[9]

Further reading

Bridgeman Images have an online article, ‘Dorando Pietri & the 1908 Olympic Marathon’ which also covers the story, and which contains the famous picture of Dorando crossing the finishing line (with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the right).[10]


[1] Olympic Games: Complete Track and Field Results 1896–1988 (Facts-on-File, 1988).
[2] The Daily Mirror, 25 July 1908, front page.
[3] The Olympic Games Book by Harold Abrahams (James Barrie, 1956), pp. 22–24.
[4] ‘The Tonic Action of Strychnine’ by W. F. Anderson in the British Medical Journal, 11 March 1944, p. 360.
[5] Storia dell’ Atletica by G. P. Ormezzano (Longanesi e C.,1980), pp. 159–160.
[6] Storia Delle Olimpiadi by S. Iacomuzzi (Einaudi, 1976), pp. 48–52.
[7] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), pp. 172–73.
[8] ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 172.
[10] [Old website:]. Retrieved 29 April 2019.