The name Arthur Conan Doyle is synonymous with his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes, and conjures up images of Victorian London, Deerstalker hats and the shady dealings of Professor Moriarty. Dig a little deeper and a life-long love of sport and competition pervade Doyle’s very being, from his days as a student at Stonyhurst school where he developed a love of and talent for Cricket, through to the time he spent in later life in the Swiss Alps caring for his wife through her illness with Tuberculosis, where he is credited with being the first man to climb an alpine mountain on skis. In fact, Conan Doyle is believed to be the first man to import skis in to Switzerland – a nation which now enjoys considerable international success in the sport – from Norway, in 1894.
Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh to Irish parents in 1859, and after his education at Stonyhurst Preparatory School, and later Stonyhurst College, went on to study Medicine at Edinburgh University. After his graduation, Conan Doyle began to practice medicine, but his penchant for fiction saw him become a very successful writer, with his Sherlock Holmes series becoming a phenomenon in Victorian England, and retaining considerable popularity today, as the recent Robert Downey Jr. film demonstrates.
When the Olympics arrived in London in 1908, Lord Northcliffe requested that Conan Doyle cover the Marathon for the Daily Mail, one of Northcliffe’s numerous publications. Conan Doyle accepted the job offer, principally because of the chance to get a good seat at White City Stadium. As Conan Doyle recalled in his memoirs, “I do not often do journalistic work, but on the occasion of the Olympic Games of 1908 I was tempted, chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat, to do the marathon race for the Daily Mail.” What Conan Doyle didn’t realise was that what he was about to witness would change his life. The 1908 Olympics were only the third in the modern era, and were somewhat of a novelty.
The marathon itself caused a stir among the people of London and proved to be such a success that two annual events were set up in Boston and London, independent of the Olympic Movement. On that unseasonably hot day in July 1908, Conan Doyle observed a diminutive Italian runner by the name of Dorando Pietri write himself and the Games in to the history books. Pietri had found himself some way off the lead at the 32km mark, with 4 minutes between the leader, South African Charles Hefferon and the second-placed Italian. Pietri had learnt that the South African was having serious problems with fatigue, he increased the pace, making up the 4 minute difference in less than 7km, an astounding achievement.
The feat took its toll on the Mandrio-born athlete, however. Upon entering the stadium, Pietri ran the wrong way and when informed of his error by race officials, he fell for the first time. Suffering the effects of extreme fatigue and dehydration, he fell a further 4 times and took 10 minutes to complete the final 350 metres of the race. Johnny Hayes had come in second in the race, some way behind Pietri, but was eventually awarded the gold medal when an appeal by the American team was upheld as a result of the help received by Pietri from race officials within the stadium. As Conan Doyle wrote in a letter published next to his race report,
”I am sure that no petty personal recompense can in the least console Dorando for the national loss which follows from his disqualification. Yet I am certain that many who saw his splendid effort in the Stadium, an effort which ran him within an inch of his life, would like to feel that be carries away some souvenir from his admirers in England. I should be very glad to contribute five pounds to such a fund if any of the authorities at the Stadium would consent to organise it.”
The fund, it was said, was to enable Pietri to set up a bakery in his home town upon his return to Italy after the games but such was the furore caused by the race that Pietri travelled the World over the subsequent 5 years to compete in exhibition races. Pietri reeled in over 200,000 lire in prize money alone over that period, and retired back to his homeland where he opened a hotel with his brother.
Conan Doyle, through this one race, had become convinced of the importance of the Olympic movement. In 1910, he became president of the English Field Events Association, a movement founded on the back of a very poor performance by the British at the Games of 1908 where much of the focus had been on the more glamorous track events. The following games at Stockholm in 1912 were cause for concern for British Sport, having been the dominant force throughout the previous century. F.A.M Webster, twice national javelin champion and Colonel in the Army, stated,
”a perfect wave of popular indignation swept over the country, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, president of the Amateur Field Events Association, had his attention drawn to the position. Sir Arthur, ever willing to exert himself in a good cause, took the matter up the direct outcome of his tactful negotiations being the formation of the Berlin Special Committee.”
Berlin had already been selected as the host of the 1916 Olympics. Conan Doyle tackled the role immediately, and set about streamlining and refinancing the British Olympic Movement. Some of Conan Doyle’s recommendations were light-years ahead of their time. Amongst his suggestions were pre-tournament training camps, giving athletes the best facilities for training and the finest medical advice always available. This approach would be considered the bare minimum in the run up to the 2012 Games, but a century ago it was revolutionary. Conan Doyle also saw the importance of annual or bi-annual games based on the Olympic model for British athletes to compete at and gain experience. In July 1912, Conan Doyle set out his plans for the British Olympic Team in a letter to The Times newspaper, stating that funding would be required. The popular press – Northcliffe’s own newspapers included – didn’t see the point in investing in amateur sport, but Conan Doyle was not moved. The arguments continued throughout the summer of 1912, with Conan Doyle refusing to accept defeat under pressure from the press. In a move to appease the Newspaper columnists of the day, Conan Doyle invited them to discuss the situation at a meeting at a London Hotel. Conan Doyle spoke at length, and with passion, and won many of his critics over. The press were won over by Conan Doyle’s infectious fervour, and many printed requests for public donations. Small amounts of money were donated by the British public, but events above and beyond the control of Conan Doyle put paid to the campaign. The Games of 1916 never took place, as Europe descended into bloody war. The long, drawn-out conflict meant the next Games took place in 1920, by which time Conan Doyle had devoted his time to Christian Spiritualism after suffering from a deep depression following the loss of his wife, son, two brothers and brother-in-law, all in a very short space of time.
The extraordinary foresight shown by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in both the administrative and sporting sides of the British Olympic Movement cannot be underestimated, and created a legacy in British athletics that has seen Great Britain compete at the top table of World Sport. Whilst his influence may not be widely known or appreciated, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rightly takes his place as a Father of British Olympism.