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The Defeated Marathon Hero's Own Memories

The Defeated Marathon Hero’s Own Memories


“I knew I was going to be passed…it was like the progress of a martyr.”


Cabrera passes Gailly not far from the tape.

One of the most dramatic finishes in Olympic marathon history was that of the 1948 Games when Etienne Gailly, of Belgium, entered Wembley Stadium in the lead but in an exhausted state and was passed by Delfo Cabrera, of Argentina, and Tom Richards, of Great Britain, who took the gold and silver respectively, with Gailly salvaging the bronze. But then perseverance in the face of adversity was clearly a salient characteristic of Gailly’s, as his wartime adventures had shown.


He had managed to escape from German-occupied Belgium early in 1943, aged 20, and made his way through France but was arrested in Spain and spent six months in prison. Released to be sent back to Belgium, he managed instead to find his way to England via Portugal and Gibraltar, and joined the Belgian free forces, where he trained as a parachutist and graduated as a second lieutenant. While undergoing training he was a member of the famed London club, Belgrave Harriers, where he was known as “Steve”, before taking part in the 1944 airborne landings. Prior to the Wembley Olympics he had never run a marathon, though he had won races at a distance of 32 kilometres.


Much less was known in those days about the comparative value of marathon performances Worldwide. The only international race of real consequence in the early post-World War II years was the annual Boston event, which had been first held in 1897 and which had produced winners from Greece in 1946, Korea in 1947 and Canada in 1948. Even so, variations in the distance of the Boston race sometimes obscured the value of the winning times.


The Korean, Yun Bok Suh, and his coach, Kee Chung Sohn, who had won the 1936 Berlin Olympic marathon reluctantly wearing the colours of the Japanese Empire, had been sent to Boston for the 1947 race with funds raised by occupying US servicemen. Yun Bok Suh generously returned the favour by winning in the fastest time ever recorded of 2:25:39, finishing exactly four minutes ahead of the European champion, Mikko Hietanen, of Finland. Both these two and the recent Greek and Canadian winners at Boston, Stylianos Kyriakidis (who had placed 11th in the 1936 Olympic marathon) and Gerard Côté (who had also won at Boston in 1940, 1943 and 1944 while serving in the Canadian army), would be running in the Olympic marathon. The British hosts – maybe with characteristic insularity – thought of their own stalwart Jack Holden, who had first represented his country 15 years before, as the favourite. Finland – the major distance-running power from the 1920s onwards – had also selected Viljo Heino, who had set a World 10,000 metres record of 29:35.4 in 1944.


There were 41 starters from 20 countries; three each from Argentina, Canada, Finland, France, Great Britain, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA; two each from Greece and South Africa; and one each from Belgium, Chile, China, Denmark Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Turkey. No one, you may notice, from Ethiopia and Kenya, and nor would there be in an Olympic marathon until 1956 – placing 29th and 31st.      


The November 1948 issue of the authoritative British monthly magazine, “World Sports”, contained Gailly’s own story of his Olympic race, and it is the magazine’s Continental editor, Willy Meisl, a former Austrian football and water-polo international, who is due the credit for having made the approach to Gailly. This is one of the very few detailed accounts ever made by an Olympic marathon runner of his experiences in an era in which British athletics journalists formed their own opinions and rarely interviewed those they were reporting on. Gailly responded to Meisl’s questioning as follows:


“Following the tactics which my coach and I had mapped out beforehand, I was determined to run my race without bothering much about my opponents. I was concerned with one thing only – the stop-watch which I carried on my left wrist and which enabled me to control whether or not I was keeping to the pre-arranged timetable. To my surprise, after five kilometres, whilst I had expected to be rather hanging back, I found myself among the leaders.


“Quite contrary to my expectations, the first part of the race had not been very fast. To find myself suddenly in the lead, though I had done nothing but run within schedule, was rather a shock. For a short while a Chinese runner kept me company, but soon I lost him and I was alone. This had not been my intention. I was simply following my timetable, based on a total time of 2 hours 30 minutes. I was not acting the runaway. The others were running more slowly than my coach and I had anticipated.


“I was convinced the others would soon re-establish contact with me. In fact, I was often glancing back, expecting Heino and Holden to appear at my side. I considered them my most dangerous rivals, and it was baffling not to see them coming to the front. When after about 32 kilometres the Korean, Choi, passed me and I could not respond, I asked myself, ‘Is he travelling so fast or am I fading ?’ I had to admit to myself that my strength had left me temporarily. I could only watch how fast Choi was running.


“Although I hated this tiredness, I was not unduly alarmed. I had been alone in the lead for 27 kilometres. Things looked not quite so good now, but after all I felt nothing more than a normal tiredness, which I hoped to soon overcome. Next the Argentinian, Cabrera, passed me. This, however, did not discourage me, not even when he gained some 60 yards on me, because just at this time I felt my rhythm coming back. Almost automatically I closed quickly with Richards, who was running behind Cabrera. No sooner had I got in the Argentinian’s slipstream than I decided to spurt without delay. I no longer felt powerless. If at that moment somebody had told me that only two kilometres further on I would fall victim to a truly crushing wave of fatigue, I could not have believed it.


“I passed Cabrera, and having regained the lead I seemed to be travelling really well. Certainly I was tired but quite convinced that I would last the distance. It was then that I committed what was probably my number one blunder of the race. To rejoin Cabrera I had to make good some 70 yards. Having achieved this, I drew away from him quickly, perhaps too quickly, because after about one kilometre I had left him 60 yards or so behind. This works out at over 100 metres gained in only two kilometres and may have been too much for me.


“Tiredness made itself more strongly felt up the little hill leading to Wembley Stadium. Still, I felt alright and had no premonition of collapsing. At the very moment, though, when I stepped on to the track exhaustion overcame me like a powerful drug. Immediately after I crossed the normal finishing-line – unfortunately this was not the real finish which lay 400 metres further on – I knew I was going to be passed. I cannot deny that this last lap was hard for me. It was like the progress of a martyr. I was horribly weak, and I almost fainted, but I blamed this mainly on my cramped stomach. I still do not think I was really exhausted. It was my stomach which caused the real trouble.


“First Cabrera and then Richards passed me as if they were behind a veil. I was no longer fighting them but that awful overwhelming weakness, wanting more than anything to get to that unbelievably distant finishing-line. I got there. Somehow”.


Among those who didn’t “get there somehow” were Hietanen and Holden, who did not finish. Nor did Choi Yoon Chil, of Korea. Of the others fancied to do particularly well, Heino was 11th, Côté 17th, Kyriakidis 18th and Yun Bok Suh 27th. The leading American was Ted Vogel in 14th place, and no fellow-countryman would do better until Leonard (“Buddy”) Edelen would be 6th in 1964. No Canadian would finish more prominently than Côté until Andy Boychuk was 10th in high-altitude Mexico City in 1968.


None the worse for his galling experience in those last few hundred metres round the Wembley Stadium cinders,  Gailly was racing again within the month, placing 2nd to Ben Ahmed Labidi, of France, in the Inter-Allies’ Championships 5000 metres in Brussels. A couple of weeks later Gailly was back in England and finished 2nd again to Labidi in the inter-services’ “Britannia Shield” cross-country race at RAF Halton, in Buckinghamshire.


Etienne Gailly tried the same marathon strategy again in the 1950 European Championships in Brussels, leading early on before fading to 8th place. The race was won, as was the Empire Games marathon earlier that year, by Britain’s Jack Holden, making amends at the age of 43 for failing to finish the Olympic marathon. Gailly’s left foot was seriously injured by a mine while he was on active service with his army regiment in Korea the following year and he never raced again. He was killed in 1971, at the age of 48, when he was knocked down by a car.


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