Mount Vesuvius, looming over the bay of Naples, has had a spectacular and sometimes malign influence on its surrounding area. Most notably, an eruption in 79 A.D destroyed the towns of Pompeii (which I visited on my recent holidays in Italy) and Herculaneum.
But did you know that this active volcano also played a significant role in modern Olympic history – one which ended up making your marathon longer?
The 1908 Olympic Games were originally scheduled to be held in Rome. But an eruption of Vesuvius in April 1906 caused huge damage to Naples, which required extensive reconstruction afterwards. This drain on Italian public funding meant that the Games needed a new venue – and so they moved to the runner-up in the original selection process, London.
Fittingly, the star of these first London Olympics was an Italian. Dorando Pietri staggered dramatically to the marathon finish line in first place, was disqualified for having received assistance from well-meaning officials concerned for his welfare, but subsequently earned a royal award and lifelong fame for his efforts.
And that 1908 Olympic marathon was where today’s standard distance of 26 miles and 385 yards was first used, so that the race would start in front of the royal nursery at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box in the stadium. This exact distance, converted to 42.195 kilometres, was adopted by the IAAF in 1921 as the official length of a marathon. Prior to 1908, Olympic marathons were usually only around 40 kilometres, the actual distance from the town of Marathon to Athens.
So, if Mount Vesuvius hadn’t erupted in 1906, the 1908 Olympics would have been in Rome instead of London and the marathon wouldn’t have been lengthened by 2 kilometres at the whim of the British crown – which means an exhausted Pietri wouldn’t have had to stagger the extra distance into the arms of Olympic officials and get disqualified. That one Vesuvian belch of lava cost Italy the damage to Naples and subsequent reconstruction bill, the loss of the Olympic Games and an Olympic gold medal. Ever since, Vesuvius has always lost out to Mount Etna in the annual competition to find Italy’s favourite active volcano.
And as for you, next time you’re at kilometre 40 of a marathon, you can have a wry smile and quiet chuckle to yourself at the thought that but for an Italian volcano you’d be finished by now.
Good work, Vesuvius!