Wearing baggy shorts and a cloth tied around his head, the small Italian runner’s legs buckled from exertion. It appeared as if he might faint beneath the finishing tape rather than break it.

Dorando Pietri’s finish during the 1908 marathon in London was captured on film and replayed around the world telling the public everywhere about this new sporting event: The Olympics.

“It created one of those iconic moments of drama,” said Rebecca Jenkins, author of “The First London Olympics: 1908.” “It was the vision of the everyman, the little engine that could ... that anyone from any backwater could come and that you could do things through any great odds.”

London first hosted the Olympics in 1908 a time when the games were in their infancy and struggling for legitimacy.

While the modern Olympics were reborn in Athens in 1896, it wasn’t until London that they took on the form we know today. London, which hosts the games again this year, began in 1908 to create the rules and traditions, including establishing the standard marathon distance that has been followed for the past century.

It was chaotic by modern standards after a few weeks the swimming pool, which had no filtered water, is said to have stank.

The 1908 London Games had another modern scourge scandal. There were allegations of cheating and accusations that British officials unfairly discriminated against Irish-American competitors. Reports from the time show that doping may also have taken place.

And yet for an event that previewed the future and set the trend, it really came about by happenstance.

The Olympics were still very new at the time. Baron Pierre de Coubertain of France led the drive to revive the games, using the athletic contests of ancient Greece as his inspiration.

The recently formed International Olympic Committee set up a rotation of cities to host the games on a four-year interval. The 1908 games were supposed to be in Rome, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius forced Italy to pull out.

By chance, Britain was planning a major exhibition, organized by an émigré who had made his fortune doing very athletic Hungarian folk dances. British aristocrats, after a holiday in Greece, offered to host the games and persuaded the government to agree as long as there was no cost to taxpayers.

As planning and construction was already under way for the exhibition, it made for a seamless transition to having a major sporting event alongside. London in 1908 was the first Olympics to have a purpose-built stadium, complete with a swimming pool twice the size of the ones today.

Britain’s stamp on the event made the London Olympics memorable. More than 100 years later, it remains so. The auction house, Christie’s, recently sold a 1908 poster for 15,000 pounds ($24,000) showing the staying power of images from the early games.

While other games were centred largely on individuals programs from the 1904 St. Louis Olympics listed competitors based on their sports clubs rather than their countries London’s Olympics stressed native lands. It also coincided with the rise of nationalism as a concept in Europe.

“It is the first one with a national emphasis,” said Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at the University of Southampton. “As in so many other areas of life, national identity and culture were coming in. Sport fit perfectly. It was part of the zeitgeist.”

But nothing seared the Olympics into the public imagination like the marathon. The event, which merges the modern games with its ancient Greek ideals, is based on the legend of Pheidippides, the ancient Greek hero who is said to have run from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that the Persians had been defeated.

Earlier revivals of the race set the distance at about 40 kilometres (25 miles), but London in 1908 set the distance at the now-standard 26 miles and 385 yards, and provided the drama that made it a showpiece event.

The legend is that course was altered after Princess Mary, wife of the heir to the throne, asked that her sons be allowed to see the start of the race from the window of their home at Windsor castle. Historians, however, say this is unlikely, and that the start of the race was probably moved to the grounds of Windsor Castle to avoid congestion.

With the event ending in front of the royal box at White City stadium, the change gave the marathon its somewhat-odd distance.

There were runners from all over- Australia and South Africa, Belgium, Germany and Holland, Italy and Greece, the U.S. and Canada. Each had his own special training plan. The Americans soaked their socks in beef tallow. The Canadians ran in their boots after bathing their feet in whisky, Jenkins said.

It had a celebrity journalist: Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, who offered coverage for the Daily Mail. In his memoirs, he said he was tempted “chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat.”

The marathon began at 2 p.m. on a hot day 78 degrees (25 Celsius). There was no understanding of the need for hydration and little of the need to refuel.

Pietri came into White City stadium well in the lead. Dazed by the roar of the huge crowd, he started to run in the wrong direction and was apparently afraid that the officials wildly waving at him were trying to deceive him. He started to go the right way, this small man in the red shorts. He fell. The crowd shivered. He got up and still no rival was in sight.

People shouted “Don’t kill him!”

Conan Doyle was beside himself.

“Then again he collapsed, kind hands saving him from a heavy fall. He was within a few yards of my seat. Amid stooping figures and grasping hands, I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the lank black hair streaked across the brow,” he wrote in the Daily Mail. “Surely he is done now, he cannot rise again.”

American Jimmy Hayes entered the stadium. The Italian was yards (meters) from the tape. Two officials raised him to his feet and helped him.

“Pietri caught his balance and staggered forward. He broke the tape and fell to the ground,” Jenkins wrote in her dazzling account of the race. “The stadium erupted.”

In their report on the games, Olympic officials acknowledged that while they interfered, they did so with the best of intentions.

“He collapsed upon the track,” the report said. “As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and his attendants rushed to his assistance ...

(T)here was a generous idea in the heart of nearly every spectator that one who had suffered so much should not be disappointed of the finish he had so nearly reached.”

The crowd and public opinion had been mesmerized by Pietri’s heroic effort to finish. Although he did not win a medal, Queen Alexandra gave Pietri a special cup, a consolation prize to the man who had won the admiration of so many.

Afterward, the marathon distance became solidified, in part because Pietri and Hayes made money by running rematches, Polley said.

“One should never under estimate the power of Pietri,” Jenkins said. “(Without him) I don’t know that anyone would see the Olympics in this light.”

More In: Athletics | Sport