Home  Index

by Alan Mead, 2003

Etienne Gailly 

Right: Less than 400 metres to go and Gailly
 loses the lead to Cabrera (233) in the 1948 Olympic Marathon. Worse was to come.


The tough Belgian paratrooper 
who so nearly won Olympic gold 
at Wembley in 1948


The young Belgian Etienne Gailly seemed to have already packed more excitement into his twenty-five years than most of us see in a lifetime but fiftyfive years ago this man lined up for the 1948 Olympic Marathon with his sights set on a high placing.  Just over two and a half hours later he was involved in a desperate finish that bore great similarities to the drama of that previous London Olympic Marathon of 1908 when Italian Dorando Pietri struggled to the finish in dire straits, only to be disqualified.

In 1943 at the age of twenty, with his native Belgium occupied by German forces, Etienne had left home and travelled through France with the idea of somehow reaching Britain.  There he intended joining some of his free countrymen with the aim of returning to his homeland one day to help drive out the invaders.  He crossed the Pyrenees but was then arrested and spent the next six months incarcerated in a Spanish gaol.  In due time he was released, the intention being that he should return to Belgium but Etienne still had other ideas and his travels took him on to Portugal, Gibraltar and finally England.

Immediately he started training as a parachutist with the Brigade Belge but a tough paratrooper’s training was not enough for this young man and having already done a little athletics at home he decided to join a British club.  On April 29th 1944 Etienne (immediately becoming known as Steve) was elected a member of Belgrave Harriers and he found himself running alongside such notables as Carter, Cohen, Shields and Doubleday.  Soon plans were being laid for the liberation of Europe.  Second Lieutenant Gailly played his part and before too long was reunited with his family, although still managing to get back to see his running friends in England.

With the War over and settled back in Belgium, Etienne raced for the famous l’Union Saint-Gilloise which numbered another Belgravian among its members — top miler Bill Nankeville.  His athletics progressed and by 1948 he was not only the Belgian Marathon Champion but in a match vs. the French team Stade Francais, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his club, Etienne lapped the field to win in 31 mins. 52 secs — not bad for a man now considered to be a marathoner. 

Entries for the marathon of the XIV Olympiad included some famous names.  There was the diminutive Korean Yun Bok Soh who had set a World’s Best of 2 hrs. 25 mins. 39 secs. in 1947, the Americans Ted Vogel and John Kelley, Boston winners Gérard Côte of Canada and Stylianos Kyriakides of Greece, Johannes Colemann from South Africa and a trio of Flying Finns — Viljo Heino (10,000 metre World Record breaker), Jussi Kurikkala and Mikko Hietanen (the European Champion).  Britain’s team included the redoubtable veteran Jack Holden, four-times winner of the International Cross Country Champs. and three times “National” champion, and the tough Welshman from South London Harriers, Tom Richards.

Wembley Stadium was full to the rafters on Saturday, August 7th, the final day of the games, as the forty-one marathon runners circled the track and were directed out of the arena by the first (and last) pointsman of the race, our own George Chantler.  Of the Belgrave competitors in the Games, Bill Lucas had gone out in the heats of the 5,000 metres earlier in the week, Bill Nankeville had placed 6th in the final of the 1500 metres, run in a down-pour, and as the marathon was taking place on the roads, the 10,000 metres Walk saw a below par performance from Harry Churcher who finished 5th.  Interestingly, discussions at a Club “committee meeting”, held while rambling the South Downs, had resulted in an agreement that as Etienne was not now living permanently in the U.K. he would not be considered one of our “internationals” even though he was racing in the colours of Belgium;  a great shame.

Under heavy skies and in humid conditions with an uncomfortable wind, the marathon field reached the Kingsbury Cross Roads and then headed on towards Stanmore.  Etienne was surprised to find himself among the leaders.  Together with his coach he had decided beforehand to totally ignore the other runners and follow a schedule which would bring him home in 2 hrs. 30 mins.  He carried a stopwatch and regularly checked it to ensure that he was on schedule.  Gradually the opposition fell away and although he was somewhat concerned that he had taken the lead so early, he decided that as he was following a schedule that he was convinced he could manage, he would stick to his plan.  

The marathon route had been gradually climbing from the start and after going through Stanmore and the 6 miles point in 34 mins. 34 secs. the inclines became ever steeper as Stirling Corner and Elstree were approached.  At 13 miles he held a 24 second advantage over the unknown Lou of China and over a minute on the Argentinian Guinez and Frenchman Josset.  The favourites were way down the field and it began to look as if Etienne, one of the youngest men in the field, was going to bring about an almighty upset.

Unfortunately Gailly and his coach had based their calculations on a level course but the route chosen for the 1948 Marathon was later described as:

“ … one of the most punishing ever selected for the Olympic Games.  Only on the track of the Empire Stadium itself did the runners get respite from the up hill and down dale of the hard metalled roads.” 

Etienne was coping with the climbs well but the extra energy he was expending was to cost him dear in the later stages.  In his own words, reported later in World Sports magazine he tells us:

“Surprised when I saw that I was ahead of the entire field at such an early stage 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 fore. … When after about 32 kms. 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 kms: things looked not quite so good now but, after all, I felt nothing more than a normal tiredness which I hoped to overcome soon.  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.  I had got my second—or was it my third?—wind.”

The Korean had run an amazing middle part of the race but no sooner was he beginning to look a likely winner than he began to limp and before long was forced to drop out of the contest.  Tommy Richards was looking stronger as the race progressed and with just 2 kms. remaining it was impossible to predict the winner as just 16 seconds covered the Argentinian, the Belgian and the Welshman.  Etienne takes up his story once more:

“I joined issue again … and closed quickly …  No sooner had I got into the Argentinian’s slipstream than I decided to spurt without delay.  I no longer felt powerless: on the contrary, I thought that now was the time to square the account. … I passed Cabrera, and having regained the lead, seemed to be travelling well.  Certainly I was tired, but quite convinced that I would last the distance.

“It was then that I committed my biggest blunder … To rejoin Cabrera I had to make good some 70 yards.  Having achieved this I drew away from him too quickly because after about 1 km. I had left him 60 yards or so behind.  This works out at over 100 metres overtake in only 2kms.”

The damage was done.  Etienne was terribly exhausted—far more than he realised.  He still led as the stadium was approached but was mercilessly exposed to the two men doggedly trailing him.  Sheridan tells us:

“… with only a few hundred yards remaining it became apparent that all was not well …  Etienne Gailly was in obvious distress.  Ashen faced with eyes bulging, he lost his sureness of stride and was almost staggering.  Was he to undergo the same fate as had befallen Dorando Pietri forty years earlier?”

And Etienne again:

“I had no premonition of collapsing.  At the very moment, however, when I stepped on the track, exhaustion overcame me like a powerful drug.  Immediately after I had crossed the normal finishing line—unfortunately this was not the real finish—this lay 400 metres further on—I knew that 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, indeed, I almost fainted … First Cabrera and then Richards passed me, as behind a veil.  I was no longer fighting them but that awful engulfing weakness, wanting more than anything to get to that unbelievably distant finishing line.  I got there … somehow.”

Result: 1 Delfo Cabrera (Argentina) 2:34:51.6; 2 Tom Richards (Great Britain) 2:35:07.6; 3 Etienne Gailly (Belgium) 2:35:33.6.  

The previously unrated Cabrera had run a perfectly judged race and seemed so strong at the end in comparison to the tottering Gailly.  Afterwards he revealed that he ran no more than 36 miles a week in training.  Thrilled as the spectators were with a British silver medal for Richards,  Gailly’s heroic struggle endeared him to the crowd and to all the athletics writers of the day.  Within a week he had recovered enough to take part in a  3,000 metre race in Belgium and then he was 2nd in an inter-Allied Games 5,000 metres held in Antwerp.  By September, in Prague, he was on international duty for Belgium again as he ran to 2nd in the 10,000 metres vs. Czechoslovakia. 

What a man.  In Belgium he was awarded the Grand Prix d’honneur as the outstanding athlete of the year and the Trophie National du Merite Sportif for his performance in London. With youth on his side he surely would have been a red hot favourite for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and then there was 1956 and even 1960 when he would still be of an age similar to many of the pre-race favourites in the London event—but it didn’t happen.  Lieutenant Gailly was, after all, a soldier first and foremost and his adventures went on.  In November 1951, while with his regiment of paratroopers in Korea, he was wounded when an exploding mine shattered seven bones in his left foot.  He was flown to Tokyo for hospital treatment and later returned to Belgium for convalescence before his anticipated return to South East Asia for further duty.  He was expected to have a permanent limp for the rest of his life and, as far as we know, Etienne never competed again.


Good Reasons:  100 years of Olympic Marathon Races by Michael Sheridan.

World Sports Magazine 1948 and 1952.

The Belgravian, 1948, 1949.

Athletics, 1948.

The Miracle of the Mile, Bill Nankeville, Stanley Paul 1956.

Olympic Games, Tom McNab, Knight Books 1971, ISBN 0340150637.

Conversations with the late Charlie Jones.

Only 30 runners completed the course.

Of the favourites: Coleman (South Africa) was 4th, Heino (Finland) 11th, Côte (Canada) 17th, Vogel (USA) 14th, Kyriakidis (Greece) 18th, Kelley (USA) 21st, Yun Bok Suh (Korea) 27th.

Among the non-finishers: Hietanen (Finland), Holden (Great Britain).

Supervising the course for the police was Belgrave Harrier and Chief Inspector Jack Bidgood.

Home   -   Back to top of page   -   Contact Belgrave Harriers at belgraveharriers@btinternet.com