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London’s Olympics, 1908

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In 1908 the Olympic movement visited Britain for the first time. Stephen Halliday describes how the British Olympic Association prepared for the Games with barely two years notice.

The London Olympics of 1908 should have been the Rome Olympics. The decision to award the fourth Olympics to Rome was taken in the belief that its fame and accessibility would encourage competitors to attend from all over the world, attendance at the St Louis Olympics of 1904 having been disappointing. However, by 1906 the Italian organizers were well behind with their preparations so, when Vesuvius erupted in April 1906, it was with some relief that the Italian authorities announced that they would have to devote the resources intended for the Olympics to the reconstruction of Naples. London was invited by the International Olympic Committee to step into the breach.

The challenge of preparing London for the 1908 Games, with barely two years’ notice, was taken up by Lord Desborough (1855-1945), chairman of the British Olympic Association. This formidable aristocrat had climbed the Matterhorn, rowed in the boat race for Oxford and swum across the base of Niagara Falls, so organizing the Olympic Games was not an especially intimidating prospect. He persuaded the organizers of the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 to build the stadium, at their own expense, to accommodate an athletics ground. In return they would receive a proportion of gate receipts. Soon named ‘White City’ after its ugly concrete structures, the stadium was completed in ten months by George Wimpey and included a swimming pool and cycle track as well as facilities for track and field athletics. It was designed to accommodate 66,000 spectators but could hold as many as 130,000 standing on terraces.

Over 2,000 athletes competed in the 1908 Games, more than three times the number than had competed at St Louis. A record number of twenty-two nations sent teams and for the first time thirty-seven women were amongst the competitors though Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), the French aristocrat who had been the moving spirit behind the revival of the Olympics, was opposed to their participation. One of the British competitors was the formidable Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Dod (1871-1960). Having won the Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles title at the age of fifteen in 1887 (still the youngest winner) and on a further four occasions, she turned her attention to archery and won a silver medal in 1908. When her brother William won the gold medal in the men’s event they became the first brother-sister pairing to win Olympic medals. The London Olympics were the first games in which medals were awarded to all winners, some previous winners having received only a diploma. They are the only Olympics in which Great Britain won most medals, with fifty-six golds and 146 medals in total, three times the number won by the second-placed team, that of the United States. Britain’s success occurred despite the decision to exclude cricket from the events. Its inclusion at Paris in 1900 had attracted only two teams, the team representing France losing narrowly to Britain.

The London Games were not without controversy. At the opening ceremony, performed by Edward VII on July 13th, the team from Finland refused to carry a flag when they were told that they would have to march under the standard of Tsarist Russia. The United States team, whose flag had been inadvertently omitted from those flying at the stadium, retaliated by refusing to ‘dip’ the Stars and Stripes as it passed the Royal box. This incident was the precursor of many arguments between the Americans and their British hosts who, by agreement with the International Olympic Committee, provided all the judges and timekeepers. The disagreements reached a climax in the final of the 400 metres which was contested by three Americans and one Englishman, Wyndham Halswelle. Halswelle was adjudged to have been obstructed by the American J.C. Carpenter, who was disqualified. When the American protested the race was re-run, but the Americans refused to compete so Halswelle jogged round the track alone, leaving the Americans to complain their treatment had been ‘cruel, unsportsmanlike and unfair’.

 Further controversy followed in the marathon on the final day of competition. In previous Olympics the length of the race had varied slightly, around forty-two kilometres, but in 1908 the King requested that the race begin on the lawns of Windsor Castle so that his grandchildren (the future Edward VIII and George VI amongst them) could see the start of the race. The runners followed a route through Stoke Poges, Ruislip and Wormwood Scrubs to the finish at White City, a distance of 26 miles 385 yards, which thereafter was the official distance for the marathon. First of the seventy-five competitors to enter the stadium was an Italian confectioner called Dorando Pietri who first ran the wrong way round the track and then collapsed. He was helped to the finishing line, loudly applauded by the crowd of 90,000 and disqualified, the gold medal being awarded to the following competitor Johnny Hayes, the youngest member of the US team. In the meantime the Italian flag had been hoisted above the Stars and Stripes, further enraging the Americans. The following day Queen Alexandra presented Pietri with a gold cup as a consolation prize.

As a result of such controversies changes were made for future Olympics. Henceforward judges would be chosen from all competing nations by the International Olympic Committee and a set of rules would be agreed beforehand. The Games ended on 31st October, having lasted over three months, and returned a small profit to the organizers while leaving them with a stadium which continued to be used as a sports venue until 1985 when it was demolished to make way for a new home for BBC television.

One legacy of the London Games did not endure. During the Games the organizers, influenced by the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Edward Poynter, agreed that in future there would be medals for artistic entries including architecture, sculpture and literature. At the 1912 games the gold medal for literature was awarded, perhaps diplomatically, to Pierre de Coubertin himself. These competitions continued intermittently until the 1948 Games, again in London, after which the practice was discontinued on the grounds that most of the entrants were professional artists.

The Polytechnic Harriers and the Olympics

In 1908, when the Olympic Games came to the White City Stadium, the opening and closing ceremonies and the Marathon race were all organized by the Regent Street Polytechnic. This institution had been created by the vision of Quintin Hogg (1845-1903), a man who believed in the education of ‘mind, body and spirit’.  In 1891 it became the model for applied education across London. Visiting athletes from abroad were invited to become honorary Polytechnic members and to use the sports and social facilities at 309 Regent St.

Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and the President of France visited the White City Stadium on May 26th, three weeks before the Games began. The Polytechnic staged the events, which included a parade of athletes and a gymnastic display. A series of postcards were produced to mark the occasion.

The Polytechnic Harriers Club organized the Trial Olympic Marathon race which was reintroduced as an event in the modern Games.  The race was run from Windsor Great Park to the stadium and established the international distance which was fixed by the Games Organising Committee at 26 miles and 385 yards, enabling the runners to finish in front of the Royal Box.   

Twenty-three Polytechnic members were selected for the British Olympic team. Charles Bartlett of the Polytechnic Cycling Club won a gold medal, and the Poly won a further four silver and bronze medals in boxing, cycling and track events.



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