diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 27, 2008

The London Olympics: 1908

Exactly 100 years ago today, the fourth Olympics of the modern era kicked off in London. Yes, really, in April. But there was a reason for the early start. The Olympics wasn't a two week made-for-TV extravaganza in those days, but a lengthy international celebration of amateur sportsmanship. All a bit fledgling, and still a bit rough around the edges. London had been asked to take over the organisation of the 1908 Olympics at the last minute, after Vesuvius erupted in 1906 and the Italians wanted to divert their money to rebuilding Naples instead. Which meant that the 1908 Olympics were organised by British officialdom. And it's just possible that we used our home advantage to, erm, cheat.

medal table at the BBC Media Village (built on the site of the old White City Stadium)One glimpse at the final medal table, seen here on the walls of the BBC's Media Village in White City, shows the full extent of our "sporting excellence". We didn't just beat the rest of the world, we thrashed them. We won almost as many medals as the rest of the world put together (perhaps because, at that time, only 23 nice upstanding countries with decent chaps got invited). We won all the gold medals in the lawn tennis and the boxing and the yachting and the rowing. We won the football and the hockey and the polo and the tug-of-war. And we were the only country to enter the Racquets competition, so not surprisingly we won that too. Bit suspicious, innit?

The 1908 Olympics started on April 27th and ended as late as October 31st. That's a whole six months of intermittent sporting activities, from the opening Racquets event at the Queens Club to the closing banquet at the Holborn Restaurant. All of the athletics events were crammed into a few summer weeks at the new White City stadium, but the rest were spread out across the year in a not terribly coordinated way. No problem if you're the home country and live a few miles up the road, but rather more difficult for foreign teams in an era before international jet travel.
1908 Olympic events not held at White City
April: Rackets (Queen's Club)
May: Tennis (Queen's Club)
June: Polo (Hurlingham)
July: Lawn Tennis (Wimbledon), Shooting (Bisley & Uxendon), Rowing (Henley), Yachting (Ryde)
August: Yachting (Clyde), Motor boats (Southampton Water)
October: Boxing (Clerkenwell), Skating (Knightsbridge)
And another rather dodgy thing. All the organisers and officials at all of the 1908 events were British. No doubt we thought we were just being helpful, not requiring the rest of the world to muck in on home turf, but this decision did leave the competition open to a certain amount of bias. And nowhere was this more evident that in the rowing events at Henley. These were organised by the local boatclub - the oldest rowing club in the world, the Leander. Their stewards were concerned that anyone who'd practised on the course before the Games began might have an unfair advantage, so they banned all foreign teams from advance training on the Thames. They also observed that the Belgian eight had won races at the Henley Royal Regatta for the two previous years, so they banned the 'over-experienced' Belgians outright. And, unbelievably, the Belgians agreed. But the Leander team had no such qualms about their own experience. They entered the 1908 rowing competition on behalf of the UK and, having practised umpteen times on their local river, went on to win gold with considerable ease. So much for British sportsmanship.

1908 Olympic winning bladeYou can see one of these dubious gold medals on display in Henley's fascinating River and Rowing Museum. They've also got a blade from the same race, inscribed with the names of the eight victorious oarsmen, and a rather ornate commemorative programme. No mention of an apology from the Leander club, however.

The Olympic regatta returned to Henley in 1948, and once again Team GB was victorious (but this time deservedly so). The museum has the winning coxless pair's boat on display, as propelled to victory by Hugh Laurie's dad. And they're also lucky enough to have Redgrave and Pinsent's winning coxless four from the Sydney Games in 2000 [photo], complete with aerodynamic prow and stuck-down Adidas trainers. I wonder if we stand any chance of coming away with a similar haul of medals when the Olympic Regatta arrives downriver in Eton in 2012. Without deliberately biasing all the arrangements again, I suspect not.

Compare and contrast
London's first Olympics (BBC)
London's first Olympics (Daily Mail)
London's first Olympics (British History Online)

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream