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)

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