London hosted Olympics of 1908 exceptionally well at short notice | Sunday Observer

London hosted Olympics of 1908 exceptionally well at short notice

28 March, 2021
Britain’s team during the Opening Ceremony
Britain’s team during the Opening Ceremony

The 1908 Summer Olympic Games, officially the Games of the IV Olympiad, and commonly known as London 1908, was held in London, United Kingdom, from April 27 to October 31, 1908. These were the fourth chronological modern Summer Olympic Games in keeping with the now-accepted four year cycle. The IOC President for these Games was the founder of the modern Olympic Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The 1908 Games were originally awarded to Rome ahead of London, Berlin and Milan in the belief that its fame and accessibility would encourage competitors to attend from all over the world, particularly as turnout at St. Louis 1904 had been depressing. However, when Mount Vesuvius erupted in April 1906 and claimed the lives of more than a hundred, Italy announced that they would have to divert resources into disaster relief and rebuilding of Naples.

The IOC invited Britain to step in as the host. The challenge was accepted by Lord Desborough, chairman of the British Olympic Association. He was backed by King Edward VIII. Within just 10 months, they organized the London Games exceptionally well. For the first time, a stadium was specially prepared for the Games, and swimming events did not take place in the open water.

Lasting a total of 187 days, these Games were the longest in modern Olympics history. The White City Stadium, held 65,000 spectators. The stadium track was three laps to the mile (536m), not the current standard of 400m, with a pool for swimming and diving and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics in the middle.

Standard Rules for Sports

A dozen of sports venues across London were used for the 1908 Summer Olympics. White City Stadium served as a precursor to modern stadiums. These Games were the first to include winter events, as had originally been proposed for the Games.

The 1908 Olympics prompted establishment of standard rules for sports, and selection of judges from different countries rather than just the host. One reason was 400m and other was the different definition of interference under British and international rules.

The distance from the start of the Marathon to the finish at the stadium was established at these Games. The original distance of 25 miles was changed to 26 miles so the marathon could start at Windsor Castle. Then changed again at the request of Princess Mary so the start would be beneath the windows of the Royal Nursery.

To ensure that the marathon would finish in front of the King, the finish line was moved by the British officials and as a result, the marathon covered a distance of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km), which became the standard length for marathon, starting with the 1924 Summer Olympics.

The Games also set the bar for future Olympics with Team Great Britain topping the medal table for the only time with a total of 146 medals that included 56 gold, 51 silver and 39 bronze medals. The United States came second with a total of 47 medals - 23 gold, 12 silver and 12 bronze. In third place was Sweden with 25 medals - 8 gold, 6 silver and 11 bronze whilst France won 19 medals - 5 gold, 5 silver and 9 bronze to finish fourth.

Sports, Venues and Sportsmanship

A total of 2,008 athletes - 37 women and 1,971 men contested under 110 events in 22 sports that encompassed 24 sporting disciplines. Swimming, diving and water polo were considered three disciplines of under the sport, aquatics. At the time, tug-of-war was part of athletics and the two different football codes (association and rugby (union)) were listed together.

The IOC now considers tug-of-war a separate sport, as well as referring to association football as simply “football” and to rugby union as “rugby.” The sailing program was open for a total of five sailing classes, but actually only four sailing events were contested.

The first winter sports included four figure skating events. These events were not part of the Stockholm1912, but returned for Antwerp 1920 Games, heralding the first Winter Olympics that took place in Chamonix in 1924.

The 1908 venues, Bisley and Henley served London 1948 edition when the Olympics returned to London 40 years later. The All England Lawn Tennis Club continues to host the Wimbledon Championships and is the only venue of the 1908 Games that was used for London 2012.The fact that the United Kingdom competed as a single team was upsetting to some Irish competitors, who felt that Ireland should compete on its own, despite being part of the UK at the time.

Fearing an Irish boycott, the authorities changed the name of the team to Great Britain/Ireland, and in two sports, field hockey and polo, Ireland participated as a separate country, winning silver medals in both. Irish athletes in the United States were not affected by this controversy, and many Irish immigrants to the United States competed for the US Olympic team.

At London 1908, sportsmanship existed at a level unimaginable. One wonderful example took place when the middleweight Greco-Roman wrestling final between Frithiof Martensson and Mauritz Andersson was postponed by one day to allow Martensson to recover from a minor injury. Martensson duly recovered and won the gold medal.

Halswelle’s Strange Walkover Gold

Wyndham Halswelle was a British athlete, born in London to London-born parents. His was one of the shorter stints in athletics and one of the stranger Olympic victories, but his story is featured distinctly perhaps for his bravery and ‘Supreme Sacrifice’ as a military officer.

He had a notable athletic career at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, before being commissioned into the Highland Light Infantry in 1901. While in South Africa in 1902 for the Second Boer War, his prowess was recognized. In a single afternoon in 1906 at the Scottish championships, he won 100, 220, 440 and 880 yards, a feat that has not been matched since.

At London 1908, he came into the final of 400m, in front of his home crowd in good form. He had qualified faster than anyone else, setting an Olympic record of 48.4 sec. The event was not run in lanes, so one rule, printed in the program for the day’s events read: “Any competitor willfully jostling or running across or obstructing another competitor so as to impede his progress shall forfeit his right to be in the competition and shall not be awarded any position or prize that he would otherwise have been entitled to.”

This would loom large over Halswelle’s Olympic legacy. The final appeared to have been won by John Carpenter, in 47.8 sec, with Halswelle in second but one of umpires, Roscoe Badger, signaled that Carpenter had obstructed Halswelle as he attempted to pass him.

Badger’s testimony read: “The position of Robbins was that he was leading and about a yard in front of Carpenter. Robbins and Carpenter were in such a position as to compel Halswelle to run very wide all round the bend, and as they swung into the straight Halswelle made a big effort and was gaining hard; but running up the straight the further they went the wider Carpenter went out from the verge, keeping his right shoulder sufficiently in front of Halswelle to prevent his passing.”

Carpenter was disqualified, and the race was ordered to be rerun in lanes. However, both Taylor and Robbins refused to race, so a reluctant Halswelle ran the race by himself to win the gold in a time of 50.2 recording the only walkover in the Olympic Games’ history. As a result of the controversy, from the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games onwards all 400m races were run in lanes.

On March 12, 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France, during the World War I, he was hit by shell fragments, while leading his men across Layes Brook but despite his wounds he refused to be evacuated and continued at the front, although heavily bandaged.

On March 31, aged 32, Halswelle, by then a Captain was killed by a sniper while attempting to rescue an injured fellow officer. His grave was marked with a wooden cross. Later his remains were re-interred in the Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard at Laventie, near Armentieres.

In 2003, he was posthumously inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and his Olympic medals and other trophies are displayed there. His regiment, continues to award the Wyndham Halswelle Memorial Trophy to the winner of 400m at the Scottish under 20 championships.

Swahn’s Double Gold in Shooting

Oscar Gomer Swahn (20 Oct 1847 - 1 May 1927) was a Swedish shooter who competed at three Olympic Games and won six medals, including three gold medals. At London 1908, at 60, he won two gold medals in running deer, single shot (both individual and team), and a bronze in running deer double shot individual.

It was just the start of an Olympic story that barely seems credible today. The ‘running deer’, which debuted at London 1908, involved one shot per run being made at a deer-shaped target that made 10 runs of around 75 feet apiece. The marksman stood 110 yards away.

When the 1912 Olympics came to his native country, Sweden, he won the gold in single shot running deer team. He also won a bronze in individual double shot running deer event. At 64 years and 258 days of age, he became the oldest gold medalist ever, a record he still holds.

At the 1920 Olympics, he became the oldest athlete ever to compete in the Olympics at the age of 72. His best results were in the team competitions and won a silver in double shot running deer. Thus, he is also the oldest medalist of all time.

It is a source of fascination that the first 60 years of his life seem shrouded in mystery; he left it late to become one of the most significant and lasting Olympians of all time. Swahn continues to hold records after 100 years as the oldest Olympian at the time of competition, the oldest person to win a gold medal, and the oldest person to win an Olympic medal.

Taylor’s Poignant Medley Gold

John Taylor’s feat of becoming the first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal has echoed across generations and will reach more. Prior to London 1908, his main athletic achievements had come alongside a successful career in academia. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1907, he joined the Irish-American Athletic Club, which operated a formidable production line of athletes for the 1908 Games. “In every race in which Taylor starts he is on scratch, or very close to the post of honour, because of his ability,” read the Washington Post on September 15, 1907. “And every man of the Irish contingent roots himself hoarse to see Taylor win.”

The medley relay was being held for the first time at an Olympic Games, and would be the forerunner for the 4x400m relay. It took place over 1,600m but the athletes ran different lengths, with the first two competing over 200m apiece, the third over 400m and the fourth over 800m. Taylor ran 400m. His team-mates were William Hamilton, Nate Cartmell and Melvin Sheppard.

By the time Taylor joined in for his 400m, he already had an eight-yard start on his pursuers. According to the Official Report: “His remarkable stride widened the gap very considerably, especially in the last hundred yards.” Taylor had made an indelible mark in history but he was unable to leave any more. On December 2, within months of his victorious return, he passed away aged 26 after a bout of typhoid.

Harry Porter, acting President of the 1908 U.S. Olympic Team, summed up Taylor’s special legacy in a fitting letter to his parents: “It is far more as the man [than the athlete] that John Taylor made his mark. Quite unostentatious, genial, kindly, the fleet-footed, far-famed athlete was beloved wherever known...As a beacon of his race, his example of achievement in athletics, scholarship and manhood will never wane.”

Larner’s Long Walk into Record Books

Two events that only featured at London 1908 were the 3,500m walk and the 10 miles walk. Great Britain’s George Larner won both and remains the holder of each title to this day. Larner was a latecomer to athletics. He was 28 when, he began walking competitively in 1903 but brought instant dividends. In 1906, he began a two-year commitment to ensure that, by the time the 1908 Games came around, he would be in peak condition.

He had already drawn admiring glances among journalists though his close on 50-inch stride and upright demeanor, notable for sparing use of his arms. His was a style that seemed to economize upon effort but in fact he was a formidable competitor and dedicated trainer. The 3,500m walk was first up on July 14, and Larner won the gold. It was a thrilling introduction to the Games for Larner, by then 23.

However, 10-mile event would capture even more imaginations. This took place on July 17; George Larner and Webb sped away in the first mile, essentially making for a two-horse race from the off. Larner broke the hour mark within the first eight miles and, by the nine-mile stage, both were comfortably within the existing record set for this distance. Larner eventually won by a full 300 yards in 75 minutes 57.4 sec – the best time ever recorded.

“There is no doubt that the Ten Miles Walk was one of the best things in the Games,” the Official Report said approvingly. “Both Webb and Larner walked without the semblance of doubtful action, in the fairest possible manner.” Yet it would not be seen on this stage again, and nor would Larner.

He retired after the Games, making a short-lived comeback in 1911 to win the British seven-mile title. By then he had become an author, writing ‘Larner’s Text Book on Walking’, and he was certainly an authority on the topic: he was, at this stage, only the second British athlete to have won two gold medals at the same Olympics.

Marathoner Pietri won Hearts but No Gold

When Dorando Pietri of Italy entered the 65,000 packed stadium at the end of the 1908 marathon, he was completely unknown. When the news of what happened after the marathon spread around the world, he became a celebrity overnight.In 1908, 55 runners from 16 nations faced the starter.

Pietri began his race at a rather slow pace, but in the second half a powerful surge moved him into second position. When he knew that leading athlete Hefferon was in crisis, Pietri further increased his pace, overtaking him at the 39 km mark.

The effort took its toll and with only two kilometers to go, Pietri began to feel the effects of extreme fatigue and dehydration. When he entered the stadium, he took the wrong path and when umpires redirected him, he fell down for the first time. He got up with their help.

He fell four more times, and each time the umpires helped him up. In the end, he managed to finish the race in first place. Of his total time of 2:54:46.0, ten minutes were needed for that last 340m. The American team immediately lodged a complaint against the help Pietri received from the umpires.

The complaint was accepted and the winner Pietri was disqualified and removed from the final standings. The gold was thus awarded to Johnny Hayes of the United States.Since Pietri had not been responsible for his disqualification, Queen Alexandra thought it fit to award him a gilded silver cup as a special prize.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)