World of Sport

Olympic history: London 1908

World of Sport

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The mammoth White City Stadium

After the problems of Paris and St Louis, a version of the Olympic Games was organised in Athens in 1906. Known as the Intercalated Games, the plan was to stage them at the same venue every four years in between the touring Games.

The first attempt is credited with doing much to steady the Olympic ship, but the festival has never gained official recognition from the IOC, so the fourth Games were London's in 1908.

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Programme from 1908 Games

Initially they were scheduled for Rome, but Italy's economic problems were exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906. Faced with the cost of rebuilding the area around Naples, the Italians passed the Olympic baton to Great Britain.

London built a 68,000-capacity stadium at White City and in the middle of the track was a 100-metre pool for the swimming events. Rowing took place on the Thames at Henley, tennis at Wimbledon and sailing at Ryde on the Isle of Wight and on the Clyde — the only time Scotland has hosted an Olympic event so far.

There was motorboating on Southampton Water, but the weather was so poor that in each of the three races only one boat finished. There was a demonstration of bicycle polo and, in these pre-Winter Olympics days, there was ice skating, which produced a first Olympic gold medal for Russia.

London was the first Games to award medals for the first three places and serial gold medallist Ray Ewry won two of them to take his career total to 10, including the two he claimed at the Intercalated Games.

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John Flanagan wins hammer gold aged 40

Another American, John Flanagan, collected a third successive hammer title and at 40 was the oldest gold medallist in the athletics arena.

However, even he was a generation behind Oscar Swahn, the Swedish marksman beginning his Olympic career at the age of 60. He gained two gold medals and a bronze, with one of the golds coming in the running target team competition with his son, Alfred. They therefore became the first father and son combination to win Olympic gold.

There was controversy as well, with disputes between the Russians and the Finns, and between Irish Americans and the British. Americans alleged the use of illegal footwear by the victorious British team in the tug of war, while in the 400m final the two nations became involved in a shoving wrangle that resulted in the first walkover in Games history for the British runner, Wyndham Halswelle.

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Queen Alexandra hands Pietri his trophy

In the marathon Dorando Pietri was disqualified after he staggered into the stadium, fell several times on his way to the finishing line and was deemed to have received unauthorised assistance from spectators. The Italian was presented with a special trophy by Queen Alexandra as a commiseration prize.

It was the Queen who unwittingly set a distance for the marathon that would stand as one of London's legacies. She said the race should start in front of the nursery at Windsor Castle to enable her grandchildren to watch and should finish in front of the royal box in the stadium — a distance of 26 miles and 385 yards.

More than 2,000 competitors from 22 nations took part and Great Britain continued the tradition of host nations topping the medals table:

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 Great Britain 56 51 39 146
2 United States 23 12 12 47
3 Sweden 8 6 11 25
4 France 5 5 9 19
5 Germany 3 5 5 13
6 Hungary 3 4 2 9
7 Canada 3 3 10 16
8 Norway 2 3 3 8
9 Italy 2 2 0 4
10 Belgium 1 5 2 8

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Marathon start at Windsor Castle

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