London 1908: The First Time Around

I made mention back in my post of Olympians to watch that this is the third time that London has hosted the Olympic Games. The first time was back in 1908. This was only the fourth time an Olympic Games was held. Boy have a lot of changes happened since. Also it had its share of memorable moments.


One thing few know is that London was not meant to host the Games of the IV Olympiad, Rome was. However Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906 devastating much of central Italy, especially Naples. The Italian government then devoted its funds to recovery from the disaster. London was then selected to host. For the record, Rome would have to wait until 1960 to host the Olympic Games.

As for the Games, they were six-months long: beginning April 27th and ending October 31st. Twelve of the 24 sports at these Games were held in the White City Stadium which was constructed in a short time for only £60,000 and built to hold 68,000. The running track was three laps to the mile, contained a 100-metre pool for swimming and diving, a 660-yard cycling track, and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics in the middle. After the Olympics it would host the 1934 Empire Games, greyhound racing, speedway and a World Cup match in 1966. It was eventually demolished in 1985. White City now consists of buildings for the BBC including a media village. The BBC now plans to either demolish some of the buildings or convert it into a University campus. There is one reminder of these London Olympics that still exists there: a marker commemorating the finish line.

Opening Ceremonies of the Games of the IV Olympiad in London’s White City Stadium.


Athletes from many nations have competed in Olympic Games since it started but it would be these Olympic Games that there would be national teams fully recognized at these Games: 22 in total. It would even be signified by the parade of nations at the Opening Ceremonies. Each nation marched behind their national flag. First was Finland marching behind the Russian flag since Finland was under the Russian Empire. Many chose not to march over a flag at all. The Swedish flag was not displayed over the stadium so members of the Swedish team decided not to march in the ceremony. Finally the USA raised eyebrows highest of all when they were only nation not to dip their flag to King Edward VII. Popular belief is because flag bearer Ralph Rose said: “The flag dips to no earthly king.” To this day the American flag is the one flag that has never dipped to a head-of-state’s presence at any opening ceremonies. One interesting fact is that Australia and New Zealand competed together as Australasia. One more note is that Irish athletes competed for Great Britain. That left many Irish unhappy as they wanted to compete for their own team. Even though the Olympics were meant to bring nations together in brotherhood of sport, we shouldn’t forget there were still national tensions at the time and they were not left on the sidelines during the Olympics.

As for Canadian athletes, they have been competing at the Olympic Games since 1900. Here in 1908 they were able to march under their own flag. They sent 87 athletes in eleven sports. Flag bearer was Edward Archibald who would win a bronze in the pole vault.


The London Olympic Games would feature a lot of sports and events that would be held at these games only. One is jeu de paume: a form of tennis that the Brits refer to as ‘real tennis’. In fact the Olympic Report of those games refer to this as “tennis (jeu de paume)” while the more familiar tennis was referred to as ‘lawn tennis’. There were eleven competitors: nine British and two American. American Jay Gould II won. It was contested at the Queens Club, as was Rackets. Rackets would also make a one-time only appearance at these Games with all entries being British. Also contested as an Olympic sport for the first and only time were Water Motorsports. They were a demonstration sport in 1900 but a full-medal sport here. They were dropped as Baron Pierre de Coubertin, president of the International Olympic Committee,  insisted that the Olympics not consist of motorized sports.


The unique thing is that there were not only sports and events at these London Games that were there for these Games only but also sports and events that would eventually be eliminated from the Olympic Program and are no longer part of the Program to this day. Sports at London that are no longer contested at the Olympics are lacrosse, polo and tug-of-war. That’s right! Tug-of-war was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1920. Here in London all teams that won were British. The Americans withdrew after their protest against the footwear worn by the team of the footwear of the Liverpool Police was dismissed. Lacrosse was conducted as a medal sport for the first time in 1904 and for the last time here. Canada won both times. Here in London it was a single game between Canada and Great Britain which Canada won 14-10. Polo would be contested for the second Olympics of five Olympic Games it would be contested in. All competing teams were British.

As for events no longer contested, there were separate indoor and outdoor tennis competitions. Shooting events had events at distances of 300m and 1000 yards and there were even individual and team events for many events. Yachting events were classified by boat length instead of style. Cycling had events in 20 km and 100 km and even a tandem event. Archery events had two different styles of archery. Figure skating, which I will touch on later, had both as singles and s special figures event for men. Track and field has the most discontinued events: 5 miles, race walking events of 3500m and 10 miles, a medley relay of various distances, a three-mile team event, standing long jump and high jump, a Greek-style discus throw and a freestyle javelin throw where one could hold anywhere.

Interesting that there is one sport contested at the London Games which will make a return at the Rio Games of 2016. Rugby Union debuted at the Paris Games in 1900 and London would be the second Games of four to contest Rugby. It consisted of a single match between Britain and Australasia with Australasia winning 32-3. Ironically it would be the Paris Games of 1924 where Rugby would make its finale. The professionalism, popularity and globalization of Rugby in recent decades has allowed for its reacceptance into the Olympic Program in time for the next Olympics.


Sounds weird but it’s true. Figure skating made its debut at these games and was contested at the Prince’s Skating Club on October 28th and 29th. There were two men’s categories: singles and special figures. There was also a woman’s singles and pairs. The two singles winners were two names that would be legends in their sport: Ulrich Salchow of Sweden and Madge Syers of Britain. Contesting figure skating at a Summer Olympics seems odd but it would not be the last time. The Antwerp Games of 1920 would bring figure skating back and would also have ice hockey. It’s because of those two times those winter sports were contested at a Summer Olympics that would lead to a push for a Winter Olympic games that would first be contested in 1924. As odd as it was here in London, it would have its significance later on.


One thing we should remember is that sports weren’t as organized as they are now. Because of it, there were many surprises, shockers and controversies in the various sports competitions. First off was the overwhelming number of British entries in many events including the team events. Not surprisingly Britain won 146 medals including 56 golds in the 100 events. No surprise was that the famed Henley Regatta was used for rowing. A wrestling final between Finns Verner Weckman and Yrjo Saarela took 11 hours to decide. The water motorsports all resulted in a single boat making it to the finish line in each race contested. Gymnastic teams were unlimited in the number of athletes they could field. Platform and springboard diving events included 5m and 10m platforms as well as 1m and 3m springboards. The sprint event in cycling was declared void as the time limit was exceeded in the final. The athletics events were guided under the Amateur Athletics Association of England. The limit of competitors per nation was twelve. Race walking made its debut. Athletics events consisted of a medley relay of 200-200-400-800m.

I’ve already mentioned some of the controversies. I’ll bring up the two biggest later. One thing about the lack of organization of the sports was that it became apparent that international sporting federations had to be formed to have set rules guidelining the sports in the years to come. FINA–the federation in charge of aquatic sports–would be formed immediately after the Olympic aquatic sports competitions here in London. The IAAF for track and field, FILA for wrestling, and the FIE for Fencing would follow years later.

Off topic, Canada would win sixteen medals including three gold.  Its gold medals came in lacrosse, Walter Ewing in trap shooting and Bobby Kerr in the men’s 200m. The most medals came in track and field. Medals also came in cycling, rowing and wresting.

Also of interest, there were only twenty-two women competing in London in tennis, archery, figure skating and yachting. Yachting was the only mixed sport at the time.


Off all the controversies of these London Olympics, the biggest would be in the men’s 400m. There were sixteen heats with only the winner qualifying for the semifinals. There would be four semifinals the following day where only the winner would move on to the finals. The final was held the following day. the finalists were Americans John Carpenter, William Robbins and John Taylor with Brit Wyndham Halswelle completing the field. The final ended with Carpenter first, Halswelle second, Robbins third and Taylor fourth. One of the British umpires of the event, Roscoe Badger, noticed Carpenter maneuvering as to prevent Halswelle from passing which was forbidden under British rules but legal under  American rules. Badger signaled to the judges to declare the race void. This led to a 30-minute argument between British and American officials. There was an official inquiry the following day where the judges disqualified Carpenter and ordered the final to be rerun the next day without Carpenter. The following day only Halswelle showed up. The two other Americans Robbins and Taylor refused to participate in protest of Carpenter’s disqualification. Halswelle simply jogged his way to the gold. This still remains the one and only walkover win in Olympic track and field. This would also be the biggest argument for an international athletics federation. The IAAF would be formed in 1912.


The most memorable image of the 1908 London Games. Dorando assisted to the marathon finish.

The marathon run of these Olympics were remembered for two main reasons. The first is the distance. Although the marathon run was originally 25 miles, it was changed to 26 miles for the sake of having the start at Windsor Castle. It would be changed again at the request of Princess Mary so that the start would be beneath the windows of the Royal Nursery. New distance was 26 miles, 385 yards. That would return as the marathon distance at the 1924 Paris Olympics and would be the standard distance for the marathon run from then on.

The second was the final lap which will go down as arguably the most memorable moment of the London Games of 1908. The first runner in the stadium was Dorando Pietri of Italy. He appeared exhausted and he ran into the stadium in the wrong direction. Officials directed him in the right direction. then he collapsed and picked himself up. He would collapse and get back up many times. Then an American runner Johnny Hayes came into the stadium heading to the finish line. Dorando had just collapsed yards from the finish line as Hayes was nearing the finish. Two officials then assisted Dorando to his feet and led him to the finish line. Hayes crossed the line 32 seconds later and launched a protest. This led to Dorando being disqualified and Hayes winning the gold medal. Dorando was however rewarded the next day by a sympathetic Queen Alexandra a gold or silver-gilt cup in recognition of his courage.

So there you have it. A trip back in time with the first London Games. Interesting that 104 years have passed and they’re still memorable for both the bad and the good. One thing we should remember is that the Olympic Games were still young and these were the first successful Olympic Games since the very first Games back in Athens in 1896. That was an accomplishment in itself.


WIKIPEDIA: 1908 Summer Olympics. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>

WIKIPEDIA: White City Stadium. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>

WIKIPEDIA: Athletics at the 1908 Summer Olympics – Men’s 400 metres. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>

WIKIPEDIA: Athletics at the 1908 Summer Olympics – Men’s marathon. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>


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