Category Archives: History

Len Bias Remembered

Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.

22 year-old Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. He was even compared to Michael Jordan. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.

Today is the birthday of basketball player Len Bias. He’d be 50 years old today. It’s one thing for a life to be cut short early but it’s another to see how much has happened since.

Bias was born in Landover, Maryland and grew up there attending high school in Hyattsville. His nickname since childhood was ‘Frosty.’ He then attended the University of Maryland upon graduation. His freshman year didn’t start well and most coaches saw him as raw and undisciplined. The 6’8″ Bias would develop into an All-American player in the latter years. His junior year proved impressive as he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC’s Player Of The Year. His senior season was highlighted by a performance against top-ranked North Carolina where he scored 35 points including 7 in the last 3 minutes of regulation and 4 in overtime. At the end of that season, Bias collected his second ACC Player Of The Year award and was named to two All America teams.

Right in his senior year, basketball fans were very impressed with Len Bias. His most impressive traits were his amazing jumping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays and was considered one of the most impressive players in the United States. NBA scouts in 1986 already had seen him as the most complete forward of the Class of 1986. Even Boston Celtics scout Ed Badger said of him:  “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.”

On June 17, 1986, the 1986 NBA Draft took place at Madison Square Gardens. Bias was the second overall pick and he was picked for the Boston Celtics. He admitted that he always wanted to play for the Celtics: “and my dream’s come true.” He and his family returned back to his home in suburban Maryland later that day. The following day, Bias and his father flew to Boston for an NBA club draft acceptance and a product endorsement signing ceremony with the Celtics coaches and management. Bias was also in talks with Reebok for a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million. It seemed like it was all uphill from there.

After returning home to Washington, Bias retrieved his newly leased sports car and drove back to his dorm room at the University of Maryland campus. He left campus at around 2am on June 19 and drove to an off-campus gathering, which he attended briefly before returning to his dorm in Washington Hall at 3am. It was at that time Bias and his friends used cocaine. According to friends accounts, Bias felt pains in his chest, had a seizure and collapsed around 6:30am that morning while talking to teammate Terry Long. At 6:32am while friend Brian Tribble made the 911 call, Bias was unconscious and not breathing. That was echoed in Tribble’s haunting 911 message: “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick.” All attempts at resuscitation from paramedics in the ambulance were unsuccessful. Additional attempts to revive Bias were made upon his arrival at Leland Memorial Hospital in the Emergency Room but it was all to no avail. At 8:55 on the morning of June 19, 1986, Leonard Kevin Bias was pronounced dead. He was only 22.

Len’s death was a shocking blow to those who knew him and those who followed basketball. Four days after his death, more than 11,000 people packed the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland for a memorial service. Speaking at the service was Celtics manager Red Auerbach, who said he had planned to draft Bias with the Celtics for three years. Michael Jordan sent the Bias family their first set of flowers: peonies, Larry Bird sent the second set of flowers, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy sent sympathy cards as well as other heads of state, athletes called the Bias house. The popularity of Len Bias surprised his mother. The Celtics honored Bias with their own memorial service on June 30th that year. At that service, Len’s mother Lonise was given his never-used Boston Celtics jersey with his Celtics number 30 on it.

The reason why I’m focusing on Len’s death has a lot to do about the year he was born: 1963. 1963 was also the year a lot of legendary NBA greats were born: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Spud Webb, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, and most notably Michael Jordan. The era in which they played in from the late-80’s to the 90’s would be an era that would change the NBA forever.

Without a doubt, Michael Jordan was king. He was not only famous for his playing style and his NBA record breaking but for his immense endorsement marketability. Everything Jordan touches, everything Jordan wore, everything Jordan ate saw sales reach impressive totals. He was Madison Avenue’s dream. Even his shoe endorsed by Nike, the Air Jordan, sold large enough to make the company the top athletic wear company. Hey, I don’t call the Air Jordan “the shoe that changed the world” for nothing. The shoe was originally meant to be an athletic shoe but Michael’s popularity eventually turned it into a staple of streetwear. I remember the popularity of Air Jordans too well. I wanted to be different and wore L.A. Gears with snazzy-colored triple laces hoping to make Air Jordans wearers envious. It didn’t work because it wasn’t how cool your shoes looked; it’s whether they were Air Jordans or not.

Michael Jordan may have been king during that time but it also worked magic for the whole NBA too. In the few years just before Jordanmania, the NBA was already doing well with the star power of Larry Bird, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Julius ‘Dr. J.’ Erving and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. However it was Jordan who created the revolution with a superstardom that even surpassed the best baseball players and football players at the time. His popularity catapulted the NBA from simply being a third major sports league to even rivaling the popularity of baseball and football. Seven new NBA franchises have since started up since his popularity. Sportswear and athletic uniforms, especially basketball jerseys and anything with Chicago Bulls, were a men’s wear phenomenon. Other basketball teams also sold a lot of sportswear like the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers and the Charlotte Hornets. I remember I did the Phoenix Suns because I was tired of all this Chicago Bulls stuff and also because I liked Charles Barkley.

Also Jordan may have been the Babe Ruth of his time but his megastar status helped promote other basketball stars like David Robinson, Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Isaiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal to superstar status. Yeah, basketball players sure got the rock star treatment back then. We should also not forget the Dream Team. That was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team whose twelve team members consisted of eleven NBA greats. That was when NBA professionals were allowed for the time to compete in the Olympic Games. Since Jordan’s retirement, the NBA still thrives well but still lacks the glory days of the late 80’s and 90’s. Even today’s top NBA star Lebron James isn’t able to fill Jordan’s shoes.

Okay, now that I’ve talked of all this, you may wonder what does that have to do with Len Bias? As I mentioned, Bias was born the same year as a lot of NBA greats including Jordan. Ever since I saw the 30 For 30 documentary Without Bias, directed by Kirk Fraser, it left me wondering what would have happened to Bias had he not taken that fatal dose? It’s not just how well Bias could’ve excelled in the NBA that had me thinking. Sometimes I think it could’ve been the Celtics who could have most rivaled the Lakers and the Bulls for major NBA championships during that time. The Celtics could have had the power duo of ‘Bird and Bias.’ When I think of all those sneakers that were advertised during that period of time, I wonder what type of Reebok posters Len would’ve had? Even in thinking of the Dream Team of 1992, I wonder would Len have been part of the Dream Team? Those are questions no one will ever know the answer to.

A tragedy like that is always a sad occasion leaving me and others asking ‘why’ and ‘what if?’ You wonder would any good come out of it? Good did come out of it. One thing we should remember is Bias’ overdose came while cocaine was the biggest problem in the War On Drugs at the time. The basic powdered cocaine was already an epidemic and crack was already starting to create its own problems. Tribble was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Bias’ University of Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg were charged with possession of cocaine and were dropped from the team. Tribble would later be convicted of drug dealing and be sentenced to ten years in prison. The University of Maryland came under huge fire including cover-ups in Bias’ cocaine possession to Bias’ academic status. Bias’ father called for investigation of the University of Maryland and the NCAA responded. Athletics director Dick Dull resigned soon after.

In 1988 U.S. Congress passed a stricter anti-drug law known as the ‘Len Bias law.’ Even the NBA got involved with having its stars promote anti-drug messages. In fact one person said Len Bias never tested positive for drugs but had he done so, it wouldn’t have affected his NBA recruitment back then. The NBA was that lax about it back then. Len’s death changed all that. Another thing that came to light over Bias’ death was that he was credits shy of graduating college and even failed courses in his last year knowing he was about to be signed to the NBA. Back in Bias’ day an athlete could be signed on to a sports league without graduating via a letter-of-intent. The NCAA system of athletes had to be revamped and reformed with stricter minimums for college entry and regulations for graduation.Nowadays no athlete is signed to a letter-of-intent without a review by the office of admission.

The Bias family would once again experience tragedy in December 1990 when their youngest son James Bias III was shot to death in his car in a shopping mall parking lot. The Bias parents, James and Lonise, have become involved in causes involving their sons’ deaths. Lonise became an anti-drug spokes person visiting schools, telling the story of Len and giving the message “Peer pressure destroys, peer pressure kills if you don’t know who you are.” James has lobbied for stricter handgun control. Another footnote: Seven years later the Celtics would lose one of their own, Reggie Lewis, to a heart attack caused by cocaine use.

Some of you may think that it was the 30 For 30 documentary that inspired me to write this on this day. True, just like it inspired me to write the 9.79 articles of the big run and the aftermath. It’s one thing to be reminded of a moment in sports like this while watching a 30 For 30 documentary. It’s another to hear the moment and even learn of who Len Bias was from the people that knew him best. Len Bias didn’t come across as your typical cocaine abuser. Actually in watching Without Bias, you’d think that Len was a sweet kid. He loved his parents terribly. He was close to his family. He even had a friendship with his church pastor Rev. Gregory Edmond. Even hearing of Len’s excited reaction on the day he was out promoting sneakers made me think he must have been a sweet kid. That doesn’t sound like your typical cocaine abuser. Just as shocking was how it was top-of-the-line cocaine he tried. It’s like one said, how social cocaine users could get cocaine that pure and that potent is unheard of. Normally it’s bought by people higher up the social ladder. Hearing it all just makes me want to shake my head.

27 years have passed since that tragic day. The NBA has seen its fair share of talents own the spotlight for many years. For the Bias family, they’re left with memories of a son and the heartbreak of missing him. For the University of Maryland, they’re left with regret over letting such an incident go overlooked until it was too late. For the Boston Celtics at that time and even the NBA, they’re left with the wonder of what Bias would have been like. We’ll never know. Watching Without Bias really made me think. Seeing his mother receive the Celtics jersey at the memorial service was a gripping moment. Even hearing the quotes from people who remember him really make me think: “He had the purest jump shot I’ve ever seen… and it was a work of art.” “Both Jordan and Bias played with a rage. A controlled rage.” “Len Bias as a player as I remember him was a consummate  inside/outside force. A truly exciting player.”  Makes you wonder.

Happy 50th Birthday, Len ‘Frosty’ Bias. You’re gone but still remembered by many. It’s unfortunate you’re best known for your untimely death but many remember you as a great player. That’s as it should be.

London 1948: The Olympic Spirit Burns Again

Okay last week I took you way back to the first time London hosted an Olympic Games back in 1908. The second time London hosted was back in 1948. I don’t know if you have seen film footage of past Olympic Games but I have seen mostly through Bud Greenspan’s The Olympiad series and I have to say the London Games of 1948 were definitely a Games to remember for all the right reasons. It brought athletes from around the world back into an arena, brought athletic achievement back into the spotlight and even gave the world a heroine.

WAR IS OVER

One thing we should remember is that these Olympic Games were the first Olymmpic Games in twelve years and they were staged just three years after World War II ended. When World War I happened, the 1916 Olympics scheduled for Berlin were cancelled. World War II would lead to the cancellations of the Tokyo Games of 1940 and the London Games of 1944. The last Summer Olympics held before these London Games were held back in 1936 in Berlin and they were most memorable for showcasing the Nazi ideology that would eventually lead to the start of World War II.  As the London Games were about to begin, most of the world was still trying to recover from the war. These Games were to be dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’ because of such. Europe was especially devastated during wartime and the UK was still giving out food rations at the time. Even though the Olympics were intended to bring together the countries of the world, wounds from World War II were not fully healed. As a result, Germany and Japan were not invited to these Games. The USSR was invited but declined.

As for staging the events, there was no way to afford new facilities. All events were staged in existing venues. The 25 year-old Wembley Stadium hosted the athletics competitions, equestrian events, hockey and football tournaments and the ceremonies. The well-established Henley Regatta hosted the rowing and canoeing events. Empire Pool, originally built for the 1934 Empire Games, hosted the aquatic events and boxing finals. The 11 year-old Empress Hall Earl’s Court hosted gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling and boxing preliminaries. The track cycling events were held at the Herne Hill Velodrome built in 1891. Basketball was held at the Harringay Arena built in 1936. Sailing events were held in Torquay, a town in Southwest England on the English Channel. As for athlete accommodations, there was no Olympic Village constructed and athletes were housed in existing accommodations instead. Male athletes stayed at RAF camps in nearby cities and female athletes were housed in London college dorms. Athletes were also subject to the food rations. Actually athletes were given increased rations: the same amount as dockers and miners. BBC was to broadcast a total of 60 hours of live broadcast of the Games. Broadcasting rights was a mere £1000.

As for the torch relay, the torch was lit in ancient Greece and was carried through Italy, Switzerland and France before arrived in England at Dover one day before the Opening Ceremonies.

The Opening Ceremonies in London bring back the Olympic spirit after a 12-year hiatus.

OPENING CEREMONIES

The 1948 Olympic Games opened at 2pm on a sunny Saturday on July 29th. Army bands began the pageantry and the Royal Family arrived at 2:45pm. The parade of nations started around 3pm and lasted 50 minutes with 59 nations parading starting with Greece by tradition, the other nations marching in alphabetical order, and ending by tradition with the host nation Great Britain. Fourteen countries including Jamaica and Korea marched in the opening ceremonies for the first time. Each nation was obliged to bring their own flag to the ceremonies. Lord Burghley, president of the British Olympic Council who headed the organization of these Games, greeted the athletes to “keen but friendly rivalry” and said London represented a “warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low.” King George VI formally declared the Games open. 2,500 pigeons were released, symbolizing the doves of peace. The Olympic Flag was raised to a 35 ft. flagpole near the end of the stadium. The torch entered the stadium carried by 23 year-old British runner John Mark and was greeted by a 21-gun salute. Mark lit the Flame located inside the Wembley Stadium. The Olympic Oath was taken by 39 year-old hurdler Donald Findlay, a silver-medalist from 1936 who was able to make the British Olympic team that year. Then the athletes proceeded out of the stadium to the two weeks of competition.

COMPETITION HIGHLIGHTS

The 1948 London Games delivered in terms of competition. 136 events were contested in seventeen sports. The USA–a country that was one of the least effected by World War II– was the top medal winner with 84 medals including 38 golds. Sweden won the second-most with 44 medals including 16 golds. France and Hungary both won ten gold medals each.

The competitions themselves featured a lot of excellent feats from athletes who would be remembered for all time. In athletics, Harrison Dillard was the surprise winner of the men’s 100m dash beating out his favored teammate Barney Ewell. Both would run in the 4*100 relay where the American team was originally disqualified for exchanging the baton outside the exchange zone but a film replay would reinstate their first-place finish. Arthur Wint won Jamaica’s first ever gold medal in the men’s 400m. American Mal Whitfield would win the first of his two consecutive 800m gold medals here. The legendary Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia would begin his legendary Olympic career with a win in the 10000m and a silver in the 5000m. Micheline Ostermeyer of France won the women’s shot put and discus. Sweden dominated the steeplechase and walks. High jumper Alice Coachman would become the first ever African-American woman to win Olympic gold. Bob Mathias won the first of his two consecutive decathlon gold medals here. His win here just a week before his 18th birthday would make him the youngest ever male gold medalist in track and field. However the two biggest moments of the athletics events will be discussed later in this blog.

In swimming all men’s events were won by Americans. Women’s swimming was divided between the Americans, Danes and Dutch. Diving was completely dominated by the Americans with Victoria Draves winning gold in both springboard and platform. The legendary Sammy Lee of the USA would win the first of his platform golds and a bronze in springboard.

Men’s gymnastics was won mostly by Finland. A unique moment occurred when three men–all Finnish–tied for first place in the men’s pommel horse. Thus three gold medals were awarded. There was only one single event for women in gymnastics: a team competition which Czechoslovakia won. The USA won no gold medals in boxing but a Hungarian boxer, Laszlo Papp, would win the first of his three career Olympic golds: the first of only three boxers to do so. Swedish kayaker Gert Frederiksen would win two gold medals here and would go on to an Olympic career of eight total medals, six of them gold. Equestrian events had the strongest showings from the Americans, French and the Mexicans. Hungarian fencer Ilona Elek–a Jewish survivor of World War II thanks to Raoul Wallenberg–became the only gold medalist from 1936 to repeat here in London. Sweden won in soccer. Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrom won the first of his four consecutive gold medals at Torquay. The Americans and Egyptians were the standouts in weightlifting while the Swedes and the Turks were the top winners in wrestling. And while there’s excitement over double-amputee Oscar Pistorius running in London this year, here at these Games Hungarian shooter Karoly Takacs won a gold medal with his left land after losing his right hand in a grenade blast ten years earlier.

For those of you that took an interest in all the discontinued events from the first London Olympics, the discontinued stuff isn’t as interesting as the ones back in 1908. All the sports contested at the London Games of 1948 are still contested at these London Games. There are some discontinued events. In athletics, the 10km road walk would be replaced by the 20km walk. The Star boat is the only one of the five sailing events from 1948 that’s contested in 2012. In rowing there were pairs and fours both with and without a coxwain while the only rowing event in 2012 with a coxwain is the eights event. Cycling had a tandem event and canoeing had three events over a distance of 10,000 metres.

As for the host country Great Britain, athletes won a total of 23 medals: the sixth-most of all countries at these Games. Their medal haul was their biggest since 1924 and most of their medals came in athletics, rowing, cycling and sailing. Their gold medal total of three was one of the lowest gold medal totals Britain has ever had and lower than the four won at the previous Olympics in Berlin. As for Canada, no Canadian athlete won a gold medal. These would be the second of only five Summer Olympics where Canada didn’t win a gold medal. Canada did win three medals: a bronze won by the women’s 4*100m relay team in athletics and both a silver and a bronze won in canoeing.

SIGNS OF A CHANGED WORLD

Even though these Olympics were meant to ease political barriers, it’s not to say these Games were immune to politics. Countries now governed under Communist regimes would compete in London for the first time and they would give the first signs of the changes of post-World War II politics. Back in February of that year, the Soviet allied ‘Czech coup’ led to Czechoslovakia’s inclusion into the Soviet bloc. Just after Czechoslovakia’s women’s gymnastics team won the gold medal, 57 year-old Marie Provaznikova, the Czechoslovakian president of the International Gymnastics Federation, refused to return home because: “there is no freedom of speech, of the press or of assembly.” Provaznikova made history as the first Olympic participant to defect. Defections during the Olympic Games would later be common over the decades of the Cold War.

MARATHON: THE LAST LAP AGAIN

Remember how back at the London Games of 1908 there was a dramatic last lap of the marathon? Well there would be another dramatic last lap again 40 years later. Two and a half hours after the start, the first runner into the stadium was Etienne Gailly of Belgium. Gailly was never a serious threat for a medal and he was quite inexperienced at running the marathon distance. He went out hard into the race under unusually hot and humid conditions. He held the lead for most of the race and was even first into Wembley Stadium but by the time he entered, he was visibly exhausted and stumbled as he ran. Delfo Cabrera of Argentina, running in his first marathon, entered the stadium second and passed Gailly en route to winning the gold medal. Third into the stadium was Britain’s Tom Richards. Gailly fell and Richards passed him to finish second. Gailly picked himself up again but fell along the homestretch. Gailly had made a promise to himself before the run that when he crosses the finish line, he will have a medal. Time was soon running out as South African Johannes Coleman was fourth into the stadium. Fortunately Gailly mustered enough energy to get up and beat Coleman to the bronze medal by 200 meters. A promise kept.

MOTHER COURAGE: Fanny Blankers-Koen’s four golds in London did a lot for women in sport.

THE FLYING DUTCHWOMAN

Of all the performances that dazzled, there was one athlete that could truly be called the star of the Games. Back in 1935 a 17 year-old Francina Koen dreamed of competing in the Olympic Games as a swimmer. A swimming coach told her: “We have many great swimmers in Holland but no woman can run like you.” At his advice she chose track and it turned out to be the right decision. She would be coached by Jan Blankers and represented the Netherlands in track and field at the Berlin Games of 1936, finishing 6th in high jump and was part of the Netherlands’ 5th-place 4*100m relay. However the biggest highlight of those games was meeting four-time gold medalist Jesse Owens and getting his autograph. It would remain her most cherished possession.

After the 1936 Berlin Games, Fanny would soon become the top woman in track and field winning meets and setting world record. However World War II would cause the 1940 and 1944 Olympics to be cancelled. During the time in between she married Jan Blankers and would come to be known as Fanny Blankers-Koen. She continued training for the Olympics during the wartime. Even after she gave birth to two children, they would eventually become involved with her training regimen. Her athletic activity would help her and the Blankers family to thrive despite the harsh conditions of World War II. Despite it all, most people looked down upon Fanny for her training for sport instead of being a full-time housewife. We shouldn’t forget that woman athletes didn’t have a favorable impression at the time.

Fanny was one of the 390 female athletes competing in seven sports here in London: less than 10% of the total number of athletes at these Games. Here in London she was to compete in four events. She knew this would be her best chances for Olympic gold in her career as her peak years occurred during the cancelled Games of 1940 and 1944.

Her first event in London was the 100m dash. She easily won her heat and semi-final. She won the final in Olympic record time. Her second event was the 80m hurdles. At the finish of the final, it appeared that Fanny and British runner Maureen Gardner hit the tape together both in Olympic record time. The playing of God Save The King by the band let to further confusion. It was then revealed that Blankers-Koen won by inches and the playing of God Save The King was because King George VI and family entered the stadium. Then came to 200m. She won her heat but homesickness set in before the semifinal and she cried to her husband. Her husband Jan was sympathetic and reminded her if she continues on, she will equal Jesse Owens’ feat of four golds. She continued on and won the 200m with the widest margin in Olympic history. Then came the 4*100m relay to which Fanny was to run the anchor leg for the Netherlands. At the time Fanny took the baton, the Netherlands was in 3rd place but Fanny made up the distance by driving the Dutch team to victory. Like her idol Jesse Owens, Fanny won four gold medals: the first female athlete in Olympic history to do so in a single Games. She would later be dubbed the ‘Flying Housewife’ and ‘Mother Courage’. She still remains one of the best female athletes of all time, ranking her amongst the greats like Babe Didriksen and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. After the London Games, she returned to Amsterdam to a hero’s welcome even bigger than the celebrations at the end of World War II. Her feats were best summed up by one journalist: “Holland has won four gold medals in athletics and Fanny has been a part of them all.”

The 1948 Olympic Games closed in Wembley Stadium on August 14, 1948. 64 years have passed since these London Games but its importance has never withered over time. These Games took place twelve years after the last Olympic Games and a mere three years after World War II had ended. These Olympics showed that even years after such a brutal global war and even while many of the world’s nations–even Great Britain itself– were still trying to recover from the damage, the human spirit can triumph again in sports competition. They also showed that Baron de Coubertin’s dream of the world gathering together once again and competing harmoniously in friendly competition can be revived successfully.

It is because of this that the London Games of 1948 left its biggest legacy that is still admired today. I don’t know of any other Olympic Games that have been able to make such a significant statement. It is because of this that I consider the London Games of 1948 to be the best Summer Olympics ever. Not necessarily for the sake of the sports achievements or the level of competition, but what it meant for the world and for the Olympic movement. To think Lord Burghley declared at the Opening Ceremonies: “A visionary dream has today become a glorious reality. At the end of the worldwide struggle in 1945, many institutions and associations were found to have withered and only the strongest had survived. How, many wondered, had the great Olympic Movement prospered?” These London Games showed the world how.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 1948 Summer Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Summer_Olympics>

WIKIPEDIA: Fanny Blankers-Koen. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Blankers-Koen>

WIKIPEDIA: Etienne Gailly. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etienne_Gailly>

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.

LONDON TO THE RESCUE

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.

NATIONAL TEAMS

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.

FIRST AND ONLY

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.

NO LONGER HERE

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.

FIGURE SKATING AT A SUMMER GAMES?

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.

SPORTING SURPRISES

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.

A RACE TO REMEMBER FOR THE WRONG REASONS

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.

MARATHON: A FINISH TO REMEMBER

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.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 1908 Summer Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1908_Summer_Olympics>

WIKIPEDIA: White City Stadium. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_City_Stadium>

WIKIPEDIA: Athletics at the 1908 Summer Olympics – Men’s 400 metres. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_1908_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_400_metres>

WIKIPEDIA: Athletics at the 1908 Summer Olympics – Men’s marathon. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_1908_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_marathon>