Sunday, August 24, 2008
The First London Olympics
Today sees the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and the official 'hand-over' to London, host of the next Games in 2012. To mark the occasion, here's my article from the Daily Express on the first time that the British capital hosted the Olympic Games, exactly 100 years ago.
It will, we are told, be the ‘greatest show on earth’. The 29th Olympics in Beijing, will feature 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries competing in 308 sporting events. The Games have cost an estimated £20bn and are supported by an array of household name corporate sponsors.
It was somewhat different one hundred years ago, when the Olympic Games were held for the very first time in London. The 1908 Olympics had none of the hype surrounding their modern counterpart and only 22 nations took part. All of the contestants were amateurs, reflecting the Corinthian ideals of the Olympic movement. Most astonishingly, when one considers the spiralling cost for the next Olympiad our capital will host in 2012, running costs budget were a mere £15,000.
London was not the original choice to host the 1908 Olympics. The event was to have been held in Naples in Italy, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius two years previously, which claimed more than 100 victims meant that a new venue urgently had to be found.
London only had 20 months to prepare. The fact that it did so, and owes much to one man: the remarkable Lord Desborough.
Desborough was a passionate supporter of the Olympic ideal who had won a silver medal in the fencing competition at the “interim” Olympics in Athens Games two years earlier. (The original idea was that the Greeks would host such an interim event every four years between Olympics). A superb sportsman, he also rowed across the English Channel, swam the Niagra rapids twice, climbed the Matterhorn three times and was three times amateur punting champion on the Thames. One day, the superfit aristocrat was infuriated to find his obituary printed in The Times, which had confused him with a similarly-named Lord. "Look here," he cried, "you've published my obituary this morning!" "I'm so sorry, your lordship," the editor replied. "Where did you say you were calling from?
Desborough had promised that London would stage the 1908 Olympics at Athens in 1906. But where would the Games be held?
To answer that question, Desborough formed an association with the Hungarian entrepreneur Imre Kiralfy who was in charge of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. Kallafy built a state-of-the art sports stadium at the site of the exhibition in London‘s Shepherd Bush : the White City. The White City stadium was completed in just 10 months, at a cost of just £60,000. It was an arena whose grandeur reflected the enormous confidence of the British Empire at the height of its power. “The stadium was as broad as the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome”, relates Rebecca Jenkins, author of ‘The First London Olympics’. Its swimming pool was 100m in length, more than double the standard size. The world’s first modern seated stadium, it was constructed to seat 68,000, but could hold over 130,000 with terracing.
The glorious new venue was officially opened by King Edward VII on April 27th 1908, a much earlier start than the Games‘ modern equivalent because in 1908 they stretched out over six months. The Olympics had been revived by the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, but prior to 1908 they had not captured the public’s imagination. The future of the modern Olympic movement therefore depended on London putting on a good show.
But despite the wonders of the White City stadium, it seemed like the notorious British summer weather would spoil the occasion. Cold and wet conditions meant that spectators were staying away in their thousands. Something needed to be done to revive public interest. The organisers encouraged the King, and several celebrities of the day to attend. But the real breakthrough came when Maud Allen, an exotic dancer in the tradition of Mata Hari, promised to make an appearance. “The first days had drawn disappointing crowds, but when Maud Allan, ‘the Scarlet Princess’, appeared, the 90,000 crowd cheered as if the stadium had been erected specially for her,” says Russell James, author of ‘The Maud Allen Affair’.
The rivalry between Britain and the U.S. was intense. “The London Olympics formed a stage for a clash of empires. In the White City stadium the Edwardian English sporting gentlemen met the vigour of the "scientifically trained" Americans,” says Jenkins.
In the tug-of-war quarter final, the defeated American team launched an official complaint after the British team, made up of Liverpool policemen, had kept on their service boots.
In the mens’ 400m final, there was more acrimony after American John Carpenter ran diagonally across the track to prevent Wyndham Halswelle of Scotland from overtaking him. British judges disqualified Carpenter and ordered the race to be re-run the following day but the American team was so incensed by the decision that the other two American finalists refused to take part, allowing Halswelle to complete the only walkover in Olympic history.
The Games saw several memorable performances. American John Taylor, a member of the winning medley relay team, became the first African-American athlete to win an Olympic gold. Tragically Taylor died of typhoid fever shortly after his return home. Joshua Milner from Ireland won a gold medal in a rifle shooting event at the age of 61, making him the oldest Olympic champion ever at the time, while 53-year-old Sybil ‘Queenie’ Newall, from Britain, became the oldest ever female gold medallist when she won the archery contest.
But the greatest story of all concerned a little Italian chef and sweet-maker, a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like called Dorando Pietri.
Pietri’s running career had started by accident, when as a 17-year-old, he ran an errand for an employer, delivering a letter in person instead of posting it, and covering the 30 miles in about four hours. He had come agonisingly close to winning the marathon in Athens two years earlier when he had to retire due to stomach ache when holding a five-minute lead. In 1908 it seemed that his moment had finally come as a remarkable late burst saw him lead the field into the stadium. But exhausted by his exertions on a hot summer‘s day, Pietri collapsed on the track. Helped to his feet by officials he got up and started running again- only to collapse and recover a further four times.
Pietri crossed the line first, 32 seconds ahead of American Johnny Haynes, but was disqualified for receiving help. The British love of a gallant loser however, gave Pietri greater glory than if he had won. On the suggestion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes who had reported on the event, Queen Alexandra presented Pietri with a special gold cup. Pietri became an international celebrity. He was invited to running events all over the world- and the songwriter Irving Berlin even dedicated a song called ‘Dorando’ to him.
It was not until October 31st that the 1908 London Olympics finally drew to a close. Most people agreed that the Games had been the most successful yet and they had also established standard rules and measurements which remain to this day. The marathon had been planned for 26 miles, but Princess Mary had the start moved to beneath the windows of the Royal nursery at Windsor Castle so her children could watch, while the finish was adjusted so that it was in front of the Royal Box. This added 385 yards to the race, which remains the same distance today.
The 1908 Olympics was also a financial success, with a profit of more than £6,000 recorded. The hosts excelled on the sporting field, too. Britain’s final tally of 56 Gold, 50 silver and 39 bronze medals was almost as many as the other 21 nations combined.
In just four years time, London will stage its third Olympics. The 2012 Games are predicted to cost £9bn and the country will have had five years more to prepare for them than Lord Desborough and his fellow organisers had a century ago.
But whether they- or the glitzy multi-billion pound, corporate-sponsored Beijing Olympics will prove as successful, or as memorable is another matter. One thing is certain: Britain won't win as many medals.