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Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 11:03 UK

The 08 Olympics... 1908, that is

The American tug-of-war team

By Andrew Sully
BBC News

A century ago London hosted the Fourth Olympiad. It was a hastily organised affair, after Italy pulled out following the eruption of Vesuvius. Oh, and Britain won 56 gold medals.

When we consider the sleek and slick celebration of sport that the Olympic Games have become, it is about far more than physical endeavour and great drama.

We also - alas - tend to think of political manoeuvring; financial burdens and corporate sponsorship; doping scandals and even the odd display of bad sportsmanship.

But wind back 100 years and all these were very much a feature of the 1908 Olympics.

The first recognisably modern Games, the six month long Fourth Olympiad, based around White City in west London, seems to prove that old axiom "the more things change, the more they stay the same".

Bicycle polo is no longer an Olympic event and the tug-of-war seems unlikely to make a return to such an exalted stage. But many of the events enjoyed by our Edwardian forebears seem mighty familiar.

Short notice

The fact that London hosted the Games in 1908 is amazing. The recently-formed British Olympic Association had just 10 months to find a site, build a stadium and organise finance for the Olympiad, after the Italians pulled out of staging a Rome Olympics.

Fencers with Desborough behind
Olympic organiser Lord Desborough, centre back

At the time, the Italians blamed the cost of reconstruction following an eruption of Vesuvius that had devastated Naples.

However many Olympic historians believe that the wily Baron de Coubertin - founder of the modern Olympic movement - used the eruption as a face-saving formula to disguise the fact that the Italians just could not afford to stage the Games.

That Britain could is very much testament to the man at the helm - Baron Desborough of Taplow.

An MP at just 25, he was an archetypal Victorian hearty: a double blue in rowing and running at Oxford, he had subsequently swum the Niagara rapids twice, climbed the Matterhorn three times and represented his country at fencing in the unofficial 1906 Olympics.

He was also a consummate organiser who chaired dozens of committees, including the Lawn Tennis Association and the MCC. Such clout and vigour persuaded Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, to sponsor the 1908 Games.

He also found a site - next to the 140-acre Franco-British Exhibition in Shepherds Bush - and persuaded the government to spend 60,000 in engaging master builder George Wimpey to erect a stadium large enough to accommodate 130,000 people - if the seating was removed.

Unlike the three previous official (and the 1906 "intercalated") Olympics, it had been decided that athletes would compete in national teams rather than as individuals. This led to trouble.

Annoyed Americans

At the opening ceremony, the flags of China and Japan - with no athletes at the Games - were flown instead of those of Sweden and the United States.

Americans process into the stadium
Team USA lodged frequent protests

The furious Swedes stormed out of the stadium, while the Americans launched the first of many official protests and refused, in turn, to dip their flag to the Royal Box.

The steep-sided cycling track provoked protests from the French and Canadians, while the wrestling refereeing led to further Swedish anger.

And the Americans lodged an average of one official protest a day, from the too-long running shorts to the ban on having coaches on the field.

Team manager James E Sullivan, an irascible Irish-American, became a hate figure in British newspapers, while US periodicals decried "unfair" and "snobbish" British refereeing. In 1908, as at all previous Games, the officials came from the host nation.

From 27 April to 31 October
All medals awarded in one day in mass ceremony
Britain won 56 gold medals
No Olympic torch - that tradition began in 1928
Made official profit of 21,377
1,971 men competed and 37 women

For one of Britain's gold medals - to test cricketer Johnny Douglas in the middleweight boxing division - was called on a split decision by the contest's ref, Douglas's own father. Perhaps the Americans had a point.

Matters were not helped by the fact that there were no standard rules in sports, or definitions of amateurism - an Olympic must until the 1972 Games.

A dispute over blocking in the 400 metre final led to the Americans withdrawing - and British athlete Wyndham Halswelle being awarded the only walkover in Olympic history.

Brandy and champagne

Matters were even more disputed in the marathon.

Pietri helped across the finish line
Dorando Pietri won the marathon - but was helped across the finish line

Held on a warm July day, the favourite was Canadian aborigine Tom Longboat. But he collapsed after 19 miles, possibly not helped by the champagne his assistants gave him en route. The Canadians claimed he had been drugged.

This led the way for diminutive Italian confectioner Dorando Pietri to lead the race all the way to the stadium (it had started outside Windsor Castle) with only the odd nip of brandy as a sharpener.

Heat, exertion, and possible the brandy, combined to make Pietri collapse five times and run the wrong way in the final stages.

A posse of helpful officials, including, it is said, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, helped the exhausted runner over the line - and led to another US official complaint.

Marathon winner Johnny Hayes bourne aloft on a table
The gold was then awarded to the US

This was upheld and Pietri's gold was given to the second finisher, American Johnny Hayes.

Pietri, however, had the last laugh. Sir Arthur helped raise some 300 on his behalf. He turned professional (and beat Hayes twice in his homeland) and retired in 1911 with enough money to buy a San Remo hotel. He even had a song named after him by Irving Berlin and - the ultimate accolade - an annual greyhound race is still held in his honour.

Medal table

Whilst generally the Games ran like clockwork, there were a few slip-ups. No-one had thought to change the pool's water and it quickly became a murky hazard. Downpours in May and early July didn't help, nor did the international fly fishing contest held in the pool during the Olympics.

It is horrible, yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exausted frame
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on watching Pietri's marathon

Nonetheless, it was in the pool that Britain's hero of the 1908 Olympics, Henry Taylor, won three swimming golds.

Unlike modern sportsman, with their honours and lucrative punditry contracts, Taylor retired unheralded to run an Oldham pub. He died a forgotten man in 1952.

After 1908, the International Olympics Committee made a raft of improvements, including unified rules, lanes in running events and a requirement that Olympic officials come from more than one country.

But British competitors at Beijing 2008 must look back ruefully on one fact from the Fourth Olympiad: it was the first and last time that Britain ever topped an Olympic medal table.

 White City Stadium
The White City Stadium


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