Looking back at the Olympic Games

Great Britain are celebrating their most successful Olympics since 1908. This year’s Rio Olympics ran from 5th August to 21st August with 205 countries and over 11,000 athletes competing. Great Britain finished second behind America with a total of 27 Gold medals, 23 Silver medals and 17 Bronze medals.

The 1908 Olympics were held in Shepherds Bush from 27th April to 31st October. At a staggering 187 days this was the longest games since the start of the modern Olympics, which commenced in Athens in 1896.  The reason for the extension to October was to include four figure skating events that of course would now be included in the Winter Games.

Great Britain came first with a total of 56 Gold, 51 Silver and 38 Bronze. Just over 2000 athletes representing 22 nations competed but Great Britain fielded a massive team of 676 competitors; almost twice as many as their closest rival France (363 athletes) and more than five times as many as America (121 athletes).

The 1908 Olympics stadium was built by Hammersmith based George Wimpey. It was incorporated in to the site of the Franco British exhibition in White City, Shepherds Bush.

map

Map showing the Olympic Stadium top right

Sports held in the stadium included archery, athletics, cycling , diving, hockey, football, gymnastics, lacrosse, rugby, swimming, tug of war, water polo and wrestling.

 

postcard

Picture postcard of the stadium, showing the main arena, the cycle track and swimming pool

 

This year’s Olympics was somewhat overshadowed by the revelation of Russian state sponsored doping from late 2011 up to and including the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The result being a total ban on Russian athletes competing in athletics and weightlifting, and a partial ban in several other Olympic events.

However, the 1908 Olympics were also shrouded in controversy. Ireland wanted to compete as a separate country but were lumped in with Great Britain and as a result many Irish boycotted the games. In two events they actually did compete as a separate country and in other events some Irish athletes actually competed for America.

In 1908 Finland were part of the Russian Empire but rather than use the Russian flag the athletes chose to march into the stadium without a flag. The Swedish and American flags had not been flown above the stadium prior to the opening ceremony and in protest the Swedish athletes did not take part in the ceremony, and the American retaliated by not dipping the flag as he passed the King in the Royal Box.

The International Olympic Committee had agreed that Britain could provide all the judges and timekeepers. During the games there were many complaints by the Americans about favouritism towards the British athletes. It came to a head in the 400 metre race between one British and three American runners. One of the Americans was disqualified over a dubious decision regarding obstruction during the race. After strong protests by the Americans it was decided to re-run the race but the Americans refused to run leaving the British athlete to jog around on his own to the finishing line.

You can actually see the position of the finishing line. Just to the north east of the junction of South Africa Road and Wood Lane is an area known as The Media Village. If you walk in past Starbucks you will eventually find stencilled on the ground the following words:

finishline

Photo of the finishing line

 

If you continue walking straight on you will see high up a giant 1908 with the five Olympic rings, and below a table of the medal winners.

rings

The Olympic Rings and the medals table

 

plaque

Plaque and list of events and winners

The memorial was unveiled by Jacques Rogge who was the President of the International Olympic Committee. The date was 24th May 2005 which marked the centenary of the British Olympic Association. The event was hosted by BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and attended by Sir Stephen Redgrave.

You may not know, but the 1908 Olympic Games had a great influence on all subsequent games. Because of the controversy surrounding the alleged favouritism by the British officials it was agreed that all future games would be judged by officials from all competing nations.

The 1908 games was the first time athletes marched into the stadium behind their nation’s flag. And the first where all winners were awarded medals; some previous winners had only received diplomas.

The earlier marathon distance was approximately 40 kilometres (25 miles) but in 1908 due to last minute alterations the actual distance of the race was 26 miles 385 yards. This is now the official marathon distance throughout the world.

Our police dominated the tug of war competition. The City of London Police won Gold, The Liverpool Police took Silver and ‘K’ division of The Metropolitan Police took Bronze. The Liverpool Police apparently wore their regulation police footwear but contemporary reports claim that their shoes were so heavy they could hardly lift their feet from the ground.

Maybe this was one of the reasons that prompted the establishment of standard rules for sports following the 1908 Olympics.

Peter Trott

 

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