1908 London, Great Britain

The 1908 Summer Olympics were known as the Games of the IV Olympiad, and were held in 1908 in London, England, United Kingdom. These games were originally scheduled to be held in Rome. At the time they were the fifth modern Olympic Games. However, the Athens Games of 1906 have since been downgraded by the International Olympic Committee and the 1908 Games are seen as the start of the Fourth Olympiad, in keeping with the now-accepted four-year cycle. The IOC president for these Games was Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Italian authorities were preparing to hold the games when Mount Vesuvius erupted on April 7, 1906, devastating the city of Naples. Funds were diverted to the reconstruction of Naples, so a new venue was required. London was selected, and the games were held in White City alongside the Franco-British Exhibition, at the time the more noteworthy event. Berlin and Milan were other candidates.
The White City Stadium, built in short time for the games, held 68,000 and was considered by some to be a technological marvel. The stadium track was three laps to the mile, not the current standard of 400 metres, with a pool for swimming and diving and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics in the middle.

The distance from the start of the Marathon to the finish at the stadium was established at these games. The original distance of 25 miles was changed to 26 miles so the marathon could start at Windsor Castle and then changed again at the request of Princess Mary so the start would be beneath the windows of the Royal Nursery.

To ensure that the race would finish in the front of the King, the finish line was moved by British officials who, in response to shot putter and American flag carrier Ralph Rose’s refusal to dip the American flag before the Royal Box during the opening ceremony, “felt compelled to restore the importance of the monarchy.” As a result of these changes, the marathon covered a distance of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km), which became the standard length starting with the 1924 Summer Olympics.

Highlight of the London Olympics

The 1908 Olympics also prompted establishment of standard rules for sports, and selection of judges from different countries rather than just the host. One reason was the 400 metre run in which the US winner was accused of interfering with the British runner. Part of the problem was the different definition of interference under British and US rules. The race was re-run, but the Americans refused to participate. The British runner, Wyndham Halswelle, won by running around the track on his own, because three of the four original runners had been American, the only walkover in Olympic history.

The most famous incident of the games came at the end of the marathon. The first to enter the stadium, Dorando Pietri of Italy, collapsed several times and ran the wrong way. Not far from the finish, two officials took him by the arms and brought him to the line. As a consequence, after crossing the line he was disqualified. The medal went to American Johnny Hayes of the Irish American Athletic Club who was second, but the glory went to Pietri. Since he had not been responsible for his disqualification, Queen Alexandra next day awarded him a gilded silver cup.

These Games were the first to include Winter events, as had originally been proposed for the Games. There were four figure skating events, although held months after other events.
For the first time the Olympic creed that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part” was publicly proclaimed, and its creator, a bishop from Pennsylvania, uttered it at a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 19.

Oscar Swahn from Sweden, who won the gold medal for running deer shooting, became the oldest Olympic champion of all time, and set another age record by being 72 years and 279 days old during his triumph at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

American John Taylor was a member of the winning medley relay team, making him the first African-American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. Times for the winning team were United States (3:29.4): William Hamilton-200 metres (22.0), Nathaniel Cartmell-200 metres (22.2), John Taylor-400 metres (49.8), and Melvin Sheppard-800 metres (1:55.4).

The budget of the organizing committee showed a cost of GB£15,000; over one-third was labeled “entertainment expense”. Donations were the major source of revenue; only 28% of income derived from ticket sales. Total receipts of £21,377 resulted in organizers claiming a profit. Construction of the White City Stadium, which cost the government about £60,000, was not counted.

Evolving the Olympics in London

22 sports, representing 24 sporting disciplines, were contested. Swimming, diving, and water polo are considered three disciplines of the same sport, aquatics. At the time, tug-of-war was part of athletics and the two different football codes (association and rugby (union)) were listed together. The International Olympic Committee now considers tug-of-war a separate sport, as well as referring to association football as simply “football” and to rugby union as “rugby”.

The 1908 Games featured athletes representing 22 National Olympic Committees. Finland, Turkey, and New Zealand (as part of the team from Australasia) made their first appearance at the Olympic Games. The fact that the United Kingdom competed as a single team, was upsetting to some Irish competitors, who felt that Ireland should compete on its own, despite being part of the UK at the time. Fearing an Irish boycott, the authorities changed the name of the team to Great Britain/Ireland, and in two sports, field hockey and polo, Ireland participated as a separate country, winning silver medals in both.

Irish athletes in the United States were not affected by this controversy, and many Irish born athletes competed for the U.S. Olympic teamas members of the Irish American Athletic Club. Members of the Irish American Athletic Club won ten of the U.S. Olympic team’s total 23 gold medals, or as many as the nations of France, Germany and Italy combined.