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LONDON OLYMPICS 1908

In 1908 London hosted its first Olympic Games by chance. Rome, the chosen host city, pulled out after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in spring 1906. The crisis threatened to bring Baron de Coubertin’s cherished revival of the Olympic Movement to an abrupt end. Then a handful of English sporting gentlemen stepped in…

  • Hop, Step & Jump - otherwise known as Triple Jump

    Timothy Ahearne 1908 Triple Jump Gold medalist

    On the morning of 25 July 1908, Irish athlete, Timothy Ahearne, aged 22, won gold for Team GB, setting a new world and Olympic record with a jump of 14.92 m.   According to Sporting Life, Ahearne, at 5ft 7  & weighing about 9st was 'not the sort of man one would pick at first sight as a jumper'.  Apparently, at the Olympic contest he was very nervous and his only jump was his winning one.   Tim Ahearne and his brother Dan hailed from Dirreen, County Limerick and shortly after the 1908 Olympics, both emigrated to the US, where Dan set the first IAAF recognised triple jump with 15.52 m in May 1911.

  • 400m hurdles 1908 Olympics

    US trainer, Murphy, w 400m US medalists, Hillman (Silver/right) and Bacon (Gold/left)

    The 1908 400 m hurdles final took place at White City Stadium on 22nd July at 15.30.  Two US athletes, Charles Bacon & Harry Hillman faced two Brits, Jimmy Tremeer & Leslie Burton.  Although the 400m hurdles had been contested at the 1900 & 1904 Olympics, it was rarely held at major national meets at the time. Charles Bacon - 'a tall, well set-up young fellow, who belongs to the Irish American AC in New York...& whose grand stride serves him well' (Sporting Life) - won gold with a time of 55.0, setting a new world record.

  • 1908 Olympics & Commerce

    1908 Olympic ad for mouthwash

    At the 1908 London Olympics sponsorship was in its infancy.   Oxo and Indian foot powder sponsored the marathon, but the IOC wasn't quite as on the ball about limiting the use of the Olympic brand by unlinked companies.  

    One of the most visible Olympic ads in the 1908 press that summer was for Odol mouth wash.   Mouth wash, foot powder and beef extract - I suppose you can see the sporting connection...

  • 1908 Commercial Sponsorship

    Ad for Oxo - proud sponsors of the famous 1908 Marathon.

    The 1908 Marathon course was sponsored by OXO.   There were booths along the 26 mile and 385 yard course offering hot and cold Oxo for the refreshment of the competitors, who were also proferred the same in handy flasks.   Many Edwardian trainers believed drinking water during a race was bad for the runner, though a little brandy or champagne was considered a useful stimulant.    The salt in the beef extract that made up OXO may have been of some benefit considering  that the day of the 1908 Olympic Marathon was one of the hottest of that summer.

  • Gentlemanly Duelling 1908 style

    Duelling competition with wax bullets in the 1908 London Olympics

    I found this picture recently in a 1908 magazine.  It can't have been a medal contest, but apparently one of the associated competitions, set up in a tent alongside the Olympic contests was to have two men attempting to shoot one another with wax bullets.    I want to know more!

  • Edwardian Olympic Exhibitions

    The exciting sport of Bicycle Polo

    Monday, 13 July 1908, the opening day of the First London Olympics in the White City Stadium, was concluded with an exhibition of Bicycle Polo at 6 o'clock.  The sport was the recent invention of  R.J. Mecredy,  the editor of the Irish Cyclist.

    The match was only an exhibition match - the players were not official olympians.   But the Irish Bicycle Polo Association team thrashed their German opponents, 3 to 1.

  • Martin Sheridan

    US cigarette card celebrating Olympian, Martin Sheridan

    'A man of god-like beauty then stepped out before the throng,/So lithe, so trim and handsome, so sinewy and strong.'

    Martin Sheridan, star of the Irish American NY AC, the 27-year-old pin-up boy of the Gaelic American, the New York Irish Nationalist newspaper.  Emigrating from Ireland at the age of 16, Sheridan went on to become one of the United States' top Olympians, gathering 9 Olympic medals in discus, shot-put, standing high jump, standing long jump and 'stone throw'.

  • Science and Trainers

    Smithson, the US hurdler,by Schonberg

    In 1908, British "gentleman" sportsman did not admit to having trainers.   (Although several, such as the 400 metre British champion, Wyndham Halswelle, did have them.)   The US athletes who came to London in 1908 'specialised'; they were "scientifically" trained under the eye of expert coaches.    The difference to European eyes was striking.   In his depiction of the US hurdle champion, Forrest Smithson, the Swedish cartoonist Schonberg vividly conveys how the new breed of US "man machine" sportsmen impressed the Europeans.

  • Irish Champions

    1908 US team member wearing the Winged Fist logo of the Irish American Athletic Club of NY

    The Fourth Olympiad was a triumph for the Irish American athletes from New York. Their success was acclaimed as a blow for Irish Independence against the British Oppressors.  

    The US won 13 gold medals out of a possible 23 firsts open for contest in the track and field events.   Of those gold medals, 8 were won by Irish Americans from New York.

  • Olympic Scandals

    US cartoon protesting British lack of sportsmanship.

    In 1908, clashes between the British hosts and a strongly nationalistic US team led to a series of scandals that put the Olympic Games on the front pages on both sides of the Atlantic.    At the White City stadium the sons of the British Empire met the vigor of the 'scientifically trained' Americans in track & field - and lost.

  • Olympic Swimming pool, 1908

    The 1908 White City stadium pool seen from the track

    In front of the Royal Stand, on the west side of the 1908 White City stadium, was a 100 metre long swimming tank - twice the length of the modern Olympic Pool.  There was a diving tower that could be folded down into the pool when not in use.  The water in the tank was neither heated nor filtered.   One Australian swimmer described the consistency as being 'as thick as pea soup.'

  • The White City Stadium

    The White City Stadium built for the 1908 London Olympics

    The 60,000 seater White City stadium was built in 10 months for £85,000 (to get an idea of how that translates to today's values, go to www.measuringworth.com/ ).

    The 1908 White City stadium was 1000 feet long and 593 feet wide - as broad as the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome and longer than the Colosseum.  It had a  swimming tank, a cinder track, a turf track and around the outer edge of the arena, immediately below the seats, a concrete cycle track banked up to curves to a height of 10 feet.  The cycle track was dubbed the 'mile a minute track' for on it, the designers boasted, '60 miles an hour could be attained with perfect safety.'

  • The First London Olympics

    Olympic Poster, London 1908

    When, in April 1906, the group of gentlemanly English sporting enthusiasts, led by William Grenfell, Lord Desborough, offered to mount de Coubertin's Fourth Olympiad in London, they had two years, no budget and no suitable stadium.   The 1908 Olympic poster cost them, according to BOC accounts, £49, 1 shilling and 8 pence.

  • 6 Representative Swordsmen

    The 'representative' British swordsmen of 1906.

    In Spring 1906, six 'thoroughly representative' swordsmen (one of the them was behind the camera) travelled to Athens to defend the honour of their King and Country at the Olympic Games held in Athens that year.  They arrived just as Mount Vesuvius blew up and the Roman hosts withdrew from hosting the IOC's Fourth Olympiad in 1908.

    Led by Lord Desborough (the man 2nd from the right above), this group of English sporting enthusiasts took up the challenge.  They returned from their Greek holiday with the task of putting on the 1908 IOC Olympics.

  • The Sporting Sons of Empire

    Lord Desborough, Vanity Fair Print

    "England has led the way in manly sports.  The games which her sons first played, or reduced to order by rules or regulations, have been adopted by many nations."  Evening Standard, 24 November 1906

    The man who brought the 1908 Olympics to London was Willie Grenfell, Lord Desborough (1855-1945).  He was the model of the kind of effortless sportsmanship his British contemporaries liked to think their nation gave the world.  And he never admitted to having had a trainer of any sort...

  • Forgotten Olympic Sports

    Cartoon of UK Policeman pulling over all rivals in the 1908 Tug-of-War

    At Athens 1896, the first Olympic Games of the modern era, rope climbing was an Olympic competition. The Standing High Jump was another favourite - 1908 Gold Medalist, Ray Ewry, could jump over 6ft from a standing start. 

    Then there was the Tug-of-War.  The 1908 contest caused a scandal when a team of 8 Liverpool policemen pulled over the prime athletes of the US team. The Americans called foul because they objected to the policemen's boots.

  • Team GB's Finest Hour...?

    Olympic Medal London 1908

    Can Team GB 2012 top the achievement of its Olympic predecessors at Beijing 2008?  At the Beijing Olympics, Team GB ranked 4th among competing nations with 47 medal wins.

    At the first London Olympics Team GB collected 145 Olympic medals, 56 of them Gold.  This might reflect the fact that of 2023 Olympic athletes competing in 1908, 736 were British - and all the line judges at the London Games were British too...