Drama and Tension at the London Olympics 1908

by JoHarrington

It's been called the first 'true' Olympic Games. But the 1908 event in London is known more for its controversies than its sporting achievements.

The 1908 Summer Olympics were never going to be held in London. Italy had been selected and was preparing with all of the rigmarole that accompanies such an international event.

Then Mount Vesuvius erupted practically destroying the city of Naples. This was the same infamous volcano which had once buried Pompeii.

In 1906, more lava was seen than in any previous explosion. Over 200 people died in its path; and many more became refugees, fleeing the leveling of their towns and villages. Italy could not cope with an Olympic games in the wake of that.

The event's relocation to England was to result in a new standard for the distance of the marathon.

But for contemporary Londoners, a different race was on. Could they build a stadium fit to welcome the world's top class athletes in time?

Print of Mount Vesuvius Erupting in 1906

Building London's White City Stadium

Now a distinct suburb of England's capital, White City didn't even exist until the rush to host the 1908 Olympic Games!

Head west out of London, past Kensington Gardens and the magnificent palace, and over the brow of Notting Hill. You will arrive in Shepherd's Bush.

In the 19th century, this had still been largely rural, and the area to the north was still farmland and fields in 1906. Now the sudden surge of people moving into the capital had seen houses spreading out and engulfing the countryside.

Shepherd's Bush itself was residential now, but its population could still stroll out over green pastures. Study a Victorian map and everything along Wood Lane ended in the word 'farm'. Eynham Farm, Wood Lane Farm, Holt Farm. They were all about to disappear forever.

As Vesuvius erupted in distant Naples, it wasn't just Italian buildings that would end up leveled. Indirectly it would lead to these farmhouses being bulldozed too.

London's volunteer planners needed the land for the White City Stadium. They were about to host the 1908 Summer Olympics!

It was all hands on deck, working around the clock to get that arena finished in time. White City rose from the farmland within a mere ten months. It had the capacity to accommodate 150,000 spectators, as well as the tracks, pitches and courts needed to host the games itself. The whole endeavor cost £80,000 to complete.

None of this was government money though. The whole thing was funded, built and organized by private individuals. Moreover, it was the first time that a stadium had been constructed especially for the Olympic Games; and that changed everything.

Books about the London Olympics 1908

Learn more about this remarkable event by dipping into these testimonies to it all.

Trouble with Sweden and America Over a Flag Oversight

All of the competing nations flags' were proudly displaying in the Stadium; except for two...

The Stars and Stripes was missing from the mass of flags flying around White City. No-one claimed responsibility for that. The official response was that the absence of the American colors was an 'unfortunate accident'.

The furious US team didn't see it at all like that. For them the explanation was simple - it was a deliberate snub. But then they had one of their own.

As the Americans passed the Royal Box, during the Opening Ceremony, they refused to dip their flag. Every other country had done it. It was a mark of respect towards Britain and King Edward VII. But the US athletes were fiercely nationalistic and there was more than the usual reason for this too.

With one or two notable exceptions, the Americans were all Irish New Yorkers. Some were the sons or grandsons of immigrants, while others had left Ireland in their youth to try their luck in the New World.

It wasn't just American pride at stake here. The Irish New Yorkers were ready to wipe the British oppressors' noses in their own pomp and circumstance. For not only had the Stars and Stripes been omitted, but the athletes representing Ireland had been forced to march behind a Union Jack.

The clashes between the US team and the British Olympic officials became the hallmark of the whole event.

Meanwhile, the Swedish flag was also missing. The Swedes refused to participate in the Opening Ceremony accordingly, though they did compete in the actual games.

Books Chronicling the Drama and Intrigue of the 1908 Olympics

The incidents became legendary. There was enough here to keep the Edwardian gossip-mongers going for months!

A US Boycott and the Walkover 400 Meters

Xenophobia and racism played their parts in one of the most controversial Olympic 400 meters races ever held.

Nowhere was the clash between Irish-Americans and the British more apparent than in the 400 meters race. There were only four participants in this - an upper crust Englishman and three US athletes.

For days, leading up to it, the British press had whipped the public up into a frenzy of anti-American feeling. Newspaper journalists proclaimed that the Americans would cheat, ganging up on England's Wyndham Halswelle, blocking his progress or elbowing him as they ran.

By the time the four runners lined up at the starting block, the whole stadium crowd was hostile with all eyes watching for unsporting behavior. Worst still, Britain's Olympic officials seemed to have bought into all of the hype. Wardens were positioned at regular intervals all along the track. They were openly there to scrutinize the Americans during the race.

All was tense but well until close to the finishing line. John Carpenter, an American athlete, ran wide before Halswelle. It was a tactic which was legal under US rules, but not British Olympic standards.

Halswelle reared backwards. A warden screamed 'foul' and declared that he'd seen elbows being used. Carpenter denied it (and later, during the inquiry, Halswelle confirmed the American's innocence). But the ribbon was pulled back before anyone could run through it.

Officials stormed onto the track, but it wasn't Carpenter who was man-handled from it. It was another of the US athletes, John Baxter Taylor Jr, who was grabbed. He was one of the earliest black people to represent America on the international stage.

Racism had meant that he'd received more than his fair share of elbows in the past, so it was his wont to lag behind during the race, then win with a sudden spurt of speed at the end. Slightly behind his countrymen, he was an easy target for the British umpires, who dragged him off.

The third American athlete, William Robbins, witnessed it all and stopped running in pure indignation. He protested there on the track, but to no avail. The 400 meters race had been declared void.

None of the three US entrants were allowed into the inquiry, though Halswelle was allowed to give evidence. It was ruled that the race would begin again, but with Carpenter disqualified. Taylor and Robbins both refused point blank to run without him, but the boycott did not move the officials.

Only Halswelle arrived at the starting line for the official 400 meters. He ran it alone and took the medal for the United Kingdom.  The British press recorded the incident as only right and proper. The American press naturally took the opposite view.

As a result of the debacle of this particular race, all future ones were held with lanes painted onto the track.

The Story of John Baxter Taylor Jr - American Athlete

Representing the USA, as an African-American, in 1908 took a certain kind of tenacity and talent. Taylor had it all.
The Olympian: An American Triumph

I dare greatly, and I shall live my life as no ordinary man bound by a game of chance. -John Baxter Taylor Jr. Running is his sacred ritual. As his legs gracefully carry him aro...

View on Amazon

An Historic Marathon at the 1908 Olympics

A standard was set and the world fell in love with Dorando Pietri.

The distance between Windsor Castle and the track finishing line at White City Stadium was exactly 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195km) long.

Sound familiar? It should, because that has been the length of every marathon held ever since, regardless of where it is in the world.

The 1908 Olympic Games set that standard.

Everyone loves the underdog and, in this particular race, Dorando Pietri was it. The exhaustion told in every sinew of his body, but the Italian kept on running. Sweat poured and his breathing ran ragged, but Pietri would not stop.

He had started off quite slowly, but halfway through had seemed to come from nowhere to surge ahead.

By the time the Italian reached White City Stadium, he was now in first place. But then, disaster.

Pietri took the wrong path and the umpires had to intervene to set him right. He stumbled forward, but dehydration was taking hold in an unseasonably hot English afternoon. He fell flat onto the track, in front of 75,000 onlookers.

A gasp came from the crowd, willing him up, but he was struggling. He was trying hard to get to his feet, but heat had him reeling. Umpires rushed forward to help him up. Once standing, Pietri refused to be led away, he carried on running again.

It took an agonizing ten minutes for him to reach the finish line, which was only 2km away. He fell another four times. Each time he was helped up again by umpires; and each time he kept right on running.

To uproar and cheers, Dorando Pietri staggered over the finishing line to secure the gold medal for his beleaguered country. They may have lost the whole games to a volcano, but they had this achievement in the marathon!

Dorando's Run

Unfortunately, it wasn't to last long. The American team complained, because Pietri had been picked up off the floor five times. The Olympic Committee agreed and stripped the Italian of his medal.

This was not a crowd-pleaser. Queen Alexandra herself gave a gilded gold cup to the Italian athlete in compensation. The royal lady didn't have to speak her opinion of the decision more eloquently than that.

Meanwhile Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in the Daily Mail, 'The Italian's great performance can never be effaced from our record of sport, be the decision of the judges what it may.'

He organized a collection, so that the general public could donate money to Pietri, in appreciation of his effects. It raised the then princely sum of £300, enough for him to open a bakery back home.

All of this detracted completely from the official marathon winner, the American Johnny Hayes. This poverty-stricken New Yorker couldn't even afford running shoes. He'd trained by racing bare-foot through his native city streets.

But by then nobody cared, all hearts had been won by Pietri.

Olympic Game: The Story of The Great Dorando and The Great Pretender

The Italian always dreamed about the Olympics. He hungered for his fifteen minutes of fame. He dreamed of riches, gold but most of all the headlines and the glory that went with...

View on Amazon

Drama-Documentary: 1908 Olympics - London

This BBC 4 programme brings to life the story behind the infamous Olympic Games of 1908.

London Olympics 1908 Memorabilia on eBay

Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
JoHarrington on 05/20/2012

I've just come back from Dorset. Some of the boating events are happening down Weymouth. There are so many new roads built or being built down there!

Should be exciting. :)

hollyhewitt on 05/17/2012

i can't wait for the London 2012 Olympics

JoHarrington on 05/08/2012

I don't know. The soap opera sounded quite interesting too!

EMK Events Ltd on 05/08/2012

Let's hope that this year's Olympic Games is a bit more about the sport!

JoHarrington on 04/22/2012

He became a massive celebrity afterwards, even in America. He went from this little village in Italy to being invited to all these high society parties on both sides of the Atlantic. He even competed in more marathons in the US, but not with this kind of drama. :)

kate on 04/22/2012

I don't know if Pietri should be praised or certified.

You might also like

Women and Children First? Titanic and the Suffragettes

Votes for Women or boats for women? In 1912, the press pushed to make it eith...

The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic

On April 15th 1912, RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The story has fas...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...