It is fitting that we should celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1908 Olympic Games just as George Bush is preparing to leave the world stage accompanied by General Loathing. For the third Olympiad, held in London after Italy had to pull out, was characterised by a virulent hatred of the Americans. So it's hardly surprising to discover that the Games were funded by 'Daily Mail' readers after Britain stepped in to stage the event when Mount Vesuvius erupted.
As '1908: The First True Olympics' (BBC4, Tuesday) revealed, this was the first time that teams competed as nations, and the first time that they paraded their flags. But alas, in the White City stadium, someone forgot to put the US flag up. Not a great start, then. Whether that was deliberate or not, Ralph Rose refused to dip the Stars and Stripes as he walked past King Edward VII, causing a diplomatic incident that reverberates today. The star-spangled banner has never been dipped since then, under any circumstances.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the starting pistol for the 100m swimming contest was fired before the American Charles Davids was ready, and when the Liverpool Police team beat the US in the tug of war they were accused of gaining an unfair advantage because they were wearing big hobnail boots while the Americans wore their sneakers.
Then the Scot Wyndham Halswelle was elbowed out of the 400m near the finish line by John Carpenter of the US, and the race was declared void. Carpenter was disqualified and the contest was rescheduled for the next day. But in protest, the other Americans refused to take part, so Halswelle found himself running on his own. That was one gold medal in the bag, but it was all too much for Halswelle, who never raced again.
The final straw came in the marathon, when the Italian Dorando Pietri was helped over the finish line by stewards as America's Johnny Hayes chased him down. Hayes was finally awarded the race, but back in the States the ill-feeling rumbled on, the American Olympic Committee parading a lion in chains.
Pietri was the icon of those Games, and Queen Alexander presented him with a special trophy – the King had by then decided he wouldn't hand out any more medals. But the star of the show was Charles Hefferon of South Africa, who threw away his lead in the marathon by stopping two miles from the finish to drink a glass of champagne with a spectator.
The programme claimed the Olympics became "the most significant peace-building movement in history". The US might not agree, but what do they know about peace? If only they would try a little champagne diplomacy next time they plant their flag in another country.Reuse content