On budget but five months long: the first London Games

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One hundred years ago this weekend, one of the longest and most celebrated sporting events in history began in west London.

Despite the current obsession with all things Olympian, there is nothing planned to mark the anniversary of the 1908 Games. But the events that gripped Edwardian London that summer marked the year the modern Olympic movement matured into an international phenomenon.

Lasting five months, the Games were the longest in history, but it was an Olympiad London was never meant to have. The event had been awarded to Rome but, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted, killing more than 100 people and badly damaging Naples. Italian funds were diverted to the rescue effort and London was tasked with holding the Games instead. Organisers had just 24 months to put everything together.

A grand opening ceremony at White City Stadium was followed by a simple game of rackets. Athletes from across the white industrialised world (no African or Asian nations were invited) participated in 110 events in 21 sporting disciplines. More than 2,000 competitors, including 37 women, from 22 countries travelled to the capital of the most powerful empire in the world to take part.

In four years time, 14,500 athletes will return to London to participate in 29 sports and 39 disciplines, accompanied by 20,000 members of the media and 31,500 sponsors and their guests. Spectators will be able to buy about 9.2 million tickets for an event that is likely to cost at least £9bn – but probably much more.

The Games of the IV Olympiad, as the 1908 Olympics were billed, cost just £80,000. The stadium cost £60,000, while the rest went on staging the events. Most of the money came from donations.

Although the costs were under control, London's first Games did not pass without scandal. Until 1908, the marathon course had always been 25 miles long, but it grew to 26 miles and 365 yards thanks to Royal Family. At Windsor, where the race began, the Princess of Wales insisted on adding a mile so that her children could watch from a balcony. And at White City, Queen Alexandra was not content until she had the best view of the race, which forced organisers to extend the course again by another 365 yards. The length remains the same to this day.

At 5.17pm on a blisteringly hot afternoon in July, Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri limped into the stadium. He had just 350 metres to complete but was so exhausted that he ended up running the wrong way round the track. Stewards turned the 22-year-old around but were forced to come to his aid again after Pietri collapsed. When he finally crossed the finishing line 10 minutes later, the crowd erupted in a deafening roar. The stadium that day was packed – 75,000 people had crammed in to see the finish of the race, well beyond the stadium's official capacity. Not that that helped Pietri win gold.

Despite his efforts, the Italian was disqualified after the American team complained he had been unfairly helped over the line. First place instead went to New Yorker Johnny Hayes.

The Games created many unlikely heroes. British archers William and Charlotte Dod, who claimed their ancestors fought at Agincourt, became the first brother and sister medallists, while Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who liked to wear a top hat and heavy overcoat, won two golds at the grand age of 60.

While there was no torch relay, the opening ceremony was a contentious affair. The Finns, incensed that they should have to march under the flag of Tsarist Russia, refused to carry any banner, while the Americans failed to dip the Stars and Stripes as it passed the royal box. Team captain Martin Sheridan explained at the time: "This flag dips to no earthly king". Controversy, it seems, goes with the territory of the modern Olympic Games.

Comments