Book Review: The First London Olympics 1908

By Lindsey Last edited 126 months ago
Book Review: The First London Olympics 1908

Olympic enthusiasts, not only will this book make a pleasant change from following news on Beijing medal hopes, London's dubious Olympic legacy and building sites but it will restore your faith in Olympic spirit and the capacity of countries to fall out over officials' decisions. Oh yes, then as now, the Olympics caused international controversy.

Bringing the Games to London with just 2 years preparation, is presented as a feat of derring-do by one proper English toff, Lord Desborough, who cut a dashing figure fencing in the Athenian Olympics and was inspired by the Olympic spirit of amateur sportsmanship. The Franco-British exhibition was in the offing back home and Desborough hooked up with Imre Karalfy, the master of spectacle who created the ‘White City’ for it (on today’s modern BBC site) and it became the Olympic venue.

The Games were vastly smaller back in those days with far fewer countries participating and fewer events, some of which are no longer contested, such as the standing high and long jumps and bicycle polo.

Reassuringly, even then the organisers were beset with problems. The weather was very bad when the Games began, ticket prices were too high and the British public didn’t seem too bothered about the Games. One magazine reported that “the chief thing that will be remembered in connection with the Olympic Games of 1908 after they are over will be that are over”.

As for controversy, Team America didn’t like the English tug of war team - a bunch of policemen - pulling in their old police boots (NB the Americans were trounced). Neither did they like the way their best runners were pitted against each other in heats (by the luck of the draw). Britain’s reputation for fair play was severely knocked by the outraged US press. There was even furore about which country actually won overall, as a scoring system had not been jointly agreed.

The highlight was the now legendary Marathon run from Windsor Castle back to White City (the first time it was 26 miles 385 yards so the young princes could see, allegedly). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Games enthusiast, reported on the event as updates were telephoned to the expectant stadium. It was a dramatic race with many dropping out and many changes of lead. The final stretch was legendary though, with a plucky Italian - Dorando Pietri - staggering into the Stadium only to collapse just short of the finishing line. He was helped across the line by stewards, with an American coming in 2nd. But of course, there was uproar and the Italian’s win was then revoked in favour of the US athlete. But of course, Britain loves an underdog and the Italian was universally acclaimed as a symbol of man’s struggle and spirit and became a minor celebrity for a time, even meeting the Queen who presented him with a special cup (for trying?)

In the lead up to the £93bn beast of 2012 this book tells the story of a very traditionally British Games, from another time, where the plucky underdog is venerated far more than the rigorously trained and prepared (American) athlete. Complete with charming photos, anecdotes and press reports this is a gentle, accessible and interesting read.

The First London Olympics 1908 by Rebecca Jenkins is published on 26 June by Piatkus, priced £16.99.

Last Updated 12 June 2008