1908 Olympics: A London Tussle

The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well…” Baron Pierre de Coubertin

1908 Great Britain Olympics Flag

The 1908 Olympics Games were in London (April 27-October 31), the result of Italy withdrawing their support of the games. They had good reasons.

Rome was the chosen city for the 1908 Games, but Mother Nature had other plans.  Mount Vesuvius erupted from April 4 to the 21st, 1906 which caused widespread damage and death to Naples and surrounding villages and towns.  Thousands were left homeless, and the whole area was like a desert.

Baron de Coubertin and the Italian government decided that Italy was not emotionally or financially able to host the games in Rome.  Baron Desborough of Taplow in Buchinghamshire (William Henry Grenfell) jumped at the opportunity and accepted the challenge of hosting the games in London.

1908 Olympics Parade of Nations

However, the 1908 Games were contentious.  For example: Ireland boycotted the Games; China and Japan did not send athletes to the games but their flags were flown at the opening ceremonies.  The flags of Sweden and the USA who had athletes there were not flown.

So began the controversy between the USA team and Great Britain. The saga was played out in the British and American press as the countries dredged up old animosities.  The deep respect and mutual regard the two nations would share was years away, down the war-torn roads.

Pietri struggled to his feet and staggered to the tape in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes 46.4 seconds. Shortly afterwards, the American Johnny Hayes reached the finish without assistance in 2 hours 55 minutes 18.4 seconds. An official objection from the US team was eventually upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

All the refereeing back then was done by the host country.  This would be changed in years to come.

Overall Great Britain won 146 medals (56-51-39) vs. the USA’s 47 (23-12-12).  Sweden came in third with 25 (8-6-11).

The firsts of the 1908 Games were a stadium; a swimming pool; the “Olympic relay”; the parade of nations; and the marathon was standardized. 2008 athletes attended (1,971 men and 37 women).

In many ways, the 1908 Olympics were a turning point for the games.  Of course the first half of the century would bring many disruptions and two World Wars.

May the 2012 London Games be ones of exhilaration and sportsmanship. Let’s see if the host country can bring home the gold like they did in 1908 without the controversy and hysterics.

G. D. Williams       © 2012


1908, 1948 and 2012 Chart