Every four years, the Olympic Games bring us an incredible show of athleticism. Yet it’s often overshadowed by political complexities, financial woes, and drug scandals. A reminder that some things never change.
When London hosted its first Olympic Games, a sense of worry and apprehension loomed in the air. It was worsened by relentless rainfall that made it the wettest Olympics ever. Yet amazingly, the games still managed to turn a profit!
Despite the obstacles faced by the 1908 London Olympics, it was a resounding success and set the blueprint for future games. Even more astonishing is that London wasn’t even supposed to host them.
Mount Vesuvius Destroys Italian Olympic Dreams
When Mount Vesuvius erupted on 7th April 1906, not only did it destroy much of Naples, but it also ruined Italy’s chance of hosting the 1908 Olympics. This calamity resulted in a frantic period of negotiation, and London was chosen as the makeshift host.
White City Stadium
The Stadium for the games was built in record time at a cost to the government of about £60,000, a fraction 2012 Olympic Stadium cost (£486m).
The White City Stadium was ‘state of the art’ when built, holding a vast 68,000 spectators. Not far from the 80,000 capacity of the 2012 Olympic Stadium.
White City was seen as a technological marvel; the stadium track was three laps to the mile, a cycle track included, a pool for swimming and diving, and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics positioned at its centre.
The 1908 organising committee showed a cost of just £15,000 (excluding the building of The White City), with over one-third of the cost labelled “entertainment expense”.
Donations and sponsorship were the primary sources of revenue. All a far cry from the 2012 organising committee’s budget of £2.4 billion. This figure was later revised to £3.3 billion. The BBC has reported costs of £9 billion and other sources an astronomical £24 billion.
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Turnover Is Vanity, Profit Is Sanity
Incredibly though, the 1908 Games actually made a profit, and a total value of receipts of £21,377 was reported. In 2012, London made a massive investment of $18 billion and earned only $5.2 billion in return!
We’ve become used to Olympic problems and debate, from terrorism and security issues to failed drug tests and even gender issues. Back in 1908, sportsmanship was the name of the game; but even so, the Games were full of dispute and controversy.
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle Helps Marathon Runner Finish Race
This was the games where marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, staggered into the stadium. He took a wrong turn, collapsed, and was helped across the finish line by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Pieti was later disqualified, partly because it came to light he’d been drinking brandy. The gold was instead awarded to America’s Johhny Hayes – but only after fights had broken out.
This was the Games that became known as “The Battle of Shepherds Bush” with the British and Americans in continual disagreement.
American Olympic team refuses to dip the Stars & Stripes
This culminated when the U.S. delegation noticed no American flag flying in the stadium. In response, U.S. flag bearer Martin Sheridan refused to dip the Stars and Stripes when he passed King Edward VII’s box during the opening parade. A tradition that American athletes keep to this day.
For the first time, competitors were required to be registered with their Olympic Association and entered as a member of a national team.
Ireland’s First Olympic Medals
What constituted a national team was difficult to define though, and even Britain seemed confused by its identity. Fearing an Irish boycott, the authorities changed the name of the British team to Great Britain/Ireland.
In two sports, field hockey and polo, Ireland participated as a separate country for the first time, winning medals in both.
Qualifying standards were laid down for the first time, and most competing nations agreed upon a set of rules for each sport.
Going for Gold
Despite this, there was still controversy surrounding the 400-meter final heat. With only four runners in the field, the British accused American J.C. Carpenter of blocking and elbowing British runner Halswelle.
The race was ordered to be rerun, but since all three American runners refused to redo the race, Halswelle ran the race on his own. he went on to win gold, obviously.
Incident after incident ensued. The steep-sided cycling track annoyed the French and Canadians, the refereeing in the wrestling made Sweden angry, and in another alcohol-related argument, Canadian marathon runner, Tom Longboat, collapsed after 19 miles, possibly as a result of the champagne his assistants gave him as he ran.
Canadians alleged he was drugged, Britons declared him inebriated, and Americans joined the chorus of complaints.
First Olympic Opening Ceremony
Despite this, the 1908 Games were much better organized than the previous Olympics and the first to have an opening ceremony.
Danny Boyle’s 2012 celebration of Great Britain is arguably one of the most entertaining opening ceremonies ever. The controversial extravaganza is rumoured to have cost a cool £25m.
Back in 1908, the opening ceremony cost almost nothing, consisting of athletes marching into the stadium behind their nations’ flags. The flags were brought from their home countries.
Only Finland marched without a flag as they refused to march under the Russian flag as required by the Tsar.
Approximately 2,000 athletes participated in 1908, representing 22 countries. In 2012 there were 5 times as many participants and almost 10 times as many participating countries.
The 2012 games had 26 sports represented. In 1908 almost as many sports were represented with 22 different categories.
Many of the sports were representative of the times. Women’s Boxing and BMX are representative of 21st-century sports. Back in 1908, sports included: The Tug Of War, Tandem Cycle Racing, Bicycle Polo, and an International Fly Fishing contest was held in the Olympic pool.
The sports gear worn by athletes was also very different. Of course, there were no man-made fabrics, so no Lycra. Natural rubber, leather, and canvas were the order of the day. And, of course, modesty and propriety were paramount, so no revealing costumes.
Men played tennis in long white flannels, swam in one-piece coverall costumes, and marathon runners ran in sturdy leather boots.
1908 was no different in most ways from today’s Games. It may have taken six months to complete fully, and there may have been no China, South Korea, or any of the African nations to beat.
But it was a success; it did make a profit, and it became the Games that laid the foundation of the Olympics as we know them today.