White City Stadium Opens
Britain was given the 1908 Olympics with just two years to organise, the previously selected host Italy having to cry off because of the devastating eruption of Vesuvius in 1906. White City was built in Shepherds Bush in less than two years for about £60,000, with room for more than 90,000 spectators, mostly sitting. The stadium, opened by King Edward VII on July 13, was not only for athletics: rugby, swimming, lacrosse and cycling events were also held there. White City lasted until 1985 – one wonders if the grandiose structures to be put up for London 2012 will fare as well.
This was a proper Olympics, complete with unlikely heroes and true drama. And from the pictures just about all the competitors had huge moustaches – except the women, unlike the situation with many a games in the 1970s and 1980s when some Bulgarian and East German women had fine facial furniture.
There were some intriguing events and innovations for 1908. For the first time athletes had to enter as part of a national team, rather than as individuals. This was the first Games to have gold, silver and bronze medals. The tug-of-war was held, with a team of Liverpool policemen beating the USA, who ingloriously complained the fat Scouse coppers had an advantage because they wore their police boots in the final. The rugby reversed the David and Goliath trend when Australasia beat the British champions Cornwall 32 – 3 to take gold: a whole continent against some blokes from the south west weighed down with pasties hardly seems fair.
The 1908 Olympiad was possibly the only one Jeremy Clarkson would have been interested in, as it is the only Games to have featured motorsport – speedboat racing, in which competitors like the 2nd Duke of Westminster and Baron Howard de Walden competed, obviously picked for their ability.
The Games did not pass without controversy. By sheer chance the best American athletes were drawn against one another in heats time after time. The stadium did not fly flags of various countries, including the USA, possibly as part of the economy measures to ensure no loss was made. If that was the aim, it succeeded. The cost of the whole Olympiad was £15,000, and a profit of more than £6,000 was made, though public apathy ruled for many of the events, and the weather that summer was often foul, indeed the London smog was at times atrocious.
The Americans in retaliation for the perceived slight failed to dip their flag to the royal box during the opening parade, a tradition upheld to this day as they refuse to dip the Stars and Stripes to whichever head of state is presiding at the ceremony. They had other causes to complain, for example in the 400m the winning US runner was judged to have impeded the British finalist, and the race was ordered to be re-run – the three US runners boycotted the re-run, leaving the Briton Halswelle as the only one in the race. He won.
This was the first games at which the Olympic ideal “the most important thing is not to win but to take part” was expressed in a blessing given at St Paul’s by an American bishop. The two most memorable competitors were Dorando Pietri, who helped over the line in the marathon was disqualified but became a hero; and the Swede Oscar Schwahn who won gold in one of the shooting events, aged 60, at that time the oldest gold medallist. He went on to win again 12 years later!
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