London 1908: Drugs, discord, cheating, boycotts...... and 56 gold medals for Britain

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THE LONDON Olympics of 1908 may be remembered as the most medal-strewn in British history, but the Games only ended up in Blighty a century ago after the original host city of Rome withdrew following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906.

The Italians didn't have a monopoly on misery, however, and once the London Games began, a rash of natural disasters in the form of torrential rain followed by a heatwave were supplemented by a seemingly endless succession of man-made controversies. Drugs, discord, cheating, disqualifications, boycotts, wrangles over cost overrun and the most serious diplomatic sporting spat until Bodyline. The 1908 London Olympics had it all.

The main cause of the endless niggle at the Games was the decision for athletes to compete as national teams rather than as individuals. The potential for problems was apparent at the opening ceremony. The Finns, at that stage ruled by Czarist Russia, were forced to march behind the Russian flag and refused. As did several Irish athletes who preferred to withdraw rather than compete under the GB banner.

But it was the Americans who were at the epicentre of almost all the Games' flashpoints. The rancour started early when the Americans were incensed that the Stars and Stripes wasn't flying over the 68,000-seater White City stadium. During the opening ceremony, US discus thrower Martin Sheridan protested by refusing to dip the American flag before the Royal box. It was a breach of protocol which presaged much of what was to come.

Split into national teams, patriotic rivalries were unleashed, and no battle was fiercer than that between the Brits and Americans. The British comfortably topped the medals table with 115 medals (56 golds, 50 silvers and 39 bronzes) to America's 47 (23 golds, 12 silvers and 12 bronzes), but the Americans believed that the haughty British officials were so biased that their conduct amounted to cheating.

"They (the officials] were unfair to every athlete except the British but their real aim was to beat the Americans," said the head of the US team, James Sullivan. "Their conduct was cruel and unsportsmanlike and absolutely unfair."

The British organisers, drawn largely from the stentorian officials of the All-England Club at Wimbledon, the Henley rowing regatta, the Cowes sailing regatta and the AAA championships, were in no mood to ignore the bitter slurs and produced a book Replies to the Criticism of the Olympic Games, a pompously feisty document which caused the cessation of sporting contact between the two countries.

There were several significant controversies pitting the Americans against their hosts. The first was the tug-of-war, in which the Americans first complained that the British were wearing illegal heavy boots and then withdrew when it emerged that one British competitor was wearing spikes. The three British teams, which were all police teams that had been practising together for five months, took gold, silver and bronze.

The next controversy came when American theology student Forrest Smithson broke the 110m hurdles world record and won gold, but raced while carrying a bible to protest against the staging of the race on a Sunday.

Even the disqualification of stumbling, exhausted Italian Dorando Pietri in the marathon, the event for which the 1908 Olympics are best remembered, was not done to the satisfaction of the Americans. The race had ended with the tiny Italian sprinting a mile and a half into the stadium, not realising he had a lap of the stadium to complete. Utterly exhausted he had to be picked up from the floor of the arena five times by officials, who included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, before limping across the line. Such was the effort that Pietri, who had apparently partaken of the normal marathon runner's pick-me-up of strychnine sulphate mixed with egg white and brandy, almost died and spent five days in bed.

The footage of the race's end, which drew a crowd of 100,000 to the stadium on a scorching hot day after two weeks of rain, are now iconic images. Yet Pietro had undeniably been helped and when the second-placed runner, professional American athlete John Hayes, appealed there could only be one outcome.

The bitterest encounter between the brash Americans and their snooty hosts, however, came when Scotland's Wyndham Halswelle won the re-run 400m final after his three American opponents withdrew. The hollow walkover victory was achieved after JC Carpenter was disqualified from the "original" final for deliberately obstructing the Scot, who had set an Olympic record in the previous round, the American deliberately running across his line on a bend.

In Carpenter's defence, his conduct was fine under US rules, although these differed markedly from the British rules under which events were being run. This led to the formation of the IAAF and the adoption of standard rules for international competition.

In this, as in so many other respects, London, which was effectively the first Games of the modern era, blazed a trail. Neutral officials and national teams originated in 1908, and London was the first Games at which gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded.

It was also the first time a black competitor, John Taylor of the US relay team, won a medal, and the first in which women were permitted to compete.

As well as a 1-2-3 in tug-of-war, the British also won gold, silver and bronze in the polo, and while the US dominated the athletics, their hosts did the same not just in rowing, cycling, sailing, shooting and boxing, but also in the more ethereal of the 23 events on offer. These included such gems as jeu de palme, lacrosse, motor boating, rackets and rugby. They even won the Games' only demonstration sport, an Irish team competing under the GB banner beating the Germans 3-1 in the final of the bicycle polo.


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