The 1908 gold rush

The GB gold tally in the Beijing Olympics currently stands at 19, an excellent achievement by any standard, and there have been some memorable performances.

However, the highest number of gold medals ever achieved by Great Britain during a Summer Olympics, and a total which is unlikely ever to be surpassed, is a staggering 56!

In addition, Great Britain also collected 51 silver and 39 bronze medals, making 146 in total. The next closest nation, America, collected a total of 47 medals, made up of 23 gold, 12 silver and 12 bronze.

This was back in London in 1908.

The 1908 Games were initially supposed to be held in Rome, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius intervened and the Italians were forced to divert their finances to the reconstruction of Naples and a new venue had to be found.

London was chosen and the speedily built White City Stadium was, at the time, considered something of a technological marvel. The stadium held 68,000 people, had a pool in the middle for the swimming and diving competitions, and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics. The running track was not the standard 400 metres we see today but was three laps equalling one mile.

  • Beijing 2008 features 10,500 athletes from 203 National Olympic Committees competing in 302 events in 28 sports.
  • London 1908 featured 2,008 athletes from 22 National Olympic Committees competing in 110 events in 24 sporting disciplines.

The first thing to note here is that, in Beijing, 203 ‘nations’ are competing when the United Nations only has 193 members. This is due to the fact that the IOC is a little less strict on the criteria governing what exactly constitutes political sovereignty and several territories which, strictly speaking, are part of another nation, are allowed to compete. These include the likes of Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Marshall Islands.

  • In Beijing, cyclist Chris Hoy picked up three gold medals, the first Briton to achieve this feat since swimmer Henry Taylor….in 1908.

The 1908 games were not without their controversy, both political and on the track, and the games saw an end to the system whereby judges in competitions were exclusively from the home nation.

They also led to the establishment of standard rules for sports. Previously, rules did vary from one country to another and judgements in disputes could become quite contentious. And did.

‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part…..’ is quite a common phrase in Britain and one that is often thrown back in people’s faces as being an excuse for not winning.

The official motto of the Olympic Games is the Latin phrase ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’, meaning ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ and is meant to indicate that being first is not necessarily a priority or a necessity, but that giving of one’s best is a worthwhile goal.

The motto was proposed by IOC President Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 when the modern games began and was a phrase he borrowed from a friend of his, Henri Didon, a Dominican priest who taught sports to children.

De Coubertin was also responsible for the introduction of the Olympic Creed during the 1908 Games, this being:

‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’

The shortened

L’important n’est pas de gagner, mais de participer.

The important thing is not to win, but to take part.

became a familiar French maxim.

Obviously not a man for original thought as he also borrowed this motto. It was part of a sermon by the Bishop of Pennsylvania.

The 1908 Olympics were also the start of the modern marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (42km and 195m) and this became the official distance in 1924.

The original marathon distance was 25 miles. It was changed to 26 miles so the race could start at Windsor Castle. It was then changed again when Princess Mary asked for the start to be under the window of the Royal Nursery. But we’re still not there yet!

At the start of the Games, two flags had, inadvertently, not been displayed above the stadium, these were the Swedish and the American.

The Swedish athletes retaliated by not participating in the opening parade. The Americans, or their flag bearer to be more precise, refused to dip the flag in front of the Royal Box. The American captain, Martin Sheridan, later justified the action by saying, “This flag dips to no earthly king”.

Since that time, although the dipping of the flag to a head of state is a recognised international custom or protocol, the American flag bearers have never done so.

Anyway, back to the plot. British officials, in what one would probably describe as a bit of ‘get your own back’, decided to ensure that the race finished in front of the King (Edward VII) and so they moved the finish line!

And that’s how we ended up with the current marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards.

The marathon itself was quite a memorable event, or at least the finish was.

Italian Dorando Pietri was the first to enter the stadium at the end of the marathon, but it was fairly obvious that something was wrong. Dazed and confused, the guy seemed to have no idea of what was going on and headed in the wrong direction and collapsed several times. Officials rushed to help him and, getting him to his feet, they guided him to the finish line in first position.

Oops. Once over the finish line, he was disqualified for receiving outside assistance. He did however become quite famous as a result of his efforts and the next day, Queen Alexandra awarded him a gold cup.

Incidentally, since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896, only two countries have ever achieved a higher gold medal tally. These were America in 1904 (79) and the Soviet Union in 1980 (80). On both occasions, the host nation was helped by mass absenteeism.

Now, if they were to introduce more cycling, sailing and rowing events into the 2012 Games in London…..who knows?

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