100 years since the first London Olympics

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 27 April 2008

Earlier this week I wrote a post on the anniversary of the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens. We are used to the Summer Olympics being held later in the year nowadays, but April used to be the chosen month to get the games underway. Today is the centenary anniversary of the first time that London held the games.

1908 Medal  and Diploma

Following the first three modern Olympiads in Athens, Paris and St. Louis, the 1908 Olympic Games were scheduled to be held in Rome. However, Italian preparations for hosting the event were ended when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, and London was asked to step in. A new stadium was built in the White City area, and the IVth Olympiad got underway on April 27th, 1908.

1908 Postcard of the White City Stadium

1908 White City Stadium Complex

I mentioned that many of the ideas first used in the 1906 games were adopted in 1908. This included the idea of an opening ceremony, where teams marched into the arena behind their national flags. This didn't pass without incident, starting a long tradition of national and political difficulties at Olympic Games. The Finnish team refused to march behind the Russian flag as had been expected, and the Swedish team refused to take part because they noticed that their flag was missing from those flown around the stadium.

1908 Olympic Crowd

The USA team were also involved in a flag controversy. Also upset that their flag was not flying around the stadium, they refused to dip their flag to the King as they paraded past. This has become a tradition amongst American athletes, and is now seen as a matter of principled pride about the status of the Stars'n'Stripes, rather than the result of a one-off fit of pique.

One aspect that wasn't carried over from 1906 was the length of the games. The Intercalated Games had lasted just over a couple of weeks, but the 1908 London Olympics stretched from April 27th until October 31st, featuring over 2,000 athletes in 22 sports.

1908 Womens Archery

Like Athens 1906, the football tournament was again idiosyncratic to say the least, although this time it was part of an 'official' Olympic Games. France were allowed to field two teams, and the slightly odd numbers were made up by Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, and England. Teams from Hungary and Bohemia withdrew, meaning the Netherlands were given a bye directly through to the semi-final stage. England took the gold medal with a 2-0 victory over Denmark in the final. This was a rather more sedate affair than the 17-1 semi-final win that the Danes had enjoyed against one of the French teams, with Sophus Nielsen scoring a mere ten goals in the process.

1908 Aerial View of the stadium

The White City Stadium was also used during the 1966 World Cup, hosting the game between France and Uruguay. All of the other Group 1 matches were held at the Empire Stadium, Wembley. The move to White City was made, as bizarre as it seems today, because it clashed with Wembley's regular greyhound racing night, and the stadium didn't want to cancel that!

The Olympic Stadium was demolished in the 1980s, to make way for a new BBC office building, just down the road from the iconic 1960's era BBC Television Centre. More buildings were added to the office complex in the 2000s, and for a few months I worked on the site of the 1908 Olympic Games.

The BBC building has a plaque listing the medal table from the games on the side of it, and this was unveiled in May 2005 by BBC Director General Mark Thompson and President of the IOC Jacques Rogge.

Olympic Display on the side of the BBC's Broadcast Centre building

The plaque covered up by an olympic themed flag    Mark Thompson and Jacques Rogge pose for photographs in front of the BBC Broadcast Centre's Olympic plaque

1 Comment

Diamond Geezer also had his own take on the anniversary which mentioned some of the *cough* idiosyncratic judgments by the British organisers...

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