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August 12, 2008

Hosting the Olympics on the cheap: Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games - Graeme Kent

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games
by Graeme Kent
London: JR Books, 2008
Hardback, 14.99

Of all the many challenges facing the new Mayor of London Boris Johnson perhaps the trickiest will be to get some kind of grip on the cost of the Olympic Games.

It was all very different a century ago when London was hosting them. The 1908 Olympics were held at White City in west London. The project was completed in just two years as it had been due to take place in Rome but the Italians abandoned it after Mount Vesuvius erupted. Cost to the taxpayer? 60,000. That cost was for the construction of the White City Stadium which lasted many years. It provided the scene for the closing climax in the 1950 film The Blue Lamp. The Stadium was eventually demolished in 1985.

Aside from that item the games made a profit. The costs were 15,000 with revenues of 21,377. Rather than some multi million pound Quango an eccentric aristocrat called Lord Desborough set up a committee of those with the same amateur credentials as the sportsmen they were preparing to welcome. Lord Desborough had earlier proved his own athletic credentials in Egypt when he was chased by a group of dervishes and made it back to British lines without dropping his umbrella.

This volume may be called Olympic Follies. But at least the folly was within budget.

The failure to include flags for all the participating nations - including the United States - did prompt some ill feeling. When the American team was presented to King Edward their shot putter Ralph Rose - who was carrying their team's flag - did not lower it. Fellow team member Martin Sheridan, a hammer thrower, declared:

This flag dips to no earthly king.
Certainly the games were not quite the diplomatic success of 1948 when we next hosted the games. Perhaps the failure to include the American flag was an economy drive too far.

Nor was this the only dispute with the Americans. In the Tug of War they complained that the British team - consisting of policemen from Liverpool - had an unfair advantage because they were wearing their normal working boots. What a pity that Tug of War is no longer an Olympic sport.

Then there was a race which was abandoned after the (British) judges cried: "Foul". The British competitor Wyndham Hallswelle had his path blocked by the Americans John Carpenter and William Robbins who were running shoulder to shoulder. The race was then rerun with the Americans refusing to take part. "Hallswelle that Ends Well" ran the newspaper reports of his victory.

It wasn't just the organisers who did it on the cheap. The Australians and the New Zealanders pooled resources to provide a combined Australasian team - not something I would envisage when they return here in 2012. Their combined Olympic Committee told athletes that so long as they could obtain a:

decent standard in their sport preference would be given to those who could pay their own fares to Britain or who were already living in that country.
The frugality of the Australasians was emphasised in the opening ceremony. Kent writes:
Some much-needed light relief was provided by the appearance of the Australasian team in the line-up. The 27 Australians and three New Zealanders marched behind their flag bearer, the New Zealander Henry St Aubyn Murray. He had already won the New Zealand 440 yards hurdles championship on three occasions and was to do so twice more. While most of the other teams were wearing well-cut athletic uniforms, the completely unsubsidised Australasians looked more like a rag-tag-and-bob tail outfit. Efforts had been made to supply a uniform for the occasion but obviously the clothing ordered had not reached the athletes from the tailors. Some contestants were wearing t-shirts and shorts, while others were in swimming costumes. Most were wearing ill fitting green caps. One newspaper account described them as looking "impoverished".
This account ends poignantly. Just six years later the First World War broke out. Many of the athletes taking part in the Games fought bravely. Charles Crichton, a gold medal winning yachtsman, received the DSO for gallantry. Polo player Lord Wodehouse was a captain with the 16th Lancers and was mentioned in dispatches. The world's best tennis player at the time, New Zealander Anthony Wilding, was killed serving in France. Wyndham Halswelle was shot by a sniper on the front line. A reminder to the alternative to national rivalries being resolved in sporting arenas.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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