The First London Olympics

‘The First London Olympics’ by Rebecca Jenkins; Piatkus, 2008. 278pp

Reviewed by Alison Walker | May 2012

This book is a straight history of the fourth modern Olympic Games, held at White City in 1908. It starts with a description of how London was chosen for the games, and the men who were the main organisers, Lord Desborough, a typical English sporting aristocrat, and Imre Kiralfy, a Hungarian who had made a fortune as an impresario in America. Kiralfy offered to build an athletics stadium as a side-show to the Anglo-French exhibition he was putting on as a commercial venture. The second chapter of the book describes the exhibition, which sounds like a lot of fun. I would particularly like to have seen the “thrice-daily production ‘Our Indian Empire’, with its realistic tiger hunt during which a dozen fully grown elephants and their riders slid down a 40-foot precipice into a lake”. What a contrast with the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was serious and educational. Times had changed from the earnest improving mid-Victorian period to the frivolous Edwardian period. But the main focus of the book is on the games. And how different they were from the games we expect this summer.

In 1908 there were far fewer events, athletes, and countries participating than in the modern games. Only 55 runners and 14 countries took part in the marathon; UK, Canada, US, Australia, Bohemia, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Russia, Greece, S. Africa, Sweden. (As Jenkins says, there were no ethnic Africans, Orientals, Asians or Arabs taking part in the games.) In 2012 according to the website, there will be 39 “disciplines” (for example, badminton, basketball, beach volleyball, boxing) and in athletics alone there will be 47 medal events and 2000 athletes will take part, from virtually every country in the world. Although even 1908 showed up the arbitrariness of defining the countries of the world; an Estonian competed in the marathon, but representing Russia.

In 1908 the marathon was seen as the ultimate championship of Olympic endurance, whereas now it’s a popular entertainment and charity fund-raiser, including people who complete the course in cartoon character suits.

Unlike in 2012, archery in 1908 was the only sport with female competitors. Presumably the reason that archery was thought suitable for women was that it did not conflict with a traditional view of womanhood; no danger of having to make violent movements, getting hot or sweaty, or disarranging one’s hair.

In 1908 there were no drug tests (though there were some suspicions that one marathon competitor had taken strychnine), and hardly any commercial sponsors (though Oxo provided free refreshments to runners). So in many ways the 1908 games were very unlike the modern games, yet they posed some dilemmas which still occur today.

Jenkins particularly focuses on the question; How do you define fair play? In 1908 this was especially a source of dispute between the English and the Americans. The Americans were touchy, one can understand that they felt that traditional aristocrats like Lord Desborough were looking down at them. They protested that they had been discriminated against in disputes over footwear in the tug-of-war and barging in the 400 metres.

Jenkins describes (p185) “the division between American and English concepts of sportsmanship. According to the code of the Edwardian sporting gentleman, a true amateur should never seek to gain any advantage over an opponent that he would not expect his opponent to take over him.” … whereas “American sporting culture assumed that while it was the referee’s duty to enforce the rules, it was the business of the athlete to press those rules as hard as he could, for to do so was a measure of his winning determination.”  Of course you can define fair play according to a gentleman’s code if the players are all from a small homogenous group, but as soon as people from different backgrounds, cultures and assumptions play, you need rigid written rules.. On p258 Jenkins prints a quote from Vanity Fair UK magazine saying if Britain wished to continue to compete in the Olympics, it was clear that British athletes would have to adapt to American methods and American-style trainers.

A subsidiary question is; The Olympics are for amateur sportsmen but what is an amateur? The OED defines it as “One who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally”. In 1908 there was a row about whether Tom Longboat (a marathon runner) was an amateur. I think it’s telling that we don’t nowadays have these rows. Everyone knows that the competitors work on their sport on a full-time basis, regardless of how they are paid or sponsored.

A question which interests me is this: What makes a sport an Olympic sport ? In the ancient Olympian Games, the events were confined to running, jumping, wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, single horse racing, and running in a full suit of armour. It’s not coincidental that these are all sports related to preparing young men for war. In1908 there were competitions in covered court tennis, golf and motor-boat racing, none of which are included now. Why is synchronised swimming now an Olympic sport but ballet is not?

A further question is; Does sport foster international friendship or prevent war? Jenkins gives a quotation from the UK Bystander magazine in 1908; “ The idea that international assemblies of any kind do the State good in promoting peace is one which is rapidly being blown into splinters. More bad blood was caused between otherwise friendly nations by the late Olympic Games than by all the diplomatic incidents in the last ten years together … The only consolation is that, for some reason or other, we do not seem to have fallen foul of Germany.” There have been plenty of similar sporting rows between nations more recently.

Finally, Why does winning matter? Why not be happy just taking part or bettering one’s previous time? But evidently winning mattered even in 1908; James Sullivan, the leader of the US team had his own method of tallying the medal total so that the US would come out ahead.

These are all old debates which are unlikely to be solved soon. But there are newer questions too. It has recently become unclear what the purpose of the games really is. Are they for the competitors or for the spectators in the stadium? Or for the TV spectators? To oil the wheels of  international diplomacy? To provide opportunities for corporate hospitality? Or advertising for the financial sponsors? Or nowadays is the main purpose “urban regeneration”? And as the cost of the jamboree goes up and up, these questions will become more and more pressing.

But to return to the 1908 games, this book gives us a glimpse of a lost world. The British Empire was unchallenged, the world outside Europe and the white dominions didn’t really exist, the gentleman’s code of sportsmanship was intact, there was minimal use of technology in adjudicating the contests or disseminating the results, there were virtually no female competitors. And the book’s well-chosen illustrations, of the plasterboard palaces of the White City, of the idealised Greek nudes on the prize medals, of the athletes in their baggy knee-length shorts, of the female spectators’ elaborate hats, really help us to see it as a vanished age, though its less than 100 years ago.

The First London Olympics was discussed by the Future Cities Readers Group on 26th March 2012

Buy ‘The First London Olympics: 1908’ by Rebecca Jenkins here

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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