Road To The Olympic Games

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First appearance for flags at Olympic opening ceremony

Controversy flared during the opening ceremony, when athletes walked into the Olympic stadium behind their national flags for the first time in an official Olympics.

Tom Longboat, a Canadian favourite in the marathon, fell ill and pulled himself out of the race

Women archers participating in the National Round (60 yards-50 yards) at the 1908 London Olympics, one of the few sports open to women. ((Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) )

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The 1908 Olympic Games were originally awarded to Rome, as IOC boss Pierre de Coubertin had wished, but the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius changed everything. The eruption saddled Italy with relief and reconstruction costs and an economic crisis, and the country abruptly cancelled its plans to stage the Games.

London stepped into the breach and quickly built a new 68,000-seat stadium at White City, in the Shepherds Bush district of the city, in addition to organizing an expanded slate of Olympic roster. The London Olympics were far better organized than its predecessors in 1900 (Paris) and 1904 (St. Louis), but officials couldn't do much about the wet, dreary weather. And there were plenty more eruptions -- mostly political.

Political eruptions and stormy weather

Controversy flared during the opening ceremony, when athletes walked into the Olympic stadium behind their national flags for the first time in an official Olympics. To begin with, the Swedish and American contingents felt slighted when organizers failed to fly their national flags among those of other nations around the stadium.

The Numbers

Number of nations: 22

Number of athletes: 2,008 (37 women, 1,971 men)

Number of events: 110

Capacity at White City Olympic Stadium: 70,000

Number of spectators for marathon: 2 million

In retaliation, American flag-bearer Martin Sheridan refused to dip the Stars and Stripes in the customary gesture of respect as the team passed by King Edward in the royal box. Sheridan, the greatest discus thrower of his time, explained, "This flag dips to no earthly king." Some thought the Irish-American Sheridan's decision might have been rooted in Britain's refusal to grant Ireland independence. For their part, Irish athletes boycotted the London Games in protest.

In another flag flap, the Finnish athletes, disgruntled at being under Russian rule, entered the stadium without a banner at all rather than march behind the flag of Czarist Russia.

Multiple gold medallists

Mel Sheppard (USA) Athletics:  3

Henry Taylor (GBR) Swimming: 3 

Gaston Alibert (FRA)Fencing: 2

Ray Ewry (USA) Athletics: 2

Jeno Fuchs (HUN)  Fencing: 2

Benjamin Jones (GBR)  Cycling: 2

George Larner (GBR)  Athletics: 2

Eric Lemming (SWE) Athletics:  2

Martin Sheridan (USA)  Athletics:  2

Oscar Swahn (SWE)  Shooting: 2

English officials off track

Once the Olympic torch was lit, the controversies deepened, and the acrimony intensified. The Americans launched a complaint after their track team manager was not allowed on the field. The Americans also complained about having to wear knee-length running shorts and wore theirs to the mid-thigh in protest.

The English had a lot of griping to deal with, and they largely brought it on themselves: All the officials were English. At least they eventually caved in to pressure to adopt the metric system over the imperial system for the Games. They had reportedly feared that the metric system was unfair to athletes because 100 metres is almost 110 yards.

The most notorious dispute came in the 400m. To the English officials, it looked like American John Carpenter blocked Britain's Wyndham Halswelle from passing him in the final stretch, and they removed the finishing tape just as the American was about to win the race. A re-run of the 400m final was ordered for the next day with Carpenter disqualified. The two Americans left in the race refused to participate, leaving only Halswelle in the race to win the gold in the only known "walk across" in Olympic history.

But the track competition wasn't a total loss for the Americans, who were led by triple gold-medallist Mel Sheppard in the middle distance events and standing jump legend Ray Ewry. Sheridan threw his discus to two gold medals and cemented his reputation as perhaps the world’s greatest athlete.

Oscar Swahn

Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn found a lot of ways to make history in his Olympic career. At 60 years old, he became the oldest Olympic champion with a win in the running deer event. The next day, he won another gold, this time with his son, Alfred, in the team event.

Swahn slumped somewhat at home at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, with a gold in the team event, but only a bronze in individual events. Eight years later, after the First World War forced the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics, a 72-year-old Swahn was back to compete in three events at the Antwerp Games and won a silver in the team event.

Swahn and son were not the only family act at the 1908 Olympics, either. William and Charlotte Dod became the first brother and sister to win medals at the same Olympics, both in

Canadian medallists

Walter Ewing (Trapshooting) gold, silver

George Beattie (Trapshooting)  2 silver

Robert Kerr (Athletics)  gold, silver

Men's Team (Lacrosse)  gold

Argonaut Rowing Club (Rowing)  2 bronze

The 1908 Olympics marked the first time Canada sent an official team to the Games. But even the normally easygoing Canadian athletes complained that the banks on the cycling track were too steep and the English food was no good.

There was plenty of complaining all around. Sweden's Greco-Roman wrestling team pulled out of the competition because of several rulings that went against them, and the French had harsh words about the cycling competition.

But there were legitimate highlights. American John Taylor was a member of the winning medley relay team in swimming, making him the first black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. Marksmen Oscar and Alfred Swahn of Sweden became the first father-and-son act to win Olympic gold medals, and Russia won its first gold medal for ice skating, the only winter event to appear in the Olympic Games before the First World War.

The highlight from a Canadian standpoint was Bobby Kerr, who followed up a bronze in the 100m dash with a gold medal in the 200m by edging two American runners by just one foot. The biggest disappointment for Canada was the performance of Tom Longboat, a favourite in the marathon.

Longboat, an Onondaga from the Six Nations Reservation near Brantford, Ontario, made himself a star with a record-breaking win in the 1907 Boston Marathon. But while leading the race in London he fell ill and pulled himself out of the race. Longboat turned professional and won the World’s Professional Marathon Championship the next year.

A marathon for the ages

Indirectly, Longboat’s disappointment made the marathon the defining moment of the London Games. The original distance had been set at 25 miles, but that was changed to 26 miles to permit the start to take place at Windsor Castle. Princess Mary then requested the start be moved beneath the windows of the royal nursery on the Castle grounds, making the total distance 26 miles 385 yards (42 kilometres, 195 metres). That would be enshrined as the standard marathon distance in 1924.

With a crowd of 250,000 looking on, Italian Dorando Pietri reached the stadium first in the hot and humid conditions, but fell five times trying to complete his last lap of the track. Race officials (including Sherlock Holmes author A. Conan Doyle) gallantly, but illegally, rushed to Pietri's aid and helped him finish. They also unwittingly got him disqualified when second-place finisher, Johnny Hayes of the U.S., lodged a protest.

Pietri spent hours near death following the race, but survived the ordeal to become the most famous athlete of the 1908 Olympics. Queen Alexandra presented him with a gold cup, he was immortalized in song by Irving Berlin, and he got the last laugh, beating Hayes by a healthy 45 seconds in a marathon four months later.

The Pietri saga both boosted the popularity of the marathon and put the Olympics on the map. The London Games also prompted significant changes in Olympic administration. To prevent repeats of the 1908 controversies, the IOC ruled that officials would no longer be supplied by the host country, but be drawn from around the world.

1908 Medal Count
 Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
 1. Great Britain 56 50 39 145
 2. United States 23 12 12 47
 3. Sweden 8 6 11 25
 4. France 5 5 9 19
 5. Canada 3 3 10 16

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