Olympics Summer

1912: Stockholm, Sweden

The superbly organized 1912 Stockholm Games ushered in the electronic age of sport. For the first time, electronic timing devices that could register tenths of a second were used in track and swimming events. Big-name athletes included Americans Jim Thorpe and George S. Patton.
1500-metre runners, left to right, Arnold Jackson, Craig Moore and R.D. Clarke warm up before their race. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden marked a genuine coming of age for the Olympic movement, which took on a truly international tone with athletes representing five different continents for the first time.

Quick facts

Number of nations: 28

Number of sports: 14

Number of events: 102

Number of athletes: 2,407 (48 women, 2,359 men)

Number of gymnastics competitors: 1,275

Jim Thorpe's semi-pro baseball salary, which resulted in losing two gold medals: $15

Year of Thorpe's death: 1953

Year that Thorpe's gold medals returned to his family: 1982

Number of years Canadian swimmer George Hodgson's 1,500-metre record stood: 11

The Stockholm Games were the fifth and most successful Olympics to that point, serving as a future model of organizational standards. The time Swedish organizers had to prepare — four full years, unlike the last-minute scrambles of previous Olympics — had much to do with Stockholm's success. A 22,000-seat stadium and new swimming pool were built, as well as accommodations for the athletes.

It also helped that Swedish organizers appeared to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They shortened the schedule to two months — about four times longer than the current Olympic schedule, but considerably shorter than the five-month periods of 1900 and 1904, which failed to sustain interest. The Games were also staged as a standalone event —not forced to play second fiddle to another exposition.

Swimmers Mina Wylie, left, who won the silver, and Fanny Durack, who won the gold, pose together after 100m freestyle. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Peace, harmony and electronic timing

The overriding sentiment at the Stockholm Games was one of peace and harmony. There were no significant protests, and competitors, many of whom competed together at the 1908 Games in London, had begun to form a kind of fraternity. The 1912 Games were the largest yet and were also the first games to enjoy major attention from the world's media, with events making front-page headlines in U.S. newspapers.

The 57 female athletes in attendance also made a splash at Stockholm, as they were allowed to compete in swimming and diving events. Prior to 1912, women could compete only in archery, tennis and golf. 

The Stockholm Games ushered in the electronic age of sport. For the first time, electronic timing devices that could register tenths of a second were used in track and swimming events. During the events, a public address system allowed spectators to follow events much more closely. Using chalk instead of cord to delineate lanes also spiffed up the track events.

Less was more

Multiple gold medallists

Mel Sheppard, U.S.

3 - Athletics

Henry Taylor, Britain

3 - Swimming

Gaston Alibert, France

2 - Fencing

Ray Ewry, U.S.

2 - Athletics

Jeno Fuchs, Hungary

2 - Fencing

Benjamin Jones, Britain

2 - Cycling

George Larner, Britain

2 - Athletics

Eric Lemming, Sweden

2 - Athletics

Martin Sheridan, U.S.

2 - Athletics

Oscar Swahn, Sweden

2 - Shooting

There were 13 sports and 102 events overall at the Stockholm Games. In an effort to improve competitive standards, a number of sports were cut from the 1908 Games, which, judging by the amount of new world records established, was a visionary move.

Equestrian competition made its debut, as did modern pentathlon, a pet project of modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin. Based loosely on a day in the life of an officer during the Napoleonic wars, the modern pentathlon consists of equestrian, swimming, fencing, shooting and cross-country running.

The new event caught on with contemporary officers. Decades before he cut a swath through Europe with tanks and artillery as a U.S. Army general, a young George S. Patton, a lieutenant at the time, finished fifth in the 1912 modern pentathlon. Now, however, the sport is fighting to remain on the Olympic program.

Boxing was also supposed to be a part of the program, but the sport was illegal in Sweden and was left off the Olympic slate. The Swedes were also not familiar with freestyle wrestling, so that was dropped, too. Those hiccups led to the International Olympic Committee's decision that in subsequent Games, the IOC would determine which sports would appear at the Games.

Jim Thorpe of the U.S. throws the discus on his way to winning both the pentathlon and decathlon. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jim Thorpe

Stockholm's most memorable athletic performance likely belongs to the Olympic Games' first real star, American Indian Jim Thorpe, who cruised to victories in the pentathlon and decathlon. Thorpe also placed fourth in the high jump, seventh in the long jump and was even on the American baseball team, which held an exhibition game against the Swedes.

When presented with his gold medals, Sweden's King Gustav V called Thorpe "the greatest athlete in the world." He was later honoured in the U.S. as the greatest athlete of the first half of the century. Unfortunately, his baseball prowess landed Thorpe in controversy. Thorpe was disqualified and had to return the medals because he received money for playing minor league baseball earlier in his career.

Thorpe had the dubious distinction of being the first athlete disqualified by the IOC, and his records were erased from the books. Thorpe was finally pardoned in 1982 — almost 30 years after his death — and the medals were presented to his family.

Swimming stars

Swimming took big strides in 1912, as Australia and Japan — competing in its first Olympics — were starting to produce world-class swimmers. George Hodgson became Canada's first swimming legend, winning gold in the 1,500-metre freestyle in a world-record time of 22 minutes flat — good for a winning margin of 39 seconds. Along the way, he set a world record in the 1,000m.

Canadian medallists

George Hodgson

2 gold - Swimming

George Goulding

gold - Athletics

Calvin Bricker

silver - Athletics

Duncan Gillis

silver - Athletics

Everard Butler

bronze - Rowing

William Happeny

bronze - Athletics

Frank Lukeman

bronze - Athletics

Hodgson also established a new record for the mile. A few days later he won gold in the 400m, breaking another Olympic record along the way. Canada didn't win another swimming gold until the 1984 Olympics.

Noteworthy, too, was the great Hawaiian Duke Paoa.

Spotlight

1912 Marathon

Marathons were often the most memorable events of early Olympiads, and not necessarily for brilliant performances. Dorando Pietri won the hearts of Londoners, but nearly died trying to the finish the 1908 Olympic marathon. Portugal's Francisco Lazaro really did die following the 1912 marathon.

Lazaro collapsed due to heat exhaustion about 30 kilometres into the race and died in hospital the next day. Only one other athlete has died in the course of Olympic competition — Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen.

A stranger story coming out of the Stockholm marathon involved a Japanese runner named Kanikuri, who simply disappeared during the race. Nobody had any idea of what became of him until 50 years later, when Kanikuri finally appeared to explain how and why he went AWOL.

He was about halfway through the marathon, when he took some well-meaning spectators up on their offer to stop for a drink. Embarrassed by his lack of discipline, Kanikuri abruptly hopped on a tram and left for home without a word to anyone.

And Another Thing...

The favourite in the 100-metre track event was Howard Drew, but he withdrew shortly before the event, citing an Achilles tendon injury. However, there was a great deal of suspicion that Drew, a black athlete, was advised to pull out by his own coach, who preferred to have a white American win.

Medal Table

                                                                                                                                                                       
 CountryGoldSilverMedalTotal
1Sweden24241765
2United States25191963
3Great Britain10151641
4Finland98926
5Germany513725
T-9Canada3238

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