The London Olympics 1908

With today seeing the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics, I thought it would be nice to look back on bygone games – and head back to the year 1908 when they were held in London.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the 2016 Olympics have been marred by controversy, but then the 1908 games were not without drama.


For a start, the games were, in fact, destined to be held in Rome. But then, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius scuppered the plans by undergoing a massive eruption, and the games were transferred to London.

Since these were, in fact, only the fourth of the modern Olympic games, some of the modern traditions, which we take so much for granted, had yet to be ironed out.

An image of an athlete competing in the 1908 London Olympics.
The Sign For the 1908 Olympics.


At the opening flag carrying ceremony for example, the Swedish team took umbrage at the fact that their national flag had not been hoisted over the stadium and they, therefore, refused to take part in the flag carrying ceremony.

The American flag had also not been flown, but the Americans, good sports that they were, opted to go on with the show and did participate in the flag carrying ceremony. However, Ralph Rose, the American flag bearer, then caused an uproar by refusing to dip the flag in front of the then British Monarch, King Edward V11, who was watching from the royal box.


The 1908 London Olympics also standardised certain events.

For example, the length of the marathon was changed from 25 miles to its current 26.2 miles, reputedly, by Royal request.

The inspiration behind the modern marathon came from the story of an ancient Greek messenger who, in 490 B.C., had run from the site of Marathon to Athens –  a distance of around 40 kilometers, or nearly 25 miles – carrying the news of an important Greek victory over an invading Persians army. Having delivered the news, the exhausted messenger collapsed and died.

To commemorate his impressive run, when the modern marathon was introduced at the first modern Olympic games, which were held in Athens in 1896, the distance for the Olympic marathon was set at 25 miles.


But, for the 1908 Olympics, it was decided that the Marathon would be run from Windsor Castle to London, a distance of 26 miles. However, Edward V11’s wife, Queen Alexandra, reputedly requested that the starting point be moved to the Castle lawn directly beneath the window of the royal nursery to enable, so the story goes, the royal children, to enjoy a bird’s eye view.

Still smarting from the American refusal to dip the flag in His Majesty’s presence, the British officials then opted to move the finish line to directly in front of the royal box in order to “restore the importance of the monarchy”.

These changes resulted in the distance being increased to 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) and this became the standardised length of the marathon from, the 1924 Olympics onwards.


Other events also came with a degree of controversy.

Take for example the tug of war.

Now, you could search the record of all the events taking place this year and you wouldn’t find the tug of war anywhere amongst them. That’s because a tug-of-war only featured in six games, the last ones being the 1920 games.

However, in the 1908 games the tug of war did not tug smoothly.

Initially seven teams were due to compete.

But, the German and Greek teams withdrew, narrowing the competitors to five teams.

They were:-

The City of London Police.

The Liverpool Police.

The Metropolitan Police “K” Division.

Are you starting to spot a common denominator here?


and the United Stated of America.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I may be mistaken on this, but it strikes me that three of the five teams were, in fact, errrr – English.


Given the fact that there were only five teams, little – in fact no – time was wasted on preliminary heats and it went straight to the quarter finals.

Controversy reared its ugly head again when the Liverpool Police competed against the Americans and beat them in the first pull. The Americans, however, were quick to cry foul play, observing that it had been an unfair match because the Liverpool Police had been allowed to compete wearing their policemens boots!

An official investigation dismissed the American protest and the American team withdrew in disgust, foregoing the chance to equalise.


In the semi finals, the Liverpool Police team squared up against the Swedes and beat them two pulls to nil.

The City of London Police, meanwhile, came up against their arch and traditional rivals, the Metropolitan Police, and beat them two nil.


This meant that Great Britain, in the robust form of the City of London Police, competed against, errrr, Great Britain, in the equally robust form of the Liverpool Police in the final.

And. lo and behold, the City of London Police came out Victorious and got the gold.


The victorious City coppers magnanimously then offered to compete against the American team bare footed, but the offer was declined.


In 1920, the City of London Police tug-of-war team managed to win every heat and every pull that they took part in, and again they managed to secure the gold medal for the tug-of-war.

And, since there hasn’t been a tug of war since the 1920 Olympics, well that means that today, 96 years later, the City of London Police have the distinction of being the reigning Olympic tug-of-war champions.

An impressive feat indeed!


Those lovely people at the BFI have released a short film on the 1908 London Olympics, which you can watch below. I have to say that my favourite event, tug of war aside, is the women’s archery, simply because of the cumbersome outfits the competitors were forced to wear!

I also love the footage of events, such as cycling, taking place as the discus throwers get down to business with the bikes whizzing past just a short distance away.

So, enjoy the film, and look back on a bygone Olympics as today’s athletes prepare for 17 days of good humoured sport, with no sign of any controversy at all – yeah right!