The 1908 Olympics Paperback – February 7, 2008
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Top international reviews
The first London Games of 1908 faced problems. Which Olympics did not? Not wishing to concentrate so much on this issue as Rebecca Jenkins had The First London Olympics: 1908 , Keith Baker immediately showed that much of the antagonism had been inspired by US media pre-Games exclusives of "knocking the spots off the Britishers", claiming to return loaded with all the medals, and when events transpired that the Yanks only managed to win 15 of the 27 field and track events (a record) against 56 British golds, speculations exploded of cheating, backed up by un-credited revelations from the William Hearst combine to drum up heated nationalist support and to push up sales, leading in turn to tit-for-tat moves by British newspaper editors. Change US for Australia in cycling, rowing and canoeing ("what the Poms do better on their behinds") in 2008. The difference was the comments were treated as "friendly rival" banter from childish journalists, so something had been learnt. However, the author did indicate that certain comments made by certain US athletes were often denied years later, and so should be treated as one of the many myths that emerged from those talked about Games.
Baker focus is centred on the individual sports, with a useful summary of medal winners in the appendix, as well as on the principal protagonists: the great Martin Sheridan of Bohiho, County Mayo, representing the US in the discus with 5 gold medals in three Olympiads; the oldest boxing winner, Dick Gunn, at 38; the first British brother and sister medal winners William (gold in cycling) and Lottie Dodd (silver in archery); Madge Syers of London, the first winner of the individual ice skating at a summer Olympics (16 years before the first winter Games), and the first woman gold medallist; not forgetting Sam Mussabini coach to the South African gold medallist Reggie Walker in the 100 metre sprint (the same successful coach to Harold Abrahams in Paris in 1924 - Chariots Of Fire  [DVD ]), and to show that certain people do not change over time the first British winning football team was represented exclusively by England amateurs (only the famous Scottish Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United, succeeded in persuading his people in the Home FAs to take part in the 1948 London Games) and so no one should have been quite shocked if Scotland, N. Ireland and Wales had not temporary chosen to put aside their local nationalisms and put on a GB jersey under Stuart Pearce for the common good and with the possibility of a medal.
More than half of the book consists of pen pictures of the athletes in the lead up to, during and after the London Olympics to test if the flower of this young generation actually died six to ten years later on the battlefields of France and Flanders. The author proved that only one British contestant, the Scottish Capt Wyndham Halswelle, gold medalist of the disputed 400 metre race, died in battle at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Half of the author's champions either retired from active sport and died before or after the conflict, with only one sportsman, the first British swimming star, Henry Taylor of Oldham, winner of three golds with his now unused "trudgeon" stroke (an achievement never bettered, and who was only equalled 90 years later in Beijing by the Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy), participating in two more Olympics, and winning bronze in the team relay as late as at Antwerp in 1920. His Olympic pedestal fame had, indeed, followed him all the way into the Navy, and helped unwind the marvellous story and myth that he served on the sunken HMS St Vincent during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and swam for two hours around keeping up morale to others before being rescued - an incredible popular tale of heroic valour, particularly as the Vincent survived the War and was never sunk either at Jutland or in any other waters.
I leave Dorando Pietri, the Italian, who crossed the line first and was later disqualified in the marathon, the most famous competitor of the Games, to last. Many myths of this competitor who earned himself an effigy in Madame Tussaud's, a tune by Irving Berlin, a cup from Queen Alexandra, consort to Edward VII, and on the centenary of the London Games has a 3 metre high statue in his home town of Carpi, have also grown over the years: it was reported he wasn't exhausted when he arrived in the White City Stadium, just very drunk; and he was injected by the medical orderly with strychnine to help him carry on (which the unconscious Pietri could not remember being administered). Baker has found others: the US John Hayes, from New York, another Irish-American, the eventual winner, may have cheated during the race, and he should have been banned for shamateurism at the outset. Some people these days may look back with nostalgia to a simpler, purer world where organizers and contestants behaved more honestly, and would not dream of attempting any tricks, whereas in reality such events did occur even in the Tour de France from its early days. The author has noted various claims that the Canadian Indian racer Tom Longboat had been drugged to stop him. Maybe it was tried by some spectators; maybe it was his coach; is it too much to imagine there were paid hit-men following him to London? Perhaps Hayes had been used as the favourite son, as an olive branch, to quell the mounting hysteria and anger in the American camp. It almost sounds like something out of the pages of the secret agent Ashenden Ashenden, or, The British Agent by Somerset Maugham and needing the imagination and ingenuity of a Sherlock Holmes to solve the mysterious x factor - and would you believe it if you were now told that the medical orderly on duty, who doubled up as a journalist for the Daily Mail was none other than Arthur Conan Doyle. Was he there to save Pietri or gain his exclusive scoop for his boss, Lord Northcliffe, and get a fast buck? He certainly might have planned the perfect sporting crime of all time.
Two small reservations need to be noted: the first in the organization of the book: it lacks even a short index of names; the second in terms of information: there is no explanation why the organizers decided that these Games should hold their team events in the autumn.
The author has shown that many lessons were learnt by the local and Olympic organizers to prevent their repetitions. Many of these individuals are still remembered by their sporting associations in the respective Halls of Fame. Keith Baker's slim book should now make these names more familiar to all watchers in 2012: the names of John Hayes, Martin Sheridan, Wyndham Halswelle, Henry Taylor, and Sophus Nielson (Danish soccer player who scored 10 goals in a match - an unimaginable record that survived for 90 years) of Dorando's Olympics should be joined to those of Fanny Blankers-Koen, William Laurie (father of actor Hugh), Harry Llewellyn, and Emil Zátopek, heroes of the "Austerity Games" of 1948 The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948 . The stars of 2012 will be in good company. Whatever happens in all the ever increasing competitive activities all the participants will leave their stories and myths, and hopeful make the memory of London a good one.
Too much time was spent on a limited number of individuals and towards the end of the book includes two competitors both of which seemed to be irrelevent.
No, this is lazy writing and the author should have tried much harder.