Described as having been “created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium,” the new mascots are the first to have been designed for the new media age. They will inevitably be available as cuddly toys as well!
Its great to see that they commemorate the significant contributions that two towns – away from London – have made to the development of the Olympic and Paralympic movements.
Much Wenlock, to the south west of Telford in Shropshire, first staged the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850. Established by a local doctor, William Penny Brooks, who harboured a vision of reviving the Olympic Games in Greece, the Wenlock Olympian Games predate the “first Olympic Games of the modern era” by nearly half a century.
In 1889, the initiative came to the attention of the young Baron Pierre de Coubertin who shared Penny Brooks’ vision of re-establishing the Olympics as an international celebration of sport. A visit by the French nobleman to the Shropshire town in 1890 was a significant milestone along the road to the creation of the International Olympic Committee.
Stoke Mandeville’s most famous sporting connection also starts with a doctor. In February 1944, Dr.Ludwig Guttmann arrived at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, to set up a new unit to deal with war casualties suffering from spinal cord injuries.
Sir Ludwig believed sport would help his patients make the most of their remaining physical capabilities while providing much-needed exercise. Sport would also help patients rebuild their self-esteem and provide the confidence to contemplate re-entering the world of work. Initially, games for individuals such as darts, archery, snooker and table tennis were offered, but these were quickly supplemented by team sports including wheelchair polo and basketball.
To coincide with the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Sir Ludwig organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled athletes. Over the following years, the Stoke Mandeville Games expanded steadily, attracting ever more international competitors and laying the foundations for the Paralympic Games. If Olympia is the spiritual home of the Olympic Games, Stoke Mandeville can justifiably claim to be the Olympia of the Paralympic Games.
Today, Stoke Mandeville is the UK’s National Centre for Disability Sport offering facilities for a wide variety of land- and water-based sports and regularly hosting competitions.
The London Marathon is now established as one of the world’s premiere elite marathons. It is also probably the biggest mass-participation sporting events on the planet as well as one of the most successful charitable fund-raising events.
Today’s London Marathon course starts in Blackheath, heads east through Charlton and Woolwich before turning west and passing the Cutty Sark in Greenwich at around 6½ miles. Crossing the River Thames at Tower Bridge, the course heads east as it passes half-way and loops around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf before heading west again along The Highway and the Embankment to Parliament Square, Birdcage Walk to the finish in front of Buckingham Palace. The event has transformed many of London’s iconic landmarks into sporting landmarks.
The finish has changed most over London’s near three-decades of city marathon history. The first London Marathon, held on 29 March 1981, finished on Constitution Hill between Green Park and Buckingham Palace. From 1982 until 1993 the race finished on Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background. But in 1994 repair work to the bridge meant the finish line was moved to The Mall where it has been ever since.
Elsewhere, alterations have been surprisingly few. In 2005 a cobbled area near the Tower of London – around 22 miles – was eliminated to the relief of elite and fun runners alike. The direction taken by runners around the Isle of Dogs between 14 and 21 miles switched from clockwise to anti-clockwise the same year.
In 2012, London’s third Olympic and first Paralympic Marathons will draw on the elite marathon expertise of the London Marathon organisers. They will be hoping that they will be able to stage races as dramatic as the first two London Olympic Marathons: in both, the gold medal slipped from the grasp of the leading athlete between entering the stadium and reaching the finishing line.
London’s first Olympic Marathon in 1908 was also historically significant in defining the 26 mile 385 yards / 41.195 km distance that is now the standard.
The race started on the East Terrace of Windsor Castle from where the 55 competitors ran through Windsor town centre and across the Thames to Eton and then on to Slough. The course then continued on to Uxbridge, Ickneham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Wembley, Harlesden, Willesden and Old Oak Common before crossing Wormwood Scrubs to reach the Anglo-French Exhibition Grounds and the White City Stadium. Traveling along the route today, it is clear that today’s sprawling London suburbs were still very distinct villages in 1908, and much of the course would have had a distinctly rural feel.
The White City Stadium was the first stadium ever to be built specifically as the principal venue of an Olympic Games. It had a capacity of 150,000 or which 68,000 were seated but only 17,000 were protected from the elements. Incorporating a 1/3 mile running track, 660 yard banked cycle track and swimming pool, the Stadium was built by the organisers of the Anglo-French Exhibition in just 10 months. In later life, White City was also a soccer World Cup venue, hosting the Uruguay v France match in the 1966 tournament. The Stadium was demolished in 1985 and the site is now occupied by the BBC.
From Windsor to the stadium, the proposed 1908 course measured approximately 26 miles. On entering the stadium through entrance “QQ RR SS” in the south west corner, it was decided that the runners should turn left to run 385 yards around the track to the finish line immediately below the Royal Box.
Race day was 24 July. The Games’ official report describes how the “close, warm, and muggy atmosphere of that summer afternoon, when the sun was deceptively strong and there was very little air,” was to have a profound impact on a race which started started at a brisk pace: the first mile was completed in just 5 minutes and 1 second.
With a dozen British entries, it was home athletes who made the early running. Jack Price led the South African Charles Hefferon by 200 yards at half way – in Ruislip. Frederick Lord, another Briton, in third place was “laboured in his action” just ahead of the Italian Dorando Pietri.
Hefferon took the lead at 15 miles and attempted to make a decisive break. Pietri closed on Hefferon in Old Oak Common Lane and passed the South African as they approached Wormwood Scrubs. However, Pietri’s push was too much and he was almost unconscious when he reached the track, turning right instead of left in his confusion before collapsing.
In describing what rapidly became elevated to the status of legend, the official report says,
“As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and attendants rushed to his assistance. When he was slightly resuscitated the excitement of his compatriots was so intense that the officials did not put him on an ambulance and send him out, as they would no doubt have done under less agitating circumstances. The first fall and the first assistance rendered had, if it had been only realised, disqualified the Italian for the prize.”
Eventually, Pietri struggled to his feet and staggered to the tape in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes 46.4 seconds. Shortly afterwards, the American Johnny Hayes reached the finish without assistance in 2 hours 55 minutes 18.4 seconds. An official objection from the US team was eventually upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
Hefferon had hung on for silver and Joseph Forshaw, another American, took bronze. Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed the drama from the Royal Box, presented Pietri with a gold cup.
The events of London 1908 captured the public imagination, established the marathon as the ultimate sporting challenge and paved the way for a flurry of races between the leading protagonists over the now official distance which could be considered the forebears of modern city marathons.
Excluding the disqualified Pietri, only 27 of the 55 athletes finished the 1908 marathon. Given the sultry conditions, perhaps the instructions to competitors contributed to the high attrition: “Every competitor must wear complete clothing from the shoulder to the knees (i.e. jersey sleeved to the elbows and loose drawers with slips). Any competitor will be excluded from taking part in the race unless properly attired.”
Other aspects of the race would not be unfamiliar to modern marathon runners. As “official caterer” the Oxo Company provided refreshments. Rather than mineral water or energy drinks, 1908 athletes were offered an “Oxo Athlete’s Flask containing Oxo for immediate use” while hot or cold Oxo or Oxo and Soda were distributed at feeding stations along the route. Rice pudding, raisins, bananas, soda and milk. and stimulants were also available “in cases of collapse” while “eau de Cologne and sponges can be had for use of competitors from the Oxo representatives…”
When the Olympics were resurrected after World War 2, the 1948 Games were centred on the Empire Stadium, Wembley. For the marathon, the organisers devised an out-and-back route that took runners north from Wembley in order to avoid the many roads that were still bomb-damaged in inner London. The course also climbed more than 300 feet as it progressed from Middlesex into Hertfordshire.
The Marathon Race on the final afternoon of the track and field events – a warm, humid and windy day – was curiously reminiscent of the Pietri race forty years earlier.
Around six miles, Etienne Gailly, a 25-year old Belgian who had escaped from occupation during the war, eventually reached Britain and joined Belgrave Harriers, moved to the front of the field of forty-one. At 15 km. he had a lead of 14 seconds and extended this to half a minute by 20 km. At 30 km. Gailly was 53 seconds ahead of the Argentinian Delfo Cabrera but five kilometres later Choi Yoon-chil of Korea had moved into a 28-second lead over Cabrera, with Gailly another three seconds behind. Choi dropped out with injury around 38 km. With 5,000 metres to go, Cabrera was leading, just five seconds ahead of Gailly.
It was Gailly who entered the Stadium first “exhausted and hardly able to drag one foot after the other” yet needing to complete a little over a lap of the track to secure the Olympic title. Within a few seconds, Cabrera entered the stadium and had no difficulty in overhauling the “practically insensible” Belgian to snatch the gold in a time of 2 hours 34 minutes 51.6 seconds. Welshman Tom Richards was the third to enter the Stadium and he too had little difficulty passing Gaily taking the silver in 2 hours 35 minutes 7.6 seconds. The gallant Gaily held on to finish third in 2 hours 35 minutes 33.6 seconds, just over half a minute ahead of the South African Johannes Coleman, who had finished sixth in the 1936 Berlin Games. In one of the closest Olympic Marathon finishes of all time, the first four athletes were running their final laps of the stadium at the same time.
On the morning that Andy Murray unsuccessfully contested his second tennis major final in Melbourne in 2010, the Independent on Sunday ran a story on Harold Sergerson Mahony who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1896. Although he never won a major title again, he did win the silver medal at the 1900 “Chariots of Fire” Olympics in Paris.
The IoS reported that Mahony was born at 21 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh on 13 February 1867.
This week’s tragic earthquake in Haiti appears to have prompted a tweet from London 2012 linking to a web page that reminds us that the 1908 Games came to London at short notice after Italy withdrew Rome as host city following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Missing from LOCOG’s list of innovations that first appeared at London 1908 was the fact that these Games heralded the Olympic Winter Games by including ice skating for the first time.
Through the goodwill and assistance of the Duchess of Bedford the rink at Prince’s Skating Club was specially opened on October 9 for the practice of competitors. This rink, at which the competitions were held, measures 200 feet by 52 feet (62 x 16m.). A substantial period for practice was thus assured.
Competition opened on Wednesday October 28 with Compulsory Figures – the Ladies in the morning and Gentlemen in the afternoon. A Special Figure Competition was held on the morning of Thursday October 29 with Ladies and Gentlemen’s Free Skating and Pairs competitions in the afternoon.
Pre-dating the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix by 16 years, London 1908 presented Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow (1877-1949) with his only opportunity to skate for an Olympic medal. Salchow dominated figure skating in the first decade of the 20th Century winning ten world championships (1901-5, 1907-11 ) and nine European titles. He was successful in adding the London Olympic Gold to his trophy cabinet. Today, Salchow is one of the most frequently used words amongst ice skating commentators. The jump he invented involves taking off while going backwards from the back inside edge of one blade and landing on the back outside edge of the other blade. It also comes in double and triple versions depending on the number of full rotations completed in the air.
In winning the Special Figure Competition, N. Panin, also known as Nikolai Alexandrovich Kolomenkin, (1871-1956) became Russia’s first ever Olympic Gold medalist.
The Prince’s Skating Club opened as an exclusive private members club on 7 November 1896 and became home of the Prince’s Ice Hockey Club by the end of the year. The rink hosted the first Oxford vs Cambridge Varsity Ice Hockey match in 1900.
In 1902, the London Canadians became the second ice hockey club to be based at Prince’s. Over the winter of 1903-4, both clubs participated with four others in Europe’s first ice hockey league. The Canadians ended the season as champions with Prince’s runners-up.
A Prince’s vs Paris match at the rink in 1908 was the first in Britain held under the rules of the recently formed International Ice Hockey Federation. The first England v Scotland match was hosted in 1910. The British Ice Hockey Association was established at a meeting at the club in 1914. The BIHA remained the governing body for British ice hockey until 1999 when Ice Hockey UK took over the role.
Prince’s closed in the summer of 1917 and the building was later demolished.
On 31 October, I spent a fascinating day at the Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum in the spiritual home of the sport in Henley on Thames.
The day was introduced by the Museum’s Chief Executive, Paul Mainds, who mentioned Our Sporting Life – a search for the sporting memories, heroes, objects, photographs and experiences that have inspired the nation. The hope is that by gathering together memories and exhibits, it should be possible to host a series of exhibitions around the country and then bring the best of the exhibits and stories together for a national exhibition in London over the period of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
I couldn’t help thinking there is a lot of common ground between Our Sporting Life and my own modest initiative to rediscover Britain’s forgotten sporting landmarks.
English antiquarian Richard Chandler is “officially” recognised (See p13) as having re-discovered the site of ancient Olympia while traveling in Greece in 1766. (Many Greeks dispute the suggestion that Olympia was ever lost!)