This year, more than ever, the spotlight is on London. We asked author of the 1908 London Olympics, Rebecca Jenkins, to tell us a little but about what inspired her to discover the stories behind one of the most influential and controversial Games since they began. . .
I am not much interested in statistics. I am only fleetingly impressed by how fast certain human beings can run, swim or jump. It was a photograph that first drew me in – that famous shot of the Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, staggering across the tape in the 1908 Marathon. That led me to want to know more about that man, the officials who helped him and the world of the crowd that filled that stadium. For me, the summer Olympics of 1908 provides a focus through which to re-enter the Edwardian world that came up with the concept of reviving the Olympic Games.
The 1908 Olympics were supposed to be hosted by the Italians in Rome. Plans changed abruptly in spring 1906 when Mount Vesuvius blew up and the Italians decided that they could no longer afford to host the games when funds were needed for a national emergency. The handful of British enthusiasts who took up the task of putting on the Fourth Olympiad of the modern revival that spring did so with barely two years to go, no budget, and no principal venue.
They were able to pull this off because of the Franco-British Exhibition that was then being planned to celebrate the new Franco-British Entente, the alliance that grew out of King Edward VII’s diplomatic foray to Paris in 1903 and was intended to guard against the military ambitions of Germany. The Franco-British Exhibition built the British Olympic Association organisers a stadium and for the most part bore the cost of the first London Olympics.
Part of the joy of the 1908 Olympic story is the variety of sources you can draw on to piece together a vivid picture. I love the hundreds of coloured postcard views of the White City built to house the exhibition. Reading guides to the Exhibition breathes life into the world of 1908. Take one description of the delights of the hall of Social Economy (French) with its 'models and photographs of dirigible balloons and the excellent suggestions for simple and sanitary hotel furniture made by the Touring Club de France', and the stall crowned by a bust of Pasteur, showing 'awe-inspiring cultures of various deadly diseases' accompanied with confident accounts of how scientific medicine was learning to cure them. It is a glimpse into a world of tradition that did not anticipate that the opening vistas of science and travel would bring about its own destruction.
Such things flesh out the athletes who recorded the Olympic statistics of that year. The reminiscences and newspaper reports, the postcards and, occasionally, the golden finds of more personal photographs – through all these real people appear to overlay the statistics recorded in the sports histories. Young hopefuls like 19-year-old Reggie Walker, a junior bank clerk from Natal, South Africa, who nearly didn’t make it to the Shepherd’s Bush stadium because he couldn’t afford the journey. Funds were raised at the very last minute through an appeal in his local newspaper and Reggie Walker became an Olympian in London that summer. He won his event – the 100 meters – setting a new record of 10.8. That may not sound much next to Usain Bolt’s 9.69 at Bejing 2008 but Reggie Walker – who survived being wounded in France in the First World War – still holds the record today as the youngest winner of Olympic 100 meters gold.
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