The political storms swirling around the Beijing Olympics pale in comparison to the ruckus the Americans and Brits stirred up a century ago.
American athletes were outraged when they traveled to London for the 1908 Olympics and discovered that British organizers had failed to include the Stars and Stripes among the national flags flying at White City Stadium. Ralph Rose, a giant 6-foot-6, 275-pound shot putter, heightened the tension by making sure the large American flag that he carried during the opening ceremony at the stadium captured the attention of the 68,000 spectators. Protocol called for each delegation to dip its flag in recognition of the host country’s head of state. Instead Rose raised the Stars and Stripes high as he passed a reviewing stand occupied by King Edward VII and the royal family. Legend has it that U.S. team member Martin Sheridan, an Irish-American with little love for Britain, added insult to symbolic injury with the remark: “This flag dips to no earthly king.”
Just as protesters clamoring for Tibetan independence made a mockery of the international passing of the torch for this year’s Beijing games, the flag incident in London a century ago cast a pall over the first opening ceremony in which Olympic athletes marched under their own national colors. While some Americans hailed Rose’s actions as “boyish patriotism” and “the Spirit of 1776,” their British hosts were incensed by what The Bookman magazine denounced as “sheer, caddish, boorish manners…of which Ameri cans should be heartily ashamed.” Academy magazine added, “Among Americans there are some good sportsmen and agreeable people, but they are in such a small minority that it is almost impossible to trace them.”
The 1908 games represented a turning point for Olympic tradition. A chaotic modern revival of the ancient Olympics in Athens in 1896 had been followed by lackluster games in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904. Italy was scheduled to host the Fourth Olympiad, but begged off when Mount Vesuvius erupted in April 1906 and devastated the city of Naples. London came through in relatively short order with the first stadium and swimming pool built specifically for the Olympics. Even though the London games included offbeat events such as tug of war, motor boating and polo, they also gave rise to a movement to standardize the rules of competition and to appoint international referees. Ultimately, however, the 1908 Olympics garnered a place in memory because they were one of the most contentious in history, with the United States and Great Britain trading accusations from opening to closing day of arrogance, poor sportsmanship and outright cheating.
On the first day of the track and field competition, U.S. officials protested the way heats in the middle distance races were assigned. The Olympic custom was for the host nation to supply all event organizers and referees, leading to charges that the British were interpreting the rules to the Americans’ disadvantage. The British decided a blind draw was the fairest solution, but even that seemed to pit America’s top runners against each other more often than their handlers felt attributable to pure chance.
“The four fastest half-milers in America were placed in two heats, second man not to have the chance of running over for the prize. We would not have objected to two of our best men being placed in one heat if the English officials were fair enough to admit that the second man should have a chance…to get a place in the final,” complained a member of the American Olympic Committee.
Even the tug of war competition ended in controversy. The United States team battled a team of Liverpool policemen in the best-of-three quarterfinals. The Liverpudlians had their way in the first pull, but the Americans refused to continue the match after discovering the bobbies wore shoes they deemed in violation of a rule against “projecting nails, tips, sprigs, points, hollows or projections of any kind.”
Olympic officials explained that the shoes were standard police-issue footwear with metal rims, but no projections. Snubbing an offer to pull barefoot, the U.S. team forfeited. But Martin Sheridan, who would win two gold medals in discus throwing and one bronze in the standing long jump, wrote in the New York Evening World of the “sour lemon” handed the team. “What was our surprise to find the English team wearing shoes as big as North River ferryboats, with steel-topped heels and steel cleats in the front of the soles, while spikes an inch long stuck out of the soles. The Englishmen had to waddle out on the field like a lot of County Mayo ganders going down to the public pond for a swim.” Britain went on to sweep the tug of war; three different police teams placed first, second and third.
Charges and counter charges abounded in other events as well. When American high jumper Herbert Gidney protested that adverse conditions at the windward end of the stadium prevented him for qualifying for the finals, officials moved the competition to the alee end and declared a re-jump. One of the co-winners from an early round refused to take part, and Gidney outjumped the other to advance to the final, where he finished fifth. Meanwhile, American officials complained about the lack of soft landing areas in the high jump and pole vault (the British acquiesced) and not being allowed to dig a plant hole for their vaulters’ poles (the British stood firm). A British judge in the diving competition felt that American George Gaidzik was receiving illegal coaching and gave him zeroes for each of his preliminary “plain,” or platform, dives. Gaidzik protested and was eventually allowed in the finals as the fifth diver. He finished fifth.
Anticipating trouble, British officials stationed themselves at 20-meter intervals around the track for the 400 meter final in which Scotsman Wyndham Halswelle went up against three Americans: John Carpenter, William Robbins and John Taylor. Carpenter led Halswelle as the pair entered the home stretch. Halswelle made his move on the outside— there were no lane markings—but Carpenter veered right, forcing Halswelle to run wider with each stride. Officials ran onto the track shouting, “Foul!” and one broke the finish line tape, indicating “no race.” Citing the Amateur Athletic Association rule that “any competitor willfully jostling or running across or obstructing another competitor so as to impede his progress shall forfeit,” Carpenter was disqualified, and Halswelle, Robbins and Taylor were ordered to rerun the race. The Americans refused to participate, and the next day Halswelle ran alone to win gold, the only time an Olympic event has been decided in a walkover.
“Never in my life, and I have been attending athletic meetings for 31 years, have I witnessed a scene that struck me as being so unsportsmanlike and unfair as that in which the officials had participated,” huffed U.S. team captain James Sullivan. “They did the unsportsmanlike act of running up the track in an endeavor to stop Carpenter coming through and deliberately and meanly broke the tape so as not to give him that honor.”
Carpenter claimed he did nothing wrong. “My path was absolutely straight to the finish line,” he said. “At 80 yards from the finish, Halswelle was running absolutely abreast of me, with plenty of room on the outside of him, and he could have passed on the inside of me if necessary.”
Halswelle countered that “as I moved outwards to pass him he did likewise, keeping his right [elbow] in front of me. In this manner he bored me across quite two-thirds of the track, and entirely stopped my running.”
Photographs of the runners’ footprints leave no doubt that Carpenter ran wide coming out of the turn, just as Halswelle moved out to pass. U.S. Olympic Committee member Amos Alonzo Stagg, the soon-to-be-legendary college football coach, insisted that Carpenter didn’t commit a foul and that running wide “would have been considered an acceptable tactic at a track meet in America.” But London’s Sportsman newspaper called Carpenter’s anything-to-win tactic “one of the most disgraceful exhibitions of foul play ever witnessed. A slur is cast upon American sportsmanship in the eyes of all Europe which cannot ever be eradicated. There can be no excuses; the thing was open, unabashed and shameless.”
With transatlantic relations strained and emotions raw, the marathon climaxed in dramatic fashion the following afternoon. The length of the race had been extended from the traditional 25 miles to 26 miles, 385 yards—the distance from Windsor Castle, where the race began, to the royal box at White City Stadium, where it would end. When Italian runner Dorando Pietri staggered into the stadium, the grueling effort was clear as he fell five times during his final lap. Race officials helped him to his feet and half carried him across the finish line—where he finally collapsed—just seconds ahead of American Johnny Hayes.
The Americans were certain that Hayes would be declared the winner, since officials had obviously helped Pietri complete the race. They were amazed when the Italian colors were raised, signifying that Pietri would take the gold. The Italian flag graced the top of the staff of honor for nearly two hours while the results were deliberated.
Convinced this was the work of hardheaded and spiteful Olympic organizers, the American contingent seethed. “As the breach of the rules was so palpable, we did not protest until [officials raised the Italian flag], believing, as every man in the stadium did, that the judges would award the race to Hayes. The Italian flag was hoisted simply to put us in the unfortunate position of having to protest,” James Sullivan fumed in a letter home.
As Pietri convalesced in a London hospital, British officials finally delivered their decision: “That, in the opinion of the judges, M.P. Dorando [sic] would have been unable to finish the race without the assistance rendered on the track, and therefore, the United States of America is upheld, and the second man, Mr. J.J. Hayes, is declared the winner.”
United States Olympic Committee member Gustavus T. Kirby called the British officials’ assistance “cruel, unwise and un fair, and as unfair to the Italian, for immediately he broke the tape…they hoisted the Italian flag…indicating that to his country went the greatest honor of the Games, and then were forced to take away what should never have been given.”
Sullivan was more concerned with the perceived slight to his countryman. “Plucky man as Dorando is, Hayes was the winner under all rules of racing. It was unfair to Hayes, who was robbed of the honor of breasting the tape,” he wrote.
Still, the British press took Hayes to task for winning the race on little more than a technicality. Had a sporting Englishman been second across the finish line, Academy magazine haughtily proclaimed, “He would have brought no objection against Dorando. [Hayes] lost the opportunity of his life. If he had been a sufficiently good sportsman to allow Dorando to retain the prize he would have been the most popular man in England, and he would have done much to wipe out the feeling of disgust which had been generated by the conduct of the American athletes and their rowdy supporters.”
American sportswriter Caspar Whitney, of Outing magazine, however, blamed mismanagement and “mean-spirited and obviously biased” British officials for the tenor of the games. He scourged those running the events as being not only incapable, but also “stupid, losing their heads so completely as to establish a record for incompetency which is not likely to be surpassed in many years to come.”
“England was not as charitably inclined toward the American champions as she might have been,” said American runner Lawson Robertson, while recognizing that there was plenty of blame to go around. “It is equally true that the victorious Americans were not as modest as they should have been.”
Americans competed in only 10 of the 22 sports represented at the London games, but U.S. officials lodged at least 14 protests. In the end Great Britain won 56 gold, 51 silver and 38 bronze medals—the only games in Olympic history in which Britain led the medal count. The U.S. team took home 23 gold (including one in shot put for flag bearer Ralph Rose), 12 silver and 12 bronze medals.
Even though the ill will between the Americans and British dissipated soon after the 1908 Olympics, the opening ceremony flag incident was an indication of the nationalist spirit that would surface at subsequent games. Moreover, the London games also gave birth to the modern Olympic creed, created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin and based on an address given to athletes at St. Paul’s Cathedral by Ethelbert Talbot, an Episcopal bishop from Pennsylvania: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.