Objections, disqualifications, amazing finishes and no fewer than 23 medals for Irish competitors

LONDON 1908 : The 1908 Olympic Games were controversial and fascinating from start to finish

LONDON 1908: The 1908 Olympic Games were controversial and fascinating from start to finish. Kevin Mallontells the story of the six-month event, and details the extraordinary success of Irish-born competitors

THE 1908 London Olympics or The Battle of Shepherd's Bush as the Games very quickly became known, were without doubt among the most acrimonious and controversial of the Olympic era.

Plagued by bad weather, poor attendances, numerous objections, some very high-profile disqualifications and one of the most extraordinary marathon finishes in Olympic history, the Games of the IVth Olympiad also saw Irish-born competitors win an unprecedented 23 medals - including eight gold, and a bronze for Ireland's first female Olympian.

Originally the 1908 Games were awarded to Rome, but rebuilding costs associated with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 reputedly forced the financially hard-pressed Italians to abandon their plans to hold the Games. Despite the short notice, London agreed to step in.


Fortunately for the British Olympic Committee, the Franco-British Exhibition was also scheduled for London in 1908, the exhibition organisers generously agreeing to finance and build a multi-purpose Olympic Stadium at Shepherd's Bush adjacent to the exhibition site.

Remarkably, the stadium, later known as the White City Stadium (and now the headquarters of BBC Television), was completed inside 12 months.

It contained accommodation for 93,000 spectators, with a 536-metre cinder running track surrounded by a 600-metre banked cycling track and a 100-metre swimming/diving "pond" in the infield, and a grassed area that also catered for football, hockey, rugby, lacrosse, wrestling and gymnastics.

Even before the Games began, the Olympic Committee had to deal with a number of thorny issues - the "Irish Question" among them.

The decision to join Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales into one team, the United Kingdom, did not meet with the approval of many Irish competitors. They argued Ireland should compete as an independent nation, a proposal rejected by the organising committee.

Amid fears of an Irish boycott, a compromise saw the team name changed to Great Britain/Ireland and in just two sports, field hockey and polo, Ireland participated as a separate country.

The United States sent a strong athletics team to the Games and, on arriving in London, US officials immediately objected to the participation of the Canadian marathon runner Tom Longboat, on the grounds he was a professional athlete.

Longboat, an Onodagu Indian and a member of the Irish-Canadian Athletic Club in Toronto, was one of the race favourites, and while the row raged in London, Longboat, accompanied by his manager Tom Flanagan, completed his preparations in Kilmallock, Co Limerick.

The Olympic Committee's decision to let Longboat compete resulted in an irreversible souring of relations between the American delegation and British officials.

Matters were made even worse when, just days before the first athletics events, three US athletes had £100, a small fortune at the time, stolen from their bags while in training at the stadium.

It was against this less-than-harmonious backdrop that the US team arrived at Shepherd's Bush on July 13th, 1908, for the Official Opening Ceremony only to discover that their flag, the "Stars and Stripes", was not on display among the flags of the other competing nations.

The Americans were incensed and in what was viewed as a retaliatory insult to the British royal family, Ralph Rose, the US flag bearer in the opening parade, refused to dip "Old Glory" when passing the royal box.

Interviewed later, US field athlete Martin Sheridan, from Bohola in Co Mayo, declared defiantly, "This flag dips to no earthly king." The Mayo man's statement led to the mistaken belief that Sheridan himself was the flag bearer and that the incident was born of Irish nationalist antagonism toward British rule in Ireland.

The US contingent was dominated by athletes from the Irish-American Athletic Club and led by Irish-American officials - James Edward Sullivan, former head of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Matty Halpin and Mike Murphy - but there is no evidence to suggest politics played any part in what became almost daily battles between the American and British officials.

The Americans also objected to the method of drawing heats in the athletics and were highly critical of the the high-jump and pole-vault areas, but they were not alone in objecting to the manner in which the Games were run.

The French journal Les Sports predicted the withdrawal of Canada, France, Belgium, Italy and Greece, whose athletes and directors it claimed were "exasperated by the various vexations and irregularities of which they were the object".

Austria also protested a decision in the swimming pool and Sweden one in wrestling, but most of the protests came from the United States, beginning with the tug-of-war.

The makeshift US team was composed of their heavier field athletes, rather than specialist "tuggers". Employing poor technique and wearing only ordinary street shoes, the team, which included the Irishmen John Flanagan and Matt McGrath, was beaten in record time by the Liverpool Police team.

The US officials argued the metal-rimmed police boots worn by the British team were illegal. The protest was disallowed.

Irishman James Clarke was a member of the Liverpool Police team that beat the US and he went on to win a team silver, Liverpool being beaten by London City police in the final.

Edward Barrett from Ballyduff, Co Kerry, was a member of the winning team and he later went on to add a catch-as-catch-can heavyweight wrestling bronze to the gold he won with the London City Police.

A remarkable athlete, Barrett also took part in the shot, discus and javelin and had been a member of the London hurling team that beat Cork in the 1901 All-Ireland hurling final.

A number of other Irish-born participants also distinguished themselves at the Games, which lasted six months, from April 27th to October 31st.

In June, at Hurlingham, Ireland's polo team of Percy O'Reilly, Hardress Lloyd, John McCann and Auston Rotherham finished in the silver-medal position, losing the final to GB/Roehampton.

And, on July 9th, at Bisley, Dubliner Colonel Joshua 'Jerry' Millner, took a shooting gold medal, winning the free rifle 1,000-yard competition. The last commanding officer of the Carlow Militia, at 61 years and four days he was the Games' oldest competitor and, of course, the oldest medal winner as well.

Scoring 98 out of 100, Millner shot lying on his back with his feet pointed at the target, his knees drawn up and the rifle supported by his left foot.

Stockbroker Maurice Blood, a graduate of Merton College Oxford from Bolaney, near Gorey, was a bronze-medal winner in the same event.

Shooting also brought a team silver in the running-deer, single-shot competition for William Lane-Joynt, a member of the well known Limerick/Dublin family, and a team bronze for Richard Hutton in trap shooting, both of whom were members of GB/Ireland teams.

On July 11th there was more Irish success, this time at Queen's Club, Wimbledon. James Parke from Clones, Co Monaghan, the winner of 20 Irish rugby caps and one of the best lawn-tennis players in the world, partnered the singles gold-medal winner Josiah Ritchie to silver-medal success in the men's doubles.

On the opening day of the Games in the stadium, Ireland's bicycle polo team of LR Oswald-Sealy, HE Oswald, AS Oswald - all of Rathclaren Rovers Cycling Club - and Richard J Mecredy jr of the Ohne Hast (German for "without rushing") Cycling Club beat Deutscher Radfahrer Bund of Germany by three goals to one.

Bicycle polo was invented in Ireland in 1891 by Richard J Mecredy snr, but, as the 1908 Olympic contest was only a demonstration event, no medals were awarded.

Irish success continued in the stadium with a remarkable first, second and third in the 16lb hammer throw from a seven-foot circle, the circle width determined, according to the first president of the GAA, Maurice Davin, by the size of a grain sieve in an Irish barn.

The father of modern hammer throwing, John Jesus Flanagan from Kilbreedy, Co Limerick, one of the "Irish Whales", as they were known, won a US gold in the hammer, adding to the gold medals he had already won in 1900 and 1904.

A New York policeman, Flanagan broke the Olympic record, but not the world record, which unofficially was held by another member of the US team, Matt McGrath from Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

McGrath, who was still among the world's top 10 throwers when aged 50, took silver and, completing an amazing clean sweep for Munster-born athletes, representing the Woodstock Athletic Association and Canada, Con Walsh from Macroom in Co Cork - who had previously been on two losing Cork teams in All-Ireland football finals - claimed the bronze medal.

Martin Sheridan, from Mayo then won the first of his three 1908 medals. The best all-round athlete in the world at the time, Sheridan was also the world-record holder and two-times defending champion in the discus.

Another New York policeman, he won the discus freestyle event on day four and the classical discus event on day six. A day later he picked up a bronze medal in the standing long jump.

In a glittering career, including the 1906 Intercalated Games at Athens, Sheridan won nine Olympic medals - five gold, three silver and a bronze. American sportswriters subsequently acclaimed him to be the greatest track-and-field athlete of all time.

Later on day four, adding to Sheridan's victory, the 37-year-old Denis Horgan from Banteer, Co Cork, won silver for GB/Ireland in the shot, a remarkable 15 years after he won his first English AAA title.

Rose, the US flag bearer at the opening ceremony, won the gold.

Favourite for the high jump, Con Leahy from the Limerick side of Charleville had taken gold in Athens in 1906, but, despite improving on his 1906 jump by 11 centimetres, he had to settle for a second-place three-way tie and a silver medal.

On the final day of competition in the stadium, Tim Ahearne of Athea, Co Limerick, brought an incredibly successful two weeks in the field to a perfect end when on his final attempt in the hop, step and jump he set Olympic and world records to win the gold medal.

There was also Irish-born success on the track. It came in the shape of the Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, native, Robert Kerr. Running in the maple leaf vest of Canada, Kerr followed his third place in the 100 metres with a magnificent victory in the 200 metres.

Somewhat removed from the glare of the track-and-field events, on the morning of July 18th there were few present in the stadium to witness Ireland's first woman Olympian win a medal.

Beatrice Geraldine Hill-Lowe (nee Ruxton) from Ardee House, Ardee, Co Louth, finished in the bronze-medal position in the ladies' double-national-round archery event, just behind the five-time Wimbledon singles champion Lottie Dod.

George 'Con' O'Kelly from Gloun, near Dunmanway in Cork, was a member of the Hull Fire Brigade when he turned his hand to competitive wrestling. The end result was an Olympic gold medal in the catch-as-catch-can heavyweight class, which took place outdoors, on mats on the stadium in-field.

O'Kelly beat another Munster man, Edward Barrett, in the semi-final and, after taking 13 minutes to pin his Norwegian opponent in the first bout of the final, he went on to win gold by two falls to none.

Another notable Irish success came on October 31st, 1908, the very last day of the Games, when Ireland's field hockey team of Edward Holmes, Henry Brown, Walter Peterson, Jack Paterson, William Graham, Walter Campbell, Henry Murphy, Charles Power, Richard Gregg, Edward Allman-Smith, Frank Robinson and Robert Kennedy, despite losing the final to England, still took team silver, having earlier beaten Wales in the semi-final.

Elsewhere, of course, the increasingly bitter Anglo-American controversies raged on and none more so than on day 10 of the athletics programme.

Going into the 400-metre final, Britain's Wyndham Halswelle, who set an Olympic record in the heats, was favourite to beat the three Americans - John Carpenter, John Taylor (the first African-American medal winner) and William Robbins. Coming round the bend into the final straight, Carpenter drifted wide, apparently blocking Halswelle's efforts to pass.

Judging there to have been a foul, one of the British officials - acting outside his remit, as it transpired - ran up the track after the runners and signalled to the judges on the line, who then broke the tape before Carpenter reached it.

Even before the in-depth inquiry began, the stadium announcer declared the race void. The Americans were booed and hissed at and, at one point, it looked as if a fight was about to break out among a section of the crowd, some of whom were "shouting and shrieking like persons bereft".

During the inquiry, photographs of the runners footprints as they turned into the straight were viewed and, almost inevitably, the American was disqualified.

Amid intense bad feeling the race was declared void and ordered to be rerun in strings (separate lanes) without Carpenter. The other two Americans, Taylor and Robbins, refused to take part in the rerun and so, two days later, Lieutenant Halswelle, a Londoner who competed for Scotland, ran unchallenged from gun to tape to post one of the most extraordinary successes in Olympic history.

A leading article in the New York American summed up the US viewpoint, lamenting that, "instead of British fair play our men encountered British foul play".

In a post-Games speech, GS Robertson, a member of the British Olympic Council, responded by saying that if the Americans were "both no sportsmen and liars then the lethal chamber at the Battersea Dogs Home was the only fit place for them".

Anglo-American relations were at an all-time low then as the highlight of the Games, the marathon, set off from Windsor Castle. Being run for the first time over the now standard 26 miles and 385 yards, the race brought out the biggest crowds of the entire Games.

Clement weather and a near-50-per-cent reduction in ticket prices brought 80,000 to the stadium. Spectators lined the entire route as each runner, accompanied by two cyclists, was treated to free refreshments and eau-de-Cologne courtesy of Oxo, the beverage supplier.

The Shepherd's Bush crowd had been given regular updates on the progress of the race so they were not surprised to see the little Italian confectioner Dorando Pietri - or Pietri Dorando, as he was mistakenly called at the time - enter the stadium four minutes ahead of his nearest rival, the diminutive Irish-American Johnny Hayes.

Taken aback by the roar of the 80,000 crowd and the abrupt change of surface, Pietri was suddenly drained of strength. It was immediately obvious he was on the point of collapse.

Five times during that final, seemingly interminable, lap, urged on by the horrified yet engrossed crowd, he slumped to the track. Every time he fell, a combination of his own courage and the helping hands of officials raised him up again until he finally staggered over the line attended by, among others, Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Johnny Hayes, the grandson of John Hayes of Silver Street, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, crossed the line second. The long-time leader Hefferon of South Africa, who attributed his late decline to a draught of champagne he drank some two miles from the stadium, finished third.

Even though the Italian flag was immediately raised aloft in the stadium, it was clear, even before any American protest, the result could not stand.

Pietri was subsequently disqualified and Hayes, a "registered employee" of the world-famous Bloomingdales in New York, was declared the winner.

Tom Longboat the Canadian Indian was, as many had predicted, first into the stadium but he arrived by motor car having dropped out after only 20 miles.

That evening there were rumours Pietri, like Pheidippides some 2,300 years earlier, had died of exhaustion and, while the rumours proved false, the stadium doctor who examined Pietri claimed his heart had been displaced by half an inch as a result of his exertions.

Hayes received the gold medal and was carried around the stadium on a table, but Queen Alexandra, touched by what she had witnessed, presented a magnificent gold cup to Pietri at the end of a never-to-be-forgotten marathon and a never-to-be-forgotten Olympiad.

While the Irish medal winners returned home largely unannounced, the Americans on their arrival in Dublin a few days later for a sports meeting in Ballsbridge received a rapturous Irish welcome.

The streets around Westland Row Station were thronged with cheering crowds and the Stars and Stripes hung from windows everywhere. The Americans were paraded through the streets in motor cars to Wynn's Hotel, where they were afforded an official reception.

The delighted Americans described their reception in Dublin as the greatest any athletes had ever been given in any part of the world, a soothing conclusion then to one of the stormiest chapters in Olympic history.

This article was amended on July 10th, 2013.