On This Day: First ever London Olympics opens with flag controversy

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: First ever London Olympics opens with flag controversy

April 27: The first ever London Olympics opened on this day in 1908 – with an opening ceremony marred by a controversy over national flags.

The Swedish team refused to attend after theirs was not displayed above the White City Stadium, which was built in a single a year and seen as a technical marvel.

The similarly slighted Americans attended the parade but flag bearer Martin Rose refused to dip the Star-Spangled Banner to King Edward VII in protest.

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U.S. captain Martin Sheridan, who had Irish ancestry, reportedly supported him due to his opposition to the British monarchy and said: “This flag dips to no earthly king.”

And the Finns chose to march with no flag at all since they were expected to bear the Russian standard because Finland was then an autonomous part of the Tsar’s empire.

Yet, despite the controversy, the Games, which were the longest in history at 187 days and the only time Great Britain has topped the medals table, was mostly a success.

London went on to stage the Games again in 1948 and 2012 and is the only city in the world to host the Summer Olympics three times.

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Silent British Pathé footage shows some of the spectacle, including shots of the Royal Box at the stadium.
It also filmed pole vaulting, gymnastics, high jump, tug of war, vaulting the high horse, throwing the discus, water polo and swimming.

Among the more curious events shown was women's archery, where competitors wore full-length frocks.
Most of these events took place at the stadium, which had been built in a short space of time after the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius moved the Games from Rome.

The £60,000 ground, which had a capacity of 68,000, included a swimming pool in the middle along with platforms for wrestling and gymnastics.

The British Pathé footage also shows the most famous incident of the Games, the culmination of the marathon, which began in Windsor and ended at the stadium.

Dorando Pietri of Italy, who finished first, was disqualified after collapsing several times, running the wrong way and being helped to the finishing line by officials.

Queen Alexandra, who felt sorry for Pietri because he hadn’t asked for help, awarded him a gilded silver cup the following day in recognition of his effort.

The Games was also noteworthy for sports no longer included in modern Olympics such jeu de paume (a type of tennis), motorboat racing and deer shooting.

The latter was won by 60-year-old Oscar Swahn, who became the oldest man ever to win a gold medal.
Twelve years later, at the Antwerp Games, he set the record for being the oldest ever medallist after coming second while aged 72.

The London Games – the fourth modern Olympics – were also the first to include winter sports, although this figure skating did not take place until October – months after the other events had all concluded.
Most momentously of all, Great Britain topped the medal table for the first and only time, winning 56 golds against America’s 23.

In total, Team GB scooped an astonishing 146 medals against 47 for the U.S., 25 for Sweden, 19 for France and 13 for Germany.

Much of Britain’s success was due to it having by far the biggest team – 676 athletes compared to 363 from France and 122 Americans.

Also, greater familiarity with British sporting codes helped and the 1908 Games would be the last Olympics before universal rules were applied.

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