I read an article earlier this week about the 2012 London Olympics. These articles veer in mood like a manic depressive between those writers who believe it will be a disaster that will suck millions from the economy which could be spent more profitably elsewhere, and those that believe it will be a roaring success, an enduring legacy for generations to come, motivating thousands of children to put down their Nintendos and pick up a javelin.
Me, I suppose I'm looking forward to it, if slightly concerned about how London's crumbling infrastructure will cope. However, even if it is the disaster some predict, I'm hoping that it's an enjoyable, entertaining disaster, much like the 1908 Olympics in London, a subject which I've been fascinated by for years.
The Olympics had only just been resuscitated and idealism was rife; dreams of great feats, outstanding sportsmanship and international fraternity (given, in hindsight, added poignancy by the gathering storm clouds in the distance that led to World War I and the death of scores of those who took part in the 1908 Games). The original choice of venue, Rome, pulled out after Vesuvius erupted and funds were needed to rebuild Naples, so at short notice the Games were switched to Edwardian London. A huge 100,000 seater stadium, White City, complete with a swimming pool in the middle, was built, and a great exhibition held at the same time. The start was inauspicious: ticket prices were too high and relentless rain turned those who could afford it away.
The first week of competition was played out in front of measly crowds. But that did not prevent controversy and tension, most of it between the stuffy Edwardian hosts, who's idea of fair play were honed on the public school playing fields of England, and the brash officials, many of them first or second generation Irishmen, in charge of the USA team, who, to use the vernacular, got the hump almost as soon as they got off the boat, and not without good reason.
First of all the man charged with carrying the US flag in the opening ceremony refused to dip it as the team passed King Edward, as was custom. 'This flag bows for no earthly King,' he later said, revealing along with tarnishing the sport by their use of steroids, modern athletes have lost the ability to give good quasi-biblical quote.
Things went steadily downhill from there. In the Tug of War (yes, an Olympic sport - they had some strange ones back then. My favourite being Pigeon shooting in Paris 1900. Not clay ones, real ones. Cruel, but more fun than watching synchronized swimming...) the US team were defeated by the City of London Police team. They protested because the coppers were wearing boots with steel toe caps, better able to dig into the turf. It was dismissed, the reason given that the the police were only wearing standard police boots, an explanation that went down like a bucket of cold sick.
Acrimony was stoked further when during the swimming, the officials blew for the race to start when the US participant was still taking off his jumper. He still won. Then it erupted much like Vesuvius during the 400 yards. During the final featuring Lt Col Wyndham Halswelle of England and three dastardly Yankees, the officials, led by the delightfully named Roscoe Badger, disqualified the American runner John Carpenter for illegally blocking Halswelle around the home straight and therefore denying him victory. The race was ordered to be rerun but, in protest at Carpenter's disqualification, the Americans withdrew their two other runners from the race and Halswelle ended up running the race on his own. As a direct result, in future Olympics it was ordered that all short distance races be run in lanes.
The US press, fed by some great quotes from the US party, began to weigh in and accused the Brits of cheating and rampant hypocrisy. Moustaches twitching at the damn insolence of it all, the Brits responded with high-handed dismissals in the London Times. Thanks to the row, and a change in the weather, and a drop in ticket prices, the second week of the games saw the stadium packed to the rafters.
It culminated in what must have the most dramatic Olympic event of all time, the marathon. The weather was scorching hot. The race began in full view of the royal family at Windsor Castle (the reason the marathon is a distance of 26 miles and 385 yards is because that 385 yards was how much the race needed to be extended to start in front of Windsor Castler 'so the children could watch' and finish in front of the royal box at the stadium). Back in Shepherd's Bush in the White City Stadium, more than 100,00 had gathered. As the lead changed hands, stewards altered a scoreboard showing those baking in the stadium who was where in the race. The Brit runners were flagging in the heat, while other favourites fell by the wayside. Apart from one little man, Dorando Pietri, a sweet seller from Italy. He swiftly became the crowd favourite when they discovered that American Johnnie Hayes was in second. It was a case of anyone but the American.
Dorando entered the stadium in the lead but the heat (and brandy given to pep him up) had taken its toll. He started the wrong way around the track and was turned back by stewards. Then he collapsed. Hayes now entered the stadium. Officials picked up Dorando and put him back on his feet. Half dead he staggered round the track, until he was only a few yards from the line, Hayes at his heels. Dorando went down again, to enormous groans from the crowd. The officials helped him up (including, it is said, mystery lovers, one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) yet again but this time pushed him over the line where he collapsed once more. The crowd went wild. Rumours went around the stadium that Dorando had died. The American officials, understandably furious that Dorando had been helped across the line and their man should have won, protested furiously, fistfights broke out in the stands. Eventually, Dorando was disqualified, Hayes rightly declared the winner, but the Italian had become an English folk hero. He recovered and the next day was handed a special gold cup by Queen Alexandra, marking his effort. He toured music halls across the land to standing ovations. In White City, home of the BBC, the stadium has long gone, and there are few other physical traces of the Games. Yet there, near the site of the old stadium entrance is a small road, named Dorando Close.
Here's hoping 2012 throws up just as much drama.