London Great Britain, 1908

Legacy of the Games

For the first time in Olympic history, a stadium was built especially for the Olympic Games – the Great Stadium was built within the White City complex by Imre Kiralfy in consultation with the new British Olympic Association as soon as London was confirmed as the host city for the IV Olympiad.

This was also the first time that Olympic swimming events had not been held in open water. The White City complex included a swimming pool, 327 feet by 48 feet in size – twice as long as the modern Olympic swimming pool. This allowed a maximum of 66,000 spectators the chance to see the swimming competitions in their entirety. Winter events were included in the Olympic Games for the first time, with four figure-skating events taking place after the main Games were finished.

The 1908 Games was also the first time that athletes marched behind their national flags during the Opening Ceremony. This was a tradition begun at the Intercalated Games of 1906, but was not without controversy on this occasion, including the refusal of the American team to dip their flag when passing King Edward VII. The American flag was, however, dipped later during the collective salutation to the whole royal family.

The creed of the Olympic movement was set during the IV Olympiad. Baron Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by the words of the Bishop of Pennsylvania in a sermon delivered at St Paul’s Cathedral on 19 July: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well”.

Perhaps the most memorable event of the 1908 Games was the marathon, the length of which was extended by 195 metres at the request of Princess Mary, so that the race could start under the window of the nursery at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the stadium’s royal box. This new distance of 26.2 miles would eventually become the official length of a marathon. The race itself was memorable for other reasons. Italy’s Dorando Pietri entered the stadium in first place, but then collapsed, exhausted. As officials, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, helped him to his feet he collapsed again, before eventually being helped over the finish line. Although he was the first to cross the line, he was disqualified for receiving help, leaving Johnny Hayes of the Irish American Athletic Club the eventual winner of the race. Pietri’s courageous efforts to finish the race and the fact that he had not been responsible for his disqualification earned him a special gilded silver cup, presented to him the following day by Queen Alexandra.

The 1908 Olympic Games also led to the establishment of standard rules for Olympic competitions, and the selection of judges from different countries rather than just the host country. The catalyst for this was the 400m race in which the American winner was accused of interfering with the only British runner. Part of the problem here was the differing definitions of interference under British and US rules. The race was re-run, but the Americans refused to take part. As three of the original four competitors were from the USA, this left the British runner, Wyndham Halswelle, to run the race alone.