London 1908: A short-notice replacement for Rome

15 Nov 2010
London 1908

The 1908 Olympic Games had originally been awarded to Rome, which had beaten off challenges from Berlin, Turin and Milan to be named host city in 1904. The Italian city’s preparations were thrown into disarray in 1906, however, when Mount Vesuvius erupted in April, causing widespread devastation to the city of Naples. As the financial implications of the disaster became clearer, it was evident that a new host would be needed for the 1908 Olympic Games.

With little time remaining before the Games were due to start, the IOC turned to London and, in November 1906, the city took up the challenge of organising the Games. Despite the short notice, London threw itself into the task with admirable gusto and, for the first time ever, a stadium was built especially for the Games. The stadium in London’s Shepherd’s Bush would become the centrepiece of the Games and featured not only a running track, but also a swimming pool, cycling oval and platforms for wrestling and gymnastics.

This would be the first time that Olympic swimming events had not been held in open water, allowing fans packed in to the 66,000-capacity stadium the chance to cheer on their favourite swimmers like never before. The 1908 Games also saw athletes parade behind their national flags during the Opening Ceremony for the first time, while Baron Pierre de Coubertin, inspired by the words in a sermon given at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Ethelbert Talbot, adapted those words to create the creed of the Olympic Movement: “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.”

Interestingly, the Games spanned a six-month period, beginning on 27 April and finishing on 31 October. Although most events took place in the traditional two-week period immediately after the Opening Ceremony – which was held on 13 July – several events, such as racquets, jeu de paume and polo, were held prior to this, while others, including rugby, lacrosse and even figure skating, took place later in the year. Perhaps one of the most memorable events of the 1908 Games, however, was the marathon, which was extended by 195 metres 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 42.195km would eventually become the official length of a marathon.

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