No Matter How Bizarre The Rio 2016 Olympics Get, The Games Can’t Be Any Stranger Than London 1908

The Rio 2016 Olympics are just around the corner, and once again, the Olympic Games look to be a controversial and unusual one.

There are claims that Aquatic athletes competing in the forthcoming Games have been advised to keep their mouths shut while competing because they will “literally be swimming in human crap” and could pick up dangerous illnesses from the contaminated water.

And that’s before you throw the fears of Brazil’s collapsing economy, political instability, corruption, incomplete and substandard facilities, and of course, Zika, into the mix.

Yet despite all the predicted controversy set to taint the Games, it’s doubtful if Rio 2016 will be any stranger than the 1908 London Olympics which were a lot different than the sleek, slick and multi-billion pound extravaganza that Rio 2016 promises to be.

The 1908 Olympics were hosted by London at the last minute after Italy was forced to pull out because of the damage wrought by the eruption of Vesuvius, which, incidentally, was a volcano and not an overpaid star athlete prone to violent tantrums.

It’s quite staggering to think that compared with the costly errors, overspending, and extended deadlines of Rio 2016, that over a hundred years ago, the British Olympic Association were given just ten months to locate a site, erect a stadium and organize all the necessary finances for the Olympiad.

Rewind a century and the Olympian standard of those times was a lot different to the one we know today. For example, in the long-running 1908 Olympics, which ran from the end of April until late October, tug-of-war was an Olympic event; there was no Olympic Torch (that tradition began in 1928); it made an official profit of £21,3777; out of the 1,971 participants, only 37 were women; diving and field hockey made their Olympic debuts, and it was the first and last time that Britain ever topped an Olympic medal table with an impressive 56 golds.

History has also bestowed a dubious notoriety on the way the 1908 Olympics was officiated because of a legacy of dubious decisions and far from impartial refereeing.

The games were tainted by unsporting conduct to such a degree they prompted the standardization of track and field rules at future Olympics and the future selection of judges from different countries rather than just the host nation.

The most famous case of gamesmanship was perhaps that of Italy’s Dorando Pietri in the marathon event. After the firm favorite, Canadian aborigine Tom Longboat collapsed after 19 miles, perhaps a direct cause of the champagne his assistants gave him en route, the diminutive Italian confectioner, aided and abetted only be the odd nip of brandy to steady his nerve and clear his head, led the pack and looked certain to take the race.

Heat, exhaustion and quite possibly, intoxication, all conspired to make Pietri collapse five times and run the wrong way in the final stages. Quite literally dead on his feet, he was eventually helped first over the finish line by a gang of helpful officials, and some quarters even suggest, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Conan Doyle.

London 1908
The poor Italian was then instantly disqualified for cheating, and the gold went to the American Johnny Hayes.

London 1908
He may have lost the medal, but he bagged the glory. Pietri’s exploits were celebrated with a special trophy from Queen Alexandria, and a street in London’s White City called Dorando close was named after him.

Further controversy ensued when Birt Johnny Douglas won the middleweight boxing gold after a split decision was called by the fight’s ref – Douglas’s own father!

Cynics may argue that the reason Britain won so many medals was because of a host of incidents encapsulated in the story of the 400m final.

American John Carpenter won the event fair and square, but he was later disqualified by British officials. The reason? Apparently, it was for impeding Britain’s Wyndham Halswelle.

A re-run was ordered, but the three Americans refused to take part, so Halswelle ran unopposed to take gold in the only unchallenged walkover in Olympic history.

Sadly, Wyndham Halswelle was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Nueve Chapelle during the First World War.

Despite all the sporting scandals surrounding the 1908 Olympics, the Games thrived and prospered, and it’s now Rio’s duty to fly higher than any obstacle placed in its path and keep the famous flame burning bright down the years and through the centuries to come.

London 1908
(Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)