Saturday, August 16, 2008

Great Britain dominates Olympics - Summer of 1908

1908 Summer Olympics
White City Stadium
London, England

This week, with the XXIX Summer Olympics taking place in Beijing, China I thought I might take a look back to a hundred years ago to the 1908 Summer Olympics. Held at the newly built White City Stadium in London the IV Olympiad was originally scheduled to take place in Rome. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 1906, it became necessary to find a new location and London, England was chosen.

The 1908 Summer Olympics are considered the most controversial of the modern era but from today's perspective much of the controversy seems, to me at least, to be "tempests in a teapot".

What I find to be most interesting, however, about those games are a couple of things. First of all is the absolute dominance of Great Britain in these Olympics. Great Britain won an amazing total of 146 gold (56), silver (51) and bronze (39) medals. Its nearest competitor, the U.S., won a total of 47 (23 gold). Fielding athletes from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Great Britain decisively won more medals than the rest of the competition, much of which was drawn from more populated nations. Being the host nation is perhaps an advantage to winning in the Olympics, but certainly not to this degree of success.

Looking at the list of participants in the games is also interesting. This Olympics could have been called the "Games of Empires". Starting with the host nation, England, the center of the British Empire, there were 21 other nations participating. Included among those nations are France (French Empire), Germany (German Empire), Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Austria (Austrian-Hungarian Empire) and Russia (Russian Empire). The only Empires of the time that are missing from this list, that I know of, are the Chinese and Japanese Empires.

This was the last days of Empire for Germany, Turkey, Austria and Russia. The defeat of the Central Powers in World War One in 1918 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 spelled the end of their Empires. The last Chinese Emperor was deposed in 1912 and Japan lost its Empire at the end of World War II in 1945. France and Great Britain gave up their dreams of Empire in the aftermath of World War II when their former colonies gained their own independence.

In 1908, during those Summer Olympics, the British Empire was at its peak. The nightmare of the world war that was to break out in August of 1914 was still in the unseen future. What a different world that must have been. How different a world it would be if that "War to end all Wars" had never taken place.

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