The 1908 Olympic Games – Part II

The View from Mount Olympus*

The medal ceremony for rowing in Henley-on-Thames. The Brunetta Statuette, awarded to the winners of the Eights, is on the table in front of the prizegivers, Lord and Lady Desborough. Photo: IOC/Olympic Museum collections.

22 July 2021

By Greg Denieffe

Part II of Greg Denieffe’s 1908 Olympic Regatta trilogy looks at the medals and awards presented to those involved.

By modern-day standards, the 1908 Olympic Regatta was a tiny affair. Even for its time, it was no great shakes as a comparison with the 1900 Games confirms: 1900 – 8 Countries and 108 rowers; 1908 – 8 Countries and 81 rowers. The 1904 Games was little more than an ‘At Home’ regatta with only 44 rowers and a single Canadian crew stopping it from being just a USA affair.

What the 1908 regatta did have, were several quality crews and the winners of the four events recorded times that compare favourably to those of the best crews to have raced at Henley Royal Regatta.

The Official Report on the Games gives details (on page 37) of the rowing events (all men’s): Sculls, Pairs, Fours, and Eights. In addition, it gives the closing dates for entries and states that the maximum number of competitors from each county shall be two. Racing in Henley would be “on July 28, 1908 and following days.” Most importantly, it gives details of the prizes offered:

Prizes: – Gold Olympic Medals to the winners in each Event.

That’s it – no silver or bronze medals. Rowing wasn’t the only sport that had this restriction, but the others were mainly the ball sports of Football – Association and Rugby, Hockey, and Lacrosse. The allocation of medals to the winners in the gymnastics competition was the work of a failed alchemist. In the individual competition, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded in the usual way. However, in the team competition, the country that finished in first place received a single gold medal and the country that finished in second place received a single silver medal. The team members themselves received silver medals for winning and bronze medals for placing second. Vive la différence.

Several entries withdrew before the regatta started leaving the following numbers to race over the extended course of 1½ miles: 9 Scullers, 4 Pairs, 4 Fours and 6 Eights. Owing to one pair and one four doubling-up in other events, the 87 seats raced were occupied by 81 men. They would race for a total of 16 individual Gold Medals and a maximum of 20 per cent of them could claim one. Modern resources and commentators often refer to the silver and bronze medallists from this regatta. I have fallen into this group myself; back in 2014, I wrote about the Belgian crew that lost the final of the Eights to the UK’s Leander crew as follows:

The defeat of the Belgians in the final of the Olympics, which earned several of their members a silver medal, did not merit a mention on the menu of the Banquet held by Royal Club Nautique de Gand to celebrate the club’s achievements during the 1908 season.

Rather than the Belgians taking defeat badly and not valuing their second place, it is now obvious to me that the omission was simply because they weren’t ‘silver medallists’. However, to standardise comparisons over all Olympic Games, the IOC has not only ‘awarded’ silver medals to the losing finalists of 1908, but they have also ‘awarded’ bronze medals to the losing semi-finalists. You can see the database here. Chapter V of the Official Report gives a full list of prize medals by sport. Unsurprisingly, rowing’s entry is short; under the heading of ‘Gold’ are given the four winners with blank spaces left under the headings for ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’.

The Wikipedia page, Rowing at the 1908 Summer Olympics is quite informative but follows the IOC line in doling out medals willy-nilly. According to these new alternate facts, 64 medals to 58 men were awarded, giving a medal to participant ratio of 70%. The modern equivalent is 25% but would be greatly reduced if there were no restrictions on boat classes or the number of crews allowed in each event.

Eights Gold Medal #2. The gross price realised at auction for this mint gold medal was £9,570. Picture: Fellows.
Eights Gold Medal #3. Charles Desborough Burnell’s 1908 gold medal. Picture: thejewelleryeditor.com

In addition to the winner’s gold medals, the IOC presented Participant’s Medals to everyone who took part in the Games. Four versions of the medal were struck: in silver-gilt, silver, bronze, and base metal. The silver-gilt, silver and bronze medals were given to the organising officials and team members who did not compete. A commemorative medal in pewter was given to each competitor, usually when they collected their competitor’s badge.

The IOC made two other presentations: the Winner’s Diplomas (given to all winners in every sport plus an extra one for the club), and a statuette to winners of the Eights. In 1906, Count Eugenio Brunetta d’Usseaux, the Italian International Olympic Committee member, had the difficult job of informing the International Olympic Committee of his country’s withdrawal as host city. Perhaps he felt beholden to the organisers of the London Games for he presented them with two challenge trophies: The Brunetta Statuette for Rowing and The Brunetta Trophy for Swimming.

In January 2017, Eloise Chapman, of the River & Rowing Museum, confirmed to HTBS that:

“The trophy is now at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The River & Rowing Museum borrowed the statue for our Perfect Rower exhibition in 2012. The only other information I have is from the label for that exhibition:

The statue was held by the winning eight until the next Olympic Games. It was awarded at the 1908 London Games, the 1912 Stockholm Games and the 1920 Antwerp Games. At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, it was presented to the victorious Leander Club eight by Lady Desborough.

Great Britain won the gold medal again in 1912, but the statue has not been in this country since.”

Diploma awarded to ‘Magdalen College, Oxford’, winners of the Fours at the 1908 Olympic Regatta. Picture: Facebook page of Magdalen College, Oxford.

The sixteen individuals who won rowing gold medals received another memento of their victories. They each received a silver-plated oar in a red leather presentation case.

One of the presentation oars presented at the 1908 Olympic Regatta. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

The following account of the prize-giving is from pages 250/1 of The Official Report:

The prize-giving of the Olympic Regatta at Henley took place at a quarter to five on July 31 in the Grandstand enclosure. The drums and bugles of the Irish Guards, who had added so much to the picturesqueness of the Queen’s prize-giving in the Stadium, came down to Henley for this occasion also. Lord Desborough, President of the British Olympic Council, and member of the International Olympic Committee, opened the proceedings with a short speech. The winners of the Sculls, Pairs, Fours, and Eights then advanced, in that order, to receive their Gold Medals from Lady Desborough, their prize diplomas from Mr. F. I. Pitman and Mr. S. Le B. Smith, their club diplomas from Mr. H. T. Steward and Mr. C. T. Steward, and the Silver Oars from Mrs. W. Anker Simmons and her husband, the Mayor of Henley, assisted by Mr. L. Hannen. Afterwards, all the competitors, other than winners, received the Olympic Commemoration Medals from Mr. W. A. L. Fletcher, in the absence of Comte Brunetta d’Usseaux, who was unfortunately prevented from taking part in a ceremony to which his challenge prize had added so much distinction. At the end, the following gentlemen, together with the Reception Committee, who had all worked together to promote the success of the Regatta, were presented with Commemorative Medals by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, President of the International Olympic Committee, and Mr. R. G. Gridley, Hon. Secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association, and member of the British Olympic Council: –

The names of those who received Commemorative Medals for organising the 1908 Olympic Regatta in Henley. Snippet cut from ‘The Fourth Olympiad – BEING THE OFFICIAL REPORT – The Olympic Games of 1908’.

* You need specialised eyewear to see Olympia (or Henley) from Mount Olympus.

Read part I here.

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