Lord Desborough and the 1908 Olympics – Part II

Bringing the Games to Fruition

British women archers taking part in the 1908 Olympic Games. Photograph courtesy IOC/Olympic Museum.

31 August 2021

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

Here is the second part of three of an excerpt from Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams’s forthcoming book Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough. The first part was published yesterday on HTBS, where you will find a presentation of the authors.

Following his productive networking in Athens in 1906, Lord Desborough was helped by another piece of happenstance that proved a critical element in staging the 1908 London Olympics. In 1904, a treaty of friendship had been signed between Great Britain and France. The Entente Cordiale set out arrangements for matters of colonial control (Britain would retain command of Egypt, and France command of Morocco) and provided reinforcement of France’s strategic position in Europe, aimed at countering the alliances being made by Germany and its evident militarisation. A ‘Franco-British’ exhibition was proposed for London (on a 140-acre site at Shepherd’s Bush) and promoted by the exceptionally creative theatrical entrepreneur, Imre Kiralfy.

Within the conception of the ‘White City’, Kiralfy and Lord Desborough came rapidly to a brilliant agreement: that the Franco-British Exhibition Company would construct a stadium and track to the specifications of the British Olympic Council [BOC] and at their own cost, in return for a proportion of the ticket revenue. This was a vital breakthrough for Desborough. At a BOC meeting on 20 December 1906, Kiralfy pledged to ‘underwrite total advertising and construction costs, including a 110,000-capacity stadium, running and cycling tracks, lawn tennis courts, a swimming pool, dressing rooms and convenience stands. In addition, the exhibition authorities would advance … £2,000 towards preliminary expenses, as well as guaranteeing one-fourth of total gross profits from the games.’[1] Given the Council had almost no funds of its own, this was a hugely advantageous arrangement which effectively made the London Games viable.

In the provision of new large-scale scale sporting facilities, and internationally agreed rule-setting, Desborough and London were breaking new ground. Metric measurements were adopted (other than for the marathon and the rowing course at Henley) and more events for women were planned than previously, with archery eventually producing a field of 25 British female entrants.

The Shepherd’s Bush site was extensive and Kiralfy closely controlled the design of buildings, erected as large modern halls with architects hired only to add ornate facades. Historian Paul Greehalgh describes how the Exhibition included:

… twenty palaces, seven huge pavilions (each 70 by 400 feet) and the largest machine hall ever built (at 300,000 sq feet it bulked larger than the legendary Galerie des Machines at the Paris Expositions of 1889 and 1900) … the site landscaped with ornamental gardens, courts, vistas and an artificial lake containing five-eighths of a mile of navigable water … 150,000 electric globes and arclamps and 7,000 gas lamps … Amusements including Irish and Senegalese Villages, a Ceylon Teahouse, a scenic railway, a Canadian toboggan run, a Pathé News Cinematograph… and the Flip-flap a ‘two armed pincer-like construction that lifted groups of visitors across the site’.[2]

Postcard of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition, soon referred to as the White City.

Arrangements moved rapidly: a contract was signed on 14 January 1907 and Lord and Lady Desborough took part in a ceremony to position the first stanchion by main contractors George Wimpey on 31 July 1907. 5,000 tons of steel would be required to create what was then the largest stadium in the world.

Model of the Stadium construction crane presented by George Wimpey to Lord and Lady Desborough, 31 July 1908, now at Taplow Court. Photograph courtesy SGI-UK

Both a running track (24 feet wide with a lap of 586 yards 2 feet, or exactly one-third of a mile), and one for cycling (35 feet wide and 660 yards in circumference, making a banked lap of three-eighths of a mile) were included, plus wrestling platforms and a swimming pool (100 metres in length; very much better than Highgate Ponds) with a dramatic demountable diving tower, and the centre field useable for Olympic field events later in the year.

Compared to the cramped stadium in Athens the London track – laid out and tested by the Amateur Athletics Association – was superb.

Postcard of the White City Stadium in 1908, before the completion of more covered stands.

By early May 1908, Lord Desborough was working on arrangements for the ceremonial events, and writing to Ettie, ‘I am off now to see the P of Wales about opening the Exhibition & then Lord Knollys – the King is apparently consulting him about his opening it.’[3] Before the official opening of the Franco-British Exhibition, Desborough had been supervising test events in the new stadium and spent time at the displays, as he reported to his wife on 17 May:

Dearest, The Exhibition was quite a different place yesterday. I was there all day, & lunched & dined & saw the fireworks (French) in the Stadium, very good. Roads quite dry, and the white buildings lit up by 500,000 electric lights, the finest thing I have seen of the sort. The Indian Court is really remarkable when lit up. I found Harry Stonor [who worked in the royal household] and others and took them to see the Lady’s diving & some sports, & gave them tea at the Garden Club – quite first rate – and showed them the Pictures all hung, quite superb, they beat the French hollow. There were 100,000 people there yesterday. [4]

In the same letter he mentions ‘old Kiralfy’ and refers to him as a ‘champion muddler’ but confirmed that ‘without him there would have been no exhibition & no stadium.’ He described the ‘Stadium as ‘A.1. for running, cycling, swimming etc..’

The official opening of the Franco-British Exhibition took place on 26 May 1908 with King Edward VII and the President of France, M. Armand Fallieres, officiating, and Lord Desborough and Imre Kiralfy in attendance, watching a procession of clubs, tableau and athletic displays and demonstration running and cycle races. Rebecca Jenkins emphasizes the significant point that with Pathé-News based at the Exhibition and considerable circulation rivalry between newspapers and magazines this was a moment when photographic and film coverage became significant, and to some extent part of the event.[5] Huge numbers of picture postcards were circulated, some being taken from a balloon.[6]

In seeking this newly extended international participation, based on official national teams, the 1908 London Games inevitably became subject to rabid bouts of partisan nationalism, though not always at the level which caused George Orwell’s later denunciation of international sport as ‘war minus the shooting.’[7] Having applied his formidable organisational and diplomatic talents to finding a site, creating the first custom-built stadium, raising the necessary funds, overseeing a system of rule-setting sport by sport, there were still, once the Games started, extensive disruptions, including accusations of unfair judging and differing viewpoints about professional and amateur status. However, Lord Desborough, as chairman, enabled this great sporting festival to take place at a time of fractious domestic politics.[8]

Desborough shared de Courbetin’s over-riding ambition to create an international event that would attract more participants and spectators than any previous occasion. At the start of the Games, Desborough experienced pressure from all sides but emphasized the larger picture and what in today’s terms would be seen as the ‘values’ of the event. At an inaugural Olympic Banquet he encouraged officials and competitors to work together in the spirit of international harmony and mutual respect.[9] As reported in The Times he declared that, ‘many points must arise on which there would be strong difference of opinion … But as sportsmen we must be willing to give as well as take.’[10]This wasn’t just about the athletes and spectators but an ambition to promote international fellowship and to counter the evident and growing hostilities in the world.

Despite the arrangements for ticket revenue from spectators, there were expenses associated with hospitality for athletes and officials which needed to be covered. Desborough made a last-minute appeal to Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail, with the bold claim that: ‘Perhaps, indeed, through these Olympic Games good feeling between nation and nation – the good feeling which helps prevent the outbreak of war – may be at least as well promoted as by diplomatists sitting round a board.’[11] After a successful Daily Mail campaign, more than £10,000 was subscribed, with the largest single donation of £1,500 being made by the popular bodybuilder Eugen Sandow.[12]

Out of the 3,000 entries nearly 2,000 athletes arrived in London. The British team was not surprisingly ‘the largest with 736 men and 39 women, France entering 208 athletes, and Sweden with 168 and America 122.’[13] Unlike the British government which offered no support to organisers or athletes, the French, German and Canadian governments provided funds for their teams. Despite the funding constraints – and the heavy rain – it was ‘much the greatest athletic gathering on record’. Hopes were high and, as Desborough stated:

In the Games of London were assembled … representative of the generation into whose hands the destinies of most of the nations of the world are passing … We hope that their meeting … may have a beneficial effect hereafter on the cause of international peace.[14]

By the time the King arrived at the White City Stadium on 13 July 1906 for the inauguration of the Games the royal box boasted a fascia proclaiming ‘Edward VII, Rex et Imperator’. On a very wet West London afternoon, with various princes, dukes, officials and competitors in attendance, Lord Desborough stepped forward. He proclaimed, as the Daily Graphic reported:

‘May it please your Majesty to declare the Olympic Games of London open.’ The King, in a loud voice, replied immediately: ‘I declare the Olympic Games of London open.’ Whereupon six Royal trumpeters of the Household Cavalry blew a fanfare, the band played ‘God Save the King,’ and the international competitors gave three cheers for His Majesty.[15]

* * * *

Pierre de Courbetin declared, ‘The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part.’ It is this phrase which has survived across generations, but very few participants in 1908 would have agreed with de Courbetin’s assertion, and the London Olympics substantially tested it, almost to destruction.[16]

On the opening day the Daily Telegraph caught something of the symbolic importance of this work when it declared that:

We are on our trial, not only before the … athletes who have trusted us sufficiently to come over here, but before the trained observers who represent the twenty different nations competing, and the trial is not merely concerned with athletic matters; it will be affected by a hundred different details of character, of conduct, or organisation; and it will have a widespread and enduring influence upon the political and social future of the world.[17]

However, even the opening ceremony created opportunity for offence: the American and Swedish flags carelessly being omitted from the international line-up and in the procession of national teams the shot-putter Ralph Rose apparently failed to dip the American flag as he passed the King. His American team captain, Martin Sheridan is said to have observed provocatively that, ‘This flag dips to no earthly king.’[18] Differences of view about national representation were very much present: the Irish still not wanting to be part of the British team, Finland was unhappy under the Russian flag; New Zealand athletes having to compete as part of Australasia; Austria objecting to Bohemia being allowed its own delegation; and Danish athletes trying to block the Icelanders from entering the stadium. Opinions about the line between professional and amateur remained, and the decision by the BOC to have British officials umpiring all events didn’t instil universal trust or acceptance.

James E. Sullivan was the senior official American delegate to the Games and was openly critical of arrangements for the athletes in London, as well as the organising and the judging. He stoked Anglo-American rivalries (never mind the simmering Irish objections to not being allowed a separate team) and used media interest to ensure that his negative comments were published in US newspapers. He openly accused the British of blatant partisanship – ‘They taunted us in every conceivable way. They ridiculed our flag … Their conduct was cruel, unsportsmanlike, and absolutely unfair’ – thus reinforcing the British view of Sullivan as a firebrand.[19] And, despite the international consultation on the newly established rules undertaken by each sporting association, there were several official complaints in the first days of the Games. Some questions seem fairly trivial – whether a pole-vaulter might create a small indent in the ground to give more purchase to the base of his pole or the question of what boots could be worn in the tug-of-war: everyday footwear or specially prepared? – but they mattered tremendously to those who had travelled long distances to take part.

After deluges and poor attendance in the first week of the Games, The Sketch suggested remedying this by having a women’s marathon race, in fairly scanty traditional Greek dresses! [20] However, warmer drier weather (and discounted ticket prices) produced a much greater public response in the second. But on 23 July, the 400m running event produced a major dispute. Lieutenant Wyndham Halswelle, a Scottish runner (who won silver for 400m and bronze for 800m at the Games in Athens in 1906) posted the fastest qualifying time and was up against three Americans: John Taylor of Cornell, William Robbins of Harvard and John Carpenter representing the Irish-American Athletics Clubs. The race wasn’t run in lanes and on the final bend Halswelle attempted to overtake Carpenter who ran wide and appeared to use his right elbow to prevent his competitor coming past. The British judge, Dr Arthur Roscoe Badger, immediately flagged a foul and officials ruled Carpenter to be disqualified and the race to be re-run two days later. American commentators thought this a flagrantly biased ruling and Robbins and Taylor refused to take part, so Halswelle re-ran the final on his own; the only such an occasion in Olympic history.

The British magazine Academy claimed that ‘A more disgraceful exhibition of foul running has never been seen on an English track, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that in future American “Amateurs” will have to be debarred from taking part in athletic contests in this country, which are supposed to be reserved for gentlemen.’ No doubt all of Lord Desborough’s diplomatic skills were deployed to keep the squabbles in check. At the final dinner for officials and competitors Desborough spoke about needing to accept some differences of view, ‘There must be, owing to the variations in the manner of conducting sports in various countries, differences of opinion, but when those did arise the British Olympic Committee endeavoured to settle them according to a policy of “fair field and no favour.”’[21] The Americans were not present at the dinner to hear these words. But although their trainer Mike Murphy had argued that they should abandon the Games entirely, the fact that they stayed to the end of the summer events was later assigned by James Sullivan to ‘the courtesy and diplomacy of Lord Desborough.’[22]

On the following day the marathon was run from Windsor Castle to the stadium, with a newly established distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km), and the start arranged on the East Terrace so the Princess of Wales and her children could participate.

Start of the 1908 Olympic Marathon, East Terrace, Windsor Castle, 24 July. Photograph courtesy The Guardian 2012.

Runners could be separated from spectators, who lined the route from below the Castle into West London. The Princess recorded that she:

… pressed a button on the table, which by means of an electric cable communicated with Lord Desborough’s motor-car. Lord Desborough (who was standing on the front seat of his car) and Mr Jack M Andrew each fired a pistol, while the Crown Prince of Sweden gave them the word to go.[23]

75 athletes had entered and 55 runners set off on the day, representing 16 nations, with a hot day resulting in only 27 making it to the finish. The first runner into the stadium was the Italian Dorando Pietri. Over the next dramatic minutes it became clear he was suffering from serious exhaustion. He turned the wrong way inside the stadium, was re-directed around the track, but stumbled and fell, only to be picked up by officials, who understandably hoped he could finish the race. He collapsed across the finish line. Although Pietri was declared the winner, American protests ensued and, after debate amongst the umpires, the decision was reversed and Pietri disqualified for having assistance. The American runner Johnny Hayes was confirmed as the winner, achieving a new Olympic Record of 2 hours, 55 minutes, 18.4 seconds.

Dorando Pietri being helped across the marathon finishing line by Jack Andrew, the clerk of the course, and Dr Michael Bulger of the Irish Amateur Athletic Association and chief medical officer for the day. Photograph courtesy The Guardian 2012.

Overnight, however, Dorando Pietri became an international sensation. Desborough sent flowers and a note, ‘with every wish for your speedy and completer recovery’, and referred to his ‘splendid achievement, which has the sincere sympathy of every man and woman in the vast crowd at the Stadium.’[24] At the Olympic prize-giving Queen Alexandra expressed the public view when she presented him with a special silver-gilt trophy. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was beside the track both as a medical officer and as a correspondent for the Daily Mail, remarked, ‘The Italian‘s great performance can never be effaced from our records of sport, be the decision of the judges what they may.’[25]

Queen Alexandra with Lord Desborough presenting her personal trophy to Dorando Pietri. Photograph courtesy The Guardian 2012.

Part III will be published tomorrow.


[1] Matthew P Llewelyn, ‘Rule Britannia: Nationalism, Identity, and the Modern Olympic Games’, PhD dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania, 2010, p67.

[2] Paul Greenhalgh, ‘Art, Politics and Society at the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908’, Art History, Volume 8, No4 December 1985, pp433-452.

[3] Lord Desborough to Ettie Desborough, 1 May 1908, Bath Club, Hertfordshire Archives and Library Studies [HALS], C1159/410.

[4] Ibid., 17 May 1908, 16 Queen Street London, HALS, D/ERv C1159/412.

[5] ‘Introduction’, Rebecca Jenkins, The First London Olympics 1908 – The definitive story of London’s most sensational Olympics to date, Piatkus, London, 2008.

[6] See Bob Wilcock, The 1908 Olympic Games, the Great Stadium and the Marathon: A Pictorial Record, The Society of Olympic Collectors,2008.

[7] George Orwell, ‘The Sporting Spirit, in The Tribune, London, December 1945, quoted in Matthew P Llewellyn, 2010, op.cit., p117.

[8] The suffrage demonstrations included the ‘Mud March’ of 9 February 1907 and ‘Women’s Sunday’ on 21 June 1908 at which half a million protestors attended in Hyde Park.

[9] Matthew P Llewellyn, op.cit., p90.

[10] ‘Dinner for Competitors’, The Times, July 13, 1908, p. 7; quoted in Matthew P. Llewelyn, op.cit..

[11] Rebecca Jenkins, 2008, op.cit., p75.

[12] Keith Baker, op.cit., p14; Baker makes the point that by the end of the Games the BOC ended with a remarkable profit of £6,000.

[13] Baker, ibid, p20.

[14] Quoted in Frank Deford, ‘The Little-Known History of How the Modern Olympics Got Their Start’, in Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012.

[15] The Daily Graphic, Tuesday 14 July 1908, p2; Eugen Sandow was a celebrity bodybuilder and strongman.

[16] De Courbetain’s phrase derived from a sermon preached in St Paul’s on the first Sunday after the start of the Games, when Ethelbert Talbot, the Episcopalian Bishop of Pennsylvania referred to, ‘… the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St Paul tells how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible, but incorruptible…’

[17] ‘King Edward and the Olympic Games’, The Daily Telegraph, 13 July 1908; reprinted in Martin Smith, The Telegraph Book of the Olympics, Aurum Press, 2012.

[18] See Keith Baker, op.cit., p27-28; much discussion swirled around the Ralph Rose ‘incident’, at the time and subsequently.

[19] Quoted by Matthew P Llewellyn, op.cit., p93

[20] A photographic illustration featured a young model, Miss Pattie Wells, wearing a ‘traditional Greek costume’ of a light pleated dress which finished well above the knee; The Sketch, London, 22 July 1908, supplement p10

[21] At the Holborn Restaurant, as reported in the Daily Mail, 24 July 1908; quoted by Rebecca Jenkins, 2008, op.cit., p186

[22] Jenkins, 2008, ibid, p186

[23] Bob Wilcock, op.cit., p31; Jack Andrew was the Honorary Secretary of the Polytechnic Harriers who had laid out the marathon course into London.

[24] As reported in The Globe, 25 July 1908.

[25] Wilcock, 2008, op.cit., p102

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