Lord Desborough and the 1908 Olympics – Part III

Dreams and Reality: Expectation and Legacy

The 1908 Gold Medal, designed by sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal.

1 September 2021

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

Here is the third and last part 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 on 30 August and the second part on 31 August. There is a presentation of the authors in the first part.

The disputes at the 1908 London Olympics exposed prejudices and shifting expectations of what an Olympic Games should aim to be. The differences between British and American athletes were in part about training, with American athletes often employing professional coaches to further their best chances of winning. Although self-evident today (particularly in a sporting world of ‘marginal gains’) such an approach was still anathema to some. G. K. Chesterton proclaimed that:

We in England make sport prominent, we make it pervasive; but we do not in our souls make it important. To the American sportsman the thing is like patriotism or theology … We must look into [the American sportsman] not for the light vices of vain or sensual loungers, but for the solid vices of statesmen or fanatics, for the sins of men inflamed by patriotism or religion. He cannot shake hands after the fight . . .  We should condemn him not only as a cad but as a fool … What is the fun of being a winner if one is not admired for one’s way of winning? What is the pleasure of gaining glory if one loses honour.[1]

This was probably an extreme view, and one countered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s judgement that Americans should be admired not least for their desire for victory and their ‘remarkable appearance of all-round excellence.’[2]

The range and depth of American complaints about the London Games – despite supportive views from some of the American sporting establishment – continued, so that Theodore Cook felt obliged to publish an extended response, separate from the official report he submitted to the IOC. There is a bitter tone to his riposte:

We are very well aware that many shortcomings were apparent in the organization of the most complicated international meeting that that has ever taken place. But it is curious that, alone among our thousands of visitors, Mr Sullivan and his friends should have left us not merely without a word of thanks, but with the accusations of discourtesy, inhospitality, and deliberate dishonesty; lone amongst them, he refused the invitation both of the Amateur Athletics Association and of the English Government to the dinners given to the more important of the foreign officials; alone among the representatives of twenty nations, he and his friends continually protested against everything while the Games were in progress, and continued to misrepresent the facts after they were over.[3]

Other Americans went out of their way to cooperate with Lord Desborough in helping heal wounds after the Games and re-establishing normal international sporting relations. The American Olympic Committee President Casper Whitney praised Desborough as British Olympic Council [BOC] Chairman for his ‘individual effort’ and ‘unswerving sportsmanship’ and conceded that, ‘We have here in America the same fault-finding, suspicious and bickering classes that you have in England.’[4]

The 1908 Games brought renewed focus on the amateur-professional issues. The key figure of James Sullivan rose to seniority in American athletics very much on a platform of promoting untainted amateur sport. He had no desire to be dictated to by the British and, as Rebecca Jenkins puts it, ‘Whereas to sportsmen like Lord Desborough or to Baron de Courbertin the concept was about perpetuating the spirit of a gentlemanly code, Sullivan’s evangelical determination to root out sham amateurs – athletes who performed for money – was about a battle to distinguish socially valuable sport from the “sinful” world of seedy gambling parlours and rigged boxing matches that flourished in the big city. Sullivan was fired by an almost religious belief in sport as a mechanism for the betterment of society.’

In the background were issues of social distinction and class. When, in the 1890s, Desborough (as Willy Grenfell) had accepted the position of President of the newly formed Bartitsu Club, created by Edward Barton-Wright, it extended his interest in fencing as a combat sport. But an interview with the Daily Mail exemplified how this new martial art was something open and participative – including for women – but in actuality was targeted at those from certain social strata.

‘The idea,’ said Mr. Grenfell, to a Daily Mail representative, ‘is to establish an athletic class for people of good standing, and it seemed to us best to establish it in the form of a club, so as to be able to exclude undesirable persons. So members will be able to come themselves, and to send their children and the ladies of their family for instruction with every assurance that they will be running no risk of objectionable associations.’[5]

The modern Olympics openly promoted a myth that the ancient Greek games were contested amongst ‘amateurs’, when the evidence suggests that monetary prizes were normal and important to participants. The Greeks had no notion of amateurism, and it was a deliberate obfuscation to suggest otherwise. However, as Lincoln Allison, in his extensive investigations into amateurism, explains how it was a crucial proposition to make the Olympic ideal able to promote universal values and nobility – ‘it was no longer pagan nor professional’ – and that it contributed to peace and well-being. And he emphasised that:

De Courbetin was not a particularly clear or original thinker; his genius lay in image-making and publicity. In these terms the appeal to an ancient, arguably universal, lineage has proved immensely successful, even if it was based on an historical myth.[6]

Allison summarizes that ‘The classical-amateur myth was an extrapolation backwards of a set of values whose real home was among the European aristocracy and English public schools of the nineteenth century.’[7] The myth reinforced the concept of a moral framework for amateur sport, with the emphasis on developing skills and relishing the pleasures of playing the game: the innate value of participation.[8]

Why did the amateur-professional issue matter so much? Firstly, because so much of the enlargement of sporting activity in the second half of the nineteenth century, whether linked to schools or through the development of local clubs, emphasised a separation between the newly codified sports (in which Britain played a prominent part in devising and promoting agreed codes and rules) and the wager and betting-linked activities such as horse-racing, pugilism, road-running or professional sculling.

William Grenfell (later Lord Desborough) training in a cross-laced racing punt with Abel Beesley. Photograph by Marsh Brothers from the late 1880s when Beesley was professional racing punting champion and Grenfell amateur champion. Courtesy of the Grenfell family.

Secondly, there was a simple argument of fairness: those who participated in sport in their spare time could never easily compete with those whose daily work involved the same physical activity, whether as trainers or as watermen (in the case of rowing).

Thirdly, these anxieties were heightened in the context of international competition. It was well-known that different sports had differing definitions of who was professional and who amateur; indeed, that these definitions varied in different countries. IOC members had hoped to forestall future disputes at the Olympics and in 1905 came to a view about how to define an amateur. They asserted that an amateur:

Is a person who has never taken part in a professional race or at a meeting open to all comers, nor has raced for any form of monetary prize or for money, or for any part of money provided by the admission fees to the ground, or against professionals, and who has never at any period of his life been a professor or teacher for a salary of physical exercise.[9]

For the 1908 Games the IOC recognised that the BOC had no choice but to accept the interpretations of amateurism from each of the sporting associations.[10] As Chairman, Lord Desborough set out in his Official Report, ‘The Olympic Games are exclusively for amateurs … the underlying principle being that an athlete is no longer an amateur if he makes money out of the sport in which he engages.’[11]

Fourthly, there was a wider concern about over-specialisation. The all-rounder, like Desborough himself, could for many in Britain be seen as an ideal model: preventing sportspeople from having unbalanced lives and more broadly promoting fitness and a healthier style of life.

However, the promotion of all-round sporting ability was likely to clash with the innate specialisation of universal open contests embodied in the Olympic Games. As they evolved, despite adding multi-sport events such as pentathlon and heptathlon, each successive edition attracted athletes seeking to be the best in the world: not just the best in their county or country, and thus supremely focused on highly specific skills. This contradiction wasn’t easily recognised by those organising the 1908 Games. The continuing debates about professional and amateur have of course, been a continuing theme through the 20th Century and transmuted into revised practices, as most sportspeople at the level of world competition expect to train full-time and therefore need financial support, even if not competing directly for monetary prizes.

* * * *

The 1908 Olympic Regatta followed in the week after the athletics and was raced at Henley over a slightly lengthened regatta course of 1.5 miles, with 81 athletes from eight nations participating. The town was decorated with flags and Chinese lanterns, an open-air concert was staged at the Phyllis Court club, competitors and officials were offered lunch at Desborough’s home Taplow Court on Sunday 26 July, and special lunches appeared daily. On 31 July, the last day, Lady Desborough presented the medals – including to Leander Club, representing Britain in the eights, which defeated Belgium in the final by two lengths – followed by a municipal banquet and a ball in Henley Town Hall.

Lady Desborough, with Lord Desborough standing, before presenting the Olympic rowing medals, Henley-on-Thames, 31 July 1908. Photograph IOC/Olympic Museum Collections.

The motor-boat races and sailing events took place in the Solent: with 6,7 and 8m yacht classes off Ryde, Isle of Wight, between 27 and 29 July, and 12m yacht class races on the Clyde, involving Hera versus Mouchette (with Hera the winner) on 11 and 12 August. Speed boats were raced on Southampton Water with France winning gold with Camille driven by Emil Thubron, and silver for Britain with the 400hp Wolseley-Siddeley, driven by the Duke of Westminster even though it ran aground.

In the autumn the various ‘winter Olympic’ events were staged, including soccer with eight teams taking part and rugby with two, in the central area of the stadium at White City. The Games concluded with hockey on 31 October after which a farewell banquet was offered in Holborn, at which Lord Desborough spoke as Chairman (… before loud cheers and a rendering of Auld Lang Syne):

Whatever nationality we may belong to, we can all say tonight that both the Summer and the Autumn Games of 1908 have been a success. I will also say that we were able to extend to that great body of athletes a hospitality which will show them that we are not unmindful of the way we have been treated when we have gone abroad.[12]

Over the summer there had been a plethora of debate in the press covering the specific disputes, the overall value of the Games, and prospects for the future. Vanity Fair published its own summary on 29 July:

Great Britain has done very well, having easily kept her pride of place with twenty-three firsts in the Stadium, as against eighteen firsts won by the United States; Sweden being a bad third with five firsts. A good many of us regret the fact that British representatives were beaten in running and jumping; but there can be no doubt that we shall be beaten in these contests until our amateurs submit to a severer system of training. Every British competitor carried several pounds of superfluous flesh, whereas the Americans had almost as little flesh on their ribs as on their teeth; and when races are won by fractions of a second the man who cherishes flank fat is sure to be beaten … Our teams must put themselves under trainers if they would win the next Olympic games.[13]

On balance, whatever the controversies, the 1908 London Games both rescued and greatly re-energised Baron de Courbetin’s vision. There was widespread agreement that the unprecedented scale and complexity of these Olympic Games had been handled – without any government assistance and at very short notice – with remarkable efficiency and success. And this was very much to the credit of the team of de Courcy Laffan, Theodore Cook and Lord Desborough. Desborough was in so many ways the right person at the right time. Yet any sense of luck (and privilege) would belie the degree to which he had created his own successes, and many already regarded him as the ideal English gentleman: with his early fame as an exceptional all-round sportsman gradually matched by recognition of him as an outstanding leader of public institutions, and crucially as a ‘man who could get things done.’[14]

In his time Lord Desborough became a byword for duty, integrity, humility, diplomacy and generosity of spirit. And while others might regard these as specifically English virtues, his own aspiration was to contribute – internationally, nationally and locally –to a world that was better organised and more stable. He was devoted to creating a more open and participative society: a traditionalist in style and temperament but a believer in change. He wanted others to be inspired by individual achievement (as demonstrated by the Olympics) but he also wanted sport more generally, and in a changing world, to be a positive symbol not just of intense competition but of wider collaboration.

The organising in 1908 was not made easier by continuing disruption in domestic affairs, with large-scale suffrage demonstrations, extensive political divisions over Home Rule for Ireland, and protests and strikes over pay and conditions.[15] However, this reinforced for Desborough the importance of the Olympics as a non-political event of national importance Olympic historian Keith Baker quotes The Empire magazine’s summary that Desborough was, ‘Utterly devoid of arrogance, or side, which frequently causes Englishmen to be detested by the foreigner.’[16] Baker’s own conclusion is that, ‘He emerged from the Games … with Laffan, [as] truly one of the two great pillars on which the British Olympic movement has been built.’[17]

* * * *

Desborough travelled to oversee Britain’s participation in the 1912 Games in Stockholm, and attended as a personal guest of King Gustav V. The Games did not go well from a British sporting perspective. Given the very limited financial support the BOA could offer towards the costs for the British sporting associations to send their best competitors this was perhaps not surprising. Britain managed to send 210 men and 10 women athletes to Stockholm (compared to the 736 men and 39 women for the ‘home’ games of 1908) but came 3rd after America and Sweden, which was seen as a tremendous failure by the British press. Blame was laid on the lack of funding, inadequate training, and for some this was further proof of the poor physical state of the nation and the decadence of British society.

In August 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle, looking toward the next Olympics – planned for Berlin in 1916 – joined some correspondence in The Times, in which he advocated wide-spread reforms for British participation. Theodore Cook (in his role as editor of The Field) revived ideas of creating an Empire team as a means of extending the pool of amateur talent that Britain might draw on, an idea that had been bolstered by various ‘Empire’ contests and was raised at a Council meeting of the BOA in July 1911.[18] Over that summer Desborough was involved in the Inter-Empire sports championship staged as part of the Festival of Empire at Crystal Palace. In August 1912, Desborough chaired a special meeting to discuss potential reforms, and this produced several specific ideas, including, as Llewellyn describes ‘… a significant portion of the money raised would be used to support national governing bodies of sport develop schemes for effectively finding, training and preparing future British Olympic champions.’[19]

By this stage Desborough was ready to stand down as Chairman, feeling that he had given good service. When he did resign it seemed that ‘The loss of such a well-respected and influential leader came as a devastating blow to the BOA, particularly during a period of proposed reform.’[20] Pierre de Coubertin expressed his ‘deep regret’ upon hearing the news and thanked him for ‘the great services which you have rendered to the Olympic cause.’ In seeking a replacement, he turned to another tall and athletic aristocrat, Algernon St. Maur, the 15th Duke of Somerset.

What was planned for Berlin in 1916 could not of course take place. After WWI, the Olympic programme was resumed in Antwerp in 1920, but with Germany not taking part again until 1928. In London, the White City Stadium itself resumed a rather multifarious life as the home for greyhound racing from 1927, with occasional use for athletics, rugby and football matches (including a fixture as part of the 1966 World Cup) as well as for speedway racing and rock concerts. The White City Stadium was demolished in 1985.

As led by Lord Desborough, London salvaged an Olympic movement that might not have survived and established many of the principles and tenets of the modern Games. In their heady mix of sport and politics, glorious victory with tragic defeat, visionary leadership with detailed organising, and national significance combined with international collaboration, the 1908 Olympics represented the challenge of public service that he pursued so relentlessly and so passionately.

[1] G.K.Chesterton, ‘Americans in Sport and Jingoism’, The Illustrated London News, 15 August 1908, p161; quoted by Matthew P. Llewelyn, Rule Britannia: Nationalism, Identity, and the Modern Olympic Games’, PhD dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania, 2010, p105

[2] Matthew P Llewelyn, 2010, op.cit., p104/5

[3] Theodore A Cook, The Olympic Games of 1908 – A Reply to Certain Criticisms, 1908, p18

[4] Quoted by Matthew P Llewelyn, 2010, op.cit., p106

[5] Daily Mail, London, 13 June 1899; from a website on the history of Bartitsu; see also: http://bullshido.org/Bartitsu and https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/bartitsu-gentlemen/

[6] Lincoln Allison, Amateurism in Sport, An Analysis and a Defence, Frank Cass, London, 2001, p30

[7] Lincoln Allison, The Politics of Sport, ed. Lincoln Allison, Manchester University Press, 1986, p9

[8] Allison points out that ‘the greatest poetic expression of this sentiment is from Grantland Rice, in a poem of 1941, called “Alumnus Football”: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name/ He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game”. This is often misattributed to W.E.Henley, as it was by Alan Bennett in ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in 1961.

[9] Matthew P Llewellyn, 2010, op.cit., p74

[10] Allison points out that earlier, ‘The period between 1860 and 1890 was an adaptive phase in which many modern sporting institutions were established. It was marked by a transition from local rules and one-off agreements on rules to standardisation and bureaucratisation of sporting arrangements. In this period a few national sports themselves were at the core of popular culture and the modern reporting of sport began.’, 2001, p9

[11] Lord Desborough, Chairman’s Report, summer 1908

[12] Cited by Philip Barker, ‘The story of the first Lord of the London Olympic Rings’, 3 June 2012

[13] Vanity Fair (A Weekly Show), London, 29 July 1908

[14] Lord Desborough, obituary in The Times, 10 January 1945

[15] An Olympic webpage on the parliament.uk site makes the comparison: ‘In 2011, despite major protests over public sector pensions, there were fewer working days lost to strikes and other labour disputes than in 1948. There were eight times as many days lost in 1908, when there were disputes in the engineering and shipbuilding industries in the North East, and strikes in the cotton industry over proposals to reduce wages.’ See: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/olympic-britain/employment/picket-up/ accessed 21 01 2021

[16] Keith Baker, The 1908 Olympics, The first London Games, Sportsbooks, Cheltenham, 2008, p90-91

[17] Ibid., p93; later in his book Baker refers again to the ‘inspirational role played by Lord Desborough, although he has yet to receive the full biography he deserves.’ P177

[18] Matthew P Llewellyn, 2010, op.cit., p130

[19] Ibid., p144

[20] Ibid., p151


  1. Hi Peter Williams,
    I’m very sorry but I’ve just accidentally deleted the comment you put on my Lord Desborough article on http://www.oxfordcitywalks.co.uk whilst trying to delete 10 nonsense comments from essay writing companies and lingerie photographers etc. I now can’t put it back up. If you would care to comment again, that would be fine – very interesting articles and very much related to mine. Many thanks. Victoria

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