Historic Blunders: Fun and Games

25th June 2004 at 01:00
In 1904, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed that the 1908 games would be held in Rome. Unfortunately, the Italian prime minister did not agree. Giovanni Gioletti considered the games a waste of money, and blocked government funding.

When Vesuvius erupted in 1906, causing widespread devastation, Italy had an excuse for crying off. But the fact that Rome had saved face was small comfort to the IOC, which now had to find another venue quickly.

Luckily, an Anglo-French exhibition was being planned at Shepherd's Bush.

By persuading the organisers to incorporate a sports stadium into their arrangements in return for a cut of the takings, the IOC was able to announce that London would now host the games. With just one week to go, King Edward VII consented to appear at the opening ceremony. And when, on July 13 the Royal Family entered the gleaming stadium, which by then was being called the White City, the scene was set for what ought to have been a joyous occasion.

And so it would have been were it not for the fact that the American flag was conspicuous by its absence. This blunder infuriated the American team, and marked the start of a psychological war between them and the British.

To begin with, they twice refused to dip their standard as a salute to the king on passing the royal box during the opening ceremony. And for the duration of the games, they made daily protests against the British, marring proceedings to an extent that the games were quickly dubbed the Battle of Shepherd's Bush. They complained about boots worn by the Liverpool Police tug-of-war team, and raised hell when one of their sprinters was disqualified for cutting across a British runner.

Finally they protested, not unreasonably, that the Italian who won the final marathon had collapsed five times, and had each time been helped to his feet by officials. So strained were relations that the king flatly refused to preside over the awards ceremony, leaving the organisers no doubt wishing for a Vesuvius to swallow them up.

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