Remembering Olympics Of London's Past
By Phil Jackman
This is the third time the city of London has hosted the Summer Olympics, and you have to love the way it came by the honored position initially. The year was 1908 and it was Rome that was supposed to do the hosting. Unfortunately, two years prior, Mt. Vesuvius, on the coast of the Bay of Naples, had blown its top, the place was in shambles and the party had to be moved.
The modern Olympics had grown steadily since being restarted in 1896, but, still, it was mostly for men, only 44 women being included in the cast of 2,023 participants, representing 22 nations in 109 events.
Of particular note that year was the beginning of the myth that the flag bearer for the United States in the opening ceremonies refused to dip the flag as a show of respect to the king of England, stating "this flag dips to no earthly king." Although this has been debunked repeatedly during the last century, the fact is Americans don't dip the flag for anyone. Congress got into the act in 1942, making it a law that the flag wouldn't be dipped to any person or thing.
Also, the holder of the world record in the pole vault (12 feet, 9 inches) at the time was American Walter Dray, who did not compete because his mother worried he'd hurt himself. Raise your hand if you think he was ever able to live that down. The Brits won the team medal count in 1908, which the home team often does, and have rarely been heard from since.
The next time London was dialed up was 1944, but a little thing known as World War II did away with the Games and the one preceding in 1940, when Japan was supposed to host. When Tokyo lost that quadrennial, Helsinki was substituted, but it lost out when Finland was invaded by Russia. Lots of crazy stuff going on back then.
Considering more than half the world was against Adolf Hitler and Berlin being given the Olympics in 1936 to advertise the "master race" and subsequent cancellations for a dozen years, it appeared as if the games were due for another 2,000-year sabbatical. Oh, and don't forget there was an eight-year pause between 1912 and 1920 because of the war to end all wars. Berlin was due up in 1916.
But merry ol' England was there to pick up the pieces in 1948 and with Germany and Japan "sitting out for their aggressiveness" (yes, that was the way the International Olympic Committee described World War II), London 1948 was a huge success, probably saving the show.
By that time, the Olympics had discovered women -- 365 now competing and 59 nations taking part -- and the United States was back where it belonged, atop the medal standings list. After all, the Russians and East Germans were home practicing up, and this medal-count thing was about to change drastically. Politics would soon run rampant.
The stars of the show were a 17-year-old high school kid from California named Bob Mathias; a 30-year-old farmer's daughter from Holland named Fanny Blankers-Koen; and a world's greatest hurdler named Harrison "Bones" Dillard, who didn't make the U.S. team in his specialty, so he had to sneak in as a sprinter.
Mathias, who ended up winning the decathlon in 1948, repeating in Helsinki in 1952, moved on to become a terrific fullback at Stanford and later a congressman. He was once asked how he would have made out going against Jim Thorpe head-to-head.
"I couldn't tie his shoes," Mathias said.
Mathias, for the most part, was learning some of the disciplines of the decathlon as he went along after having been introduced to the event that spring. For instance, he lost a good throw in the shot put by exiting the throwing circle from the front, a no-no. He lost a winning throw in the discus when his marker was knocked over in the rain and gloom of the second day of competition, which dragged on for about 12 hours. Cars had to be driven out on the field to light the landing area in the javelin throw.
Blankers-Koen was a 30-year-old, married mother of two when she had a second chance after competing in Germany 12 years before. She held a dozen world records despite being too old, according to some, and she was restricted to four events by rule. So, she won all four on an abbreviated women's program that numbered only nine events. She probably would have won three more (including relays) if permitted to compete.
Dillard was the world-record holder and winner of 82 straight hurdles events when he lost in the U.S. Olympic Trials. But he made the squad after finishing third in the 100-meter spring (because his hero, Jesse Owens, had run the event) and won the Olympic final in what appeared to be a five-man dead heat.
Posted July 27, 2012