Having caught a bad dose of Olympic Fever this summer, I was pleased to spot London’s Olympic Follies: The Madness and Mayhem of the 1908 London Games: A Cautionary Tale by Graeme Kent in the recent Kindle sale. I was keen to find out more about the history of the modern Olympic Games, and particularly London’s place in that history.
London 1908 was the fourth modern Olympiad, if we’re not counting the unofficial games in Athens in 1906. The Olympic movement was still gaining fame and learning lessons. With a large stadium built in White City, London was ready to go, having taken over at fairly short notice from Rome which found itself unable to host the games. The games did not run smoothly however, with many accusations from the Americans of favouritism by British officials. Teams entered were not the strictly national ones we would recognise today – for example a team from Liverpool Police was entered in the tug of war, and Britain was represented at rugby by Cornwall, after the four national governing bodies couldn’t reach an agreement on entering a team – a forerunner of this year’s British football teams disagreements.
The rather lengthy full title of London’s Olympic Follies led me to expect a lively and entertaining tale of plans gone awry, last minute disasters and poorly judged decisions. There is plenty of madness and mayhem in the many tales of the various Olympic events, but overall it is a rather dry and repetitive tale.
The majority of the book is an account of each event held at the 1908 London Olympics. We are introduced to the competitors, told of the Americans grievances over this particular event, and then given an account of the final. At first this seems interesting, but it soon becomes apparent that this is going to be the main focus of the book. It seems like each event was the same – nothing ran smoothly, and the Americans had a grumble about everything.
The only tale which stood out as interesting and with a bit of excitement is perhaps the most well-known, that of the men’s marathon. We hear about competitors being given brandy and champagne along the route, and of many who collapse from exhaustion. But one of the most famous competitors was Dorando Pietri, who collapsed several times after entering the White City stadium at the end of the marathon, only to be helped by officials and subsequently disqualified. The story of the marathon contained enough tension and interest to be a spot of light in London’s Olympic Follies, but sadly the remainder is a rather dull affair.
If you want to know about the 1908 London Olympics in great details, then you may well enjoy London’s Olympic Follies. Personally, I found it dull and repetitive, but I can’t deny that Graeme Kent seems to have done his research – the book is rich in detail.
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