“The first truly international championships in Olympic history” – an opinion expressed by the Olympic Handbook of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians on the 1908 London Olympics.
This wasn’t to say the event didn’t have its share of problems. Weather intervened, the rivalry between the American and British athletes was not an advertisement for the ideals of Olympics. The opening ceremony was a disaster, first the American flags went missing and then the American contingent refused to dip the flag during the parade in presence of King Edward VII. Unlike today, those were the uncertain days – where issues were brewing in lead up to the first of the two Great wars.
Amateur games, Amateur behaviour!
When the event started, there were suspicions on the part of many British judges favouring their countrymen, which didn’t go well with the Americans. The most controversial was the 400m finals.
Four runners made it to the medal round of the 400m clash – three Americans and one British. J.C. Carpenter (Cornell University), W.C. Robbins (Harvard University) and from the Irish American A.C was the third American participant J.B. Taylor.
Lieutenant. Wyndham Halswelle was the sole British runner, and he had set the Olympic record of 48.4 seconds coming into the finals.
In the finals, a bad start for Taylor put him out of the title contention. Robbins got off his blocks quickly and was ahead of the other two in what was to be a three way battle. Carpenter and Halswelle were breathing down in each other’s neck to get ahead of Robbins, who held a slender lead.
Carpenter made the move and it stuck overtaking Robbins. In doing so, he had ran diagonally to that of Halswelle. The results stood this way: Carpenter first (47.8 s), Halswelle second and Robbins third. Before the Americans could celebrate, the results were voided and a rerun was ordered.
Mr Roscoe Badger, one of the umpires signalled that Carpenter had obstructed Halswelle as he attempted to pass him. This was permitted under American regulations, but not in those used in Britain.
Badger’s testimony, given at an inquiry that night, read: “The position of [William] Robbins… was that he was leading and about a yard in front of Carpenter. Robbins and Carpenter were in such a position as to compel Halswelle to run very wide all round the bend, and as they swung into the straight Halswelle made a big effort and was gaining hard; but running up the straight the further they went the wider Carpenter went out from the verge, keeping his right shoulder sufficiently in front of Mr. Halswelle to prevent his passing.”
Carpenter was vocal about the incident – “Halswelle had lots of room to pass me on either side. We just raced him off his feet. He couldn’t stand the pace.”
With Carpenter disqualified for the ‘foul’ incident, the rerun would feature only the three racers. The American contingent enraged by this decision decided to boycott and refused to participate.
The pride and ego of the Americans were hurt, but British authorities went on with it. Wyndham Halswelle took part and he ambled the 400 meter distance in 50 seconds, in what would turn out to be the only walk over in Olympic history.
These incidents of misinterpreting the rules between countries prompted the need to have uniform competition rules. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) was formed by the time the next Olympic event in 1912 concluded.