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Politics and the Olympic Games

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The 1908 Olympic Games was the scene of several political protests. A number of Irish athletes withdrew in protest at being ordered to compete on behalf of Great Britain rather than their own country.

There was also a dispute during the opening ceremony. It was decided that it would be a good idea for the athletes to march into the stadium by nation. Finland, which was then under Russian rule, refused to march under the Russian flag.

Ralph Rose, a shot-putter, and the United States flag bearer, refused to dip the Stars and Stripes to the Royal Box. Rose, a staunch republican, later said: “This flag dips to no earthly king.”

The conflict between the United States and Britain continued in the events that followed. After their performance in the 1904 Olympics the United States thought they would win most of the events in London. However, they seem to have forgotten that the main reason for this was that there was an absence of competition. A large number of countries had boycotted the St. Louis Olympics. Of the 84 events, only 42 included athletes who were not from the United States.

In the first round of the tug-of-war contest the British easily defeated the Americans. The stunned Americans immediately complained that the British team (made up of police officers from Liverpool) were wearing illegal boots. When the appeal was rejected, the Americans withdrew from the contest.

Wyndham Halswelle of the Highland Light Infantry, was the favourite for the 400 metres. He confirmed this by setting new Olympic record time of 48.4sec in the semi-final. Halswelle lined up in the final against three Americans – John Taylor, William Robbins and John Carpenter.

At this time athletes did not have to run in lanes. Olympic officials became concerned that the American trio might attempt to gang up on Halswelle. However, during the race, Taylor and Robbins could not keep up with Halswelle. Carpenter had a narrow lead as they entered the final straight. As Halswelle went to overtake Carpenter, the American veered across his path, forcing him off the track. The judges immediately removed the finish tape and declared the race void. Carpenter was disqualified and the race was re-run. Knowing that Halswelle would win easily, Taylor and Robbins refused to take part in the re-run final.

Halswelle won the gold medal but was so disillusioned by the American tactics, decided to retire from athletics. He rejoined his regiment and on 31st March, 1915, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet while serving in France during the First World War.

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