London 1908: the First Winter Olympic Programme

This weekend, winter sports fans will have their eyes glued on Sochi in Russia, where the 22nd Winter Olympics are due to begin. The Winter version of the Olympic franchise do not have the same global appeal as their Summer counterparts, as the twin constraints of geography and costs keep  many nations out: compared to the 204 teams that competed at London 2012, the most recent Summer Olympics, the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver attracted 82 nations. Still, the Winter Olympics have grown in appeal and scope over the eighty years of their official history, and they provide spectacle and drama in equal measure on the ice and on the slopes. The fact that this year’s Olympics have already attracted so much controversy, due to Russia’s human rights record, the Games’ environmental impact, and the country’s draconian treatment of homosexuals, is a sign of how big the Winter Games getting – they are now (rightly) as political contested as the Summer Olympics.

I’ve written about the Sochi LGBT debate for the Free Word Centre, although I am fascinated to see how it pans out now that the Games are on us and many people have made their sentiments clear: Barrack Obama’s decision to send Billie Jean King as one of his representatives is my favourite piece of provocation so far. What I want to do here is to think more historically about the prehistory of the Winter Olympics, particularly the series of sports that were held as part of the 1908 London Olympics under the name of the Olympic Winter Games of the Olympic Winter Programme.

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Poster for the 1924 Winter Sports at Chamonix

The official version has Chamonix 1924 as the first Winter Olympics, although it is well to remember, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) themselves point out,  that this appellation was granted only retrospectively: at the time, these sports that attracted competitors from 16 nations to the French Alps were simply held in conjunction with that year’s Paris Olympics. The 1928 Games at St Moritz were really the first to be organised under IOC auspices – and, of course, it is only from this period that we should refer to the other Olympics as the Summer Olympics: it’s anachronistic to apply this term to any Olympics before 1924. But Chamonix was not the first time that Olympic organisers had experimented with winter sports. Ice hockey featured in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp (Canada won, of course), as did figure skating, in which five nations competed across singles events for men and women and a mixed pairs event. But it is to London in 1908 that we really need to look for the start of this prehistory.

 

The 1908 Olympics started on 27 April, with the opening matches in the racquets tournament at Queen’s Club. Events were then spread across May and June, with the main two weeks of stadium-based events running at the Great Stadium in the Franco-British Exhibition grounds from 13-25 July. Sailing and motorboating took place in July and August, and then there was a break until 19 October. It was on this day that the Winter programme was launched. The idea had developed during the British Olympic Council’s planning for the Games. Their minutes of 20 December 1906, for example, record the discussion of ‘the possibility of holding Olympic Skating Competitions in the winter of 1907-08’, and the planning for what they soon referred to as the ‘Winter Sports’ and the ‘Winter Games’ carried on as the Games approached, with the dates being set at the Council’s meeting on 15 November 1907: ‘The Winter Games were definitely appointed to commence on Monday, October 19, 1908’, and a Winter Games Committee was subsequently set up to plan the events. Figure and sped skating were both discussed, with the former kept and the latter dropped, and the Committee decided to hold the team sports played in Britain in winter as part of this experimental programme. Football, hockey, lacrosse, and rugby thus found themselves as part of the first Winter Games.

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Great Britain’s football team at the 1908 Olympic Games

The Winter Programme started at the Stadium on 19 October, as planned, with Denmark beating France B 9-0 in the football. Over the next two weeks, the team sports all took place. Great Britain won the football, beating Denmark 2-0 in the final watched by just 8,000 people. The hockey was also won by Great Britain, though this was a tournament in which England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales entered separate teams, all under the name of Great Britain, with France and Germany making up the numbers. The final saw England beat Ireland 8-1 in front of 5,000 people. The lacrosse tournament had an even lower profile: with only two teams involved, Canada and Great Britain, there was only one match, with Canada taking gold medal after a 14-10 victory. The rugby was similarly low-key, a two-team tournament between the touring Australian side and the British county champions, Cornwall, although the record books have to show this as Great Britain. Australia won 32-3. As well as these team sports, the Winter Programme involved boxing, a one-day tournament for five weight classes at the Northampton Institute in Clerkenwell.

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Madge and Edgar Syers

It is what happened at Prince’s Skating Club, Knightsbridge, however, that makes this Winter Programme of the 1908 Olympics so significant. For here, on 28 and 29 October, the figure skating took place, the first time in Olympic history that an ice-based sport had featured. Prince’s Club was a private members establishment which had been running since 1896. For the Olympics, it hosted four competitions: Individual events for Gentlemen and Ladies; a Special Figures event for Gentlemen; and Pairs Skating. The last of these was pioneering, not just for it being an ice-based sport, but as the first time that the Olympics had included a mixed-sex aesthetic sport. Inevitably, the competition was rather small: this was an expensive niche sport at the time, and only 21 competitors from 6 nations took part. However, this included leading figures in the sport, such as the Swede Ulrich Salchow (whose name we will hear a lot from Sochi as skaters attempt their double and triple Salchows), world champion every year  bar one between 1901 and 1911, and Madge Syers of Britain, whose entry in the 1902 men’s world championships had forced the International Skating Union to create a separate event for women. Over the two days of competition, the four gold medals went to Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Great Britain, Syers winning the Ladies’ event and also winning bronze with her husband Edgar in the Pairs. The skating events attracted a great deal of press attention, with pictorial features in many of the dailies and large technical coverage in The Field, and the Olympics certainly helped to popularise skating in Britain.

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Ulrich Salchow

It is impossible to claim that what happened in London in October 1908 was the first Winter Olympics. That phrase has no currency until the 1920s, when separate events, under the IOC’s auspices and featuring only alpine and ice-based sports, were first held. However, this Winter Programme was a crucial moment in Olympic history, not least for bringing ice into the equation. As historians, we should look back at this moment in the prehistory of Sochi 2014 for a reminder that the Olympics have always been experimental, and that the programme has never fossilised.

 

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Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane

(With apologies to Bob Dylan for the title)

Each year, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is updated to bring in famous and significant people who have recently died. This year’s intake to this essential reference work has recently been publicised in the press for its emphasis on what Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer called “rebels and mavericks”, including comedian Norman Wisdom, designer Alexander McQueen, and novelist Beryl Bainbridge. I’m delighted to have been involved in this process, as I’ve written the entry on the biggest sporting maverick amongst the new entrants, snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins (1949-2010).

Alex Higgins in 1968, at the start of his career

Alex Higgins in 1968, at the start of his career

Higgins was a fascinating person to write on, and a big change from most of my previous contributions to DNB, like athletes Jack London, William Applegarth, Donald Thompson, and Christopher Brasher. Only athletics promoter Andy Norman, a deeply controversial figure both inside and outside the sport, has provided such a challenge: how to represent a miniature biography in a balanced way without denigrating the achievements or glossing over the more difficult aspects of the subject’s personal life. As DNB editor Lawrence Goldman put it in his interview with Thorpe, “nobody would be kept out because they were disreputable”, and there were many aspects of Higgins’ life that fell into this category. His widely publicised drinking (before, during, and after  matches) and acknowledged cocaine use, his extra-marital affairs, his frequent rows with officials, journalists, and fellow players, and his violent outbursts that got him banned from the game all spring to mind. And he is a classic example of the importance of the controversial aspects of family lives that Goldman noted when he said  “Our job is to represent their marriages, their children and even their bastards”, especially as Higgins denied his paternity of one child. I’ve had to balance this with his achievements in winning the world title twice, and the immense popularity and goodwill that his inspired in his brief spell as the people’s champion. The pathos of his later years, when Higgins, in declining health, lived out his life in relative obscurity and died alone, adds another twist to the difficult life.

Alex Higgins in 2008, two years before his death

Alex Higgins in 2008, two years before his death

Like many academics, researchers, and readers, I value the DNB for the way in which it provides short lives and a way into the fuller biographies of thousands of famous and notable individuals. Its grouped lives, such as those of the 1930s Foreign Office Glamour Boys or the key figures in the Suffragette movement, are also models in collective biography. As a sports historian, I applaud the way in which the editors have broadened the Dictionary’s remit to ensure that key figures from all areas of popular culture are now included alongside the project’s more traditional concerns. Higgins, a figure who could attract television audiences of millions to watch his dynamic snooker, and who could command more column inches on the front pages of the papers than on the sports pages, deserves to be in there, along with the other “rebels and mavericks”.

 

Access: A brief extract from my piece on Higgins appears in The Guardian. The DNB is a subscription service, available here. Most university and public libraries in the UK subscribe to it – check with your institution.

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‘Inspire a Publication’: new chapter in Routledge Olympic Handbook

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Volume 2 of the Routledge Handbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is now out, edited by Vassil Girginov of Brunel University. It’s a fascinating project, with both volumes devoted to a diverse, wide-ranging, and critical discussion of the Games. Across the two volumes, themes include bidding, planning, legacy, celebrity, and protests, and the authors who have contributed include academics from a range of backgrounds. My chapter is called ‘Inspire a Publication: Books, Journals, and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’, and is part of the section on Documenting the Games. Big thanks go to Vassil for his vision and hard work in managing this huge project.

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Apollo

ApolloTheatreStageDoorEvery year, my brother takes my children, my wife, and me to the theatre as a Christmas treat. It’s a lovely tradition that gives us all an annual highlight, as we experience the best of the West End as a family. This year, we all chose The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s famous novel about a boy with learning difficulties making sense of his world. We had all read the book, and were keen to see the acclaimed stage version. After meeting for dinner, we made our way through China Town in heavy rain, and got to the Apollo Theatre shortly before the curtain. Our seats in the dress circle gave us a good view of the stage, and gave us a great sense of the ornate Edwardian styling that still defines this beautiful theatre. Seeing such a modern play, with its set based on graph paper, its discordant sound effects, and its contemporary story of autism, in this heritage surrounding was a great reminder of the continuities and changes that characterise so much leisure and popular culture: the settings remain the same while the stories and the people change.

You probably know what happened next. Forty minutes into the play, I heard screaming and shouting from the upper circle, and saw the actors run to the back of the stage. It felt like part of the play, with its deliberately confusing and discordant effects. That feeling went within a second, as large chunks of debris fell past our seats in the dress circle and on to the people in the stalls, and as we were all enveloped in a cloud of black dust, a century’s worth of particles from the roof void released onto an unsuspecting crowd. The fabric of the theatre coated us, and we had no option but to inhale it.

The news channels have been full of the story, and I don’t need to narrate it here. Key personal details will stay with me forever, though. The calm but precise way in which my family got together and got out of the auditorium, along with the rest of the crowd, with no traces of panic anywhere. The sheer confusion over what we had just witnessed, and the fear that there would be many serious casualties in the stalls, where the debris fell. Helping a girl, clearly in shock and with a small but messy cut on her head, to get down the stairs. With my youngest son in shock, being among the first into the foyer of the Geilgud Theatre, where the front of house staff immediately took charge with water, tea, and blankets, turning the room into a refuge and triage centre for dozens of the Apollo audience. Distributing water and tea to the walking wounded from the stalls as they filed in with their faces and clothes black with dust, and blood already drying on their faces. The calm and patient elderly Japanese man who sat quietly waiting for triage with his right hand at completely There was something surreal about these moments, as the elegant surroundings of a West End foyer was quickly transformed into a makeshift centre for the injured, the shocked, and the confused. There was plenty of humour, too – the now clichéd joke about the show being so good that it brought the house down was doing the rounds in minutes, while others reached for the old chestnut of ‘But what did you think of the play, Mrs Lincoln?’ My top award for Blitz spirit goes to the man with the head wound who asked if I could pop some Scotch into the glass of water I was offering him. And over it all, the amazing work being done by the emergency services – there is nothing like a major incident to make you appreciate how staggeringly brilliant and selfless these people are.

I’m not the person to write the history of this event in which, miraculously, no-one was killed. All I can do is think about the shock of seeing an Edwardian theatre in the heart of London’s West End being turned into a disaster zone in seconds, and how the people of that historic entertainment community come together to deal with disaster.

 

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New book: Women, Sport and Modernity by Fiona Skillen

I’m delighted to see Fiona Skillen‘s first book has come out – Women, Sport and Modernity in Interwar Britain. It’s part of the new series of sports history monographs that Peter Lang are publishing in the series Sport, History and Culture, where it joins Dave Day’s Professional, Amateurs and Performance. The series is mainly dedicated to bringing expanded versions of excellent PhD theses to the wider audiences that they deserve, and it’s great to see Fiona’s work in this setting.

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A New Job

Starting next week, I’m joining the teaching staff at the University of Winchester as a part-time tutor in two departments – Sports Studies and History. I’ll be leading a module on the history of sport on the Sports Studies department’s undergraduate course, team teaching on modules on sport sociology and sports development, and supervising some undergraduate dissertations. In History, I’ll be supervising some undergraduate dissertations, teaching an MA module on Victorian sport and leisure, and contributing to another MA module on historiography. I’m excited about returning to Winchester, where I taught in the 1990s when it was King Alfred’s College, and I’m looking forward to meeting the students and working with a range of colleagues across the disciplines.

To coincide with this new post, I’ve relaunched my profile on Academia.edu, where you can find some of my published papers. I’ll be adding more soon.

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Plough Lane Remembered

As I write, my football team, Brentford FC, are halfway through their Football League Trophy match against AFC Wimbledon. It’s 1-0 to Brentford at half-time. I couldn’t make the game tonight, but my thoughts, as ever, are there, especially as this is the only knock-out competition in which we have a chance of making it to Wembley. However, tonight I’m thinking less about that and more about a match I went to against the old Wimbledon FC, the original club from before the Milton Keynes Franchise arrived and the grassroots AFC Wimbledon emerged.

It was a League match in the old Fourth Division back in January 1978. Wimbledon were enjoying their first season in the League, and we were hoping to escape from the basement. We had already beaten them 4-1 at Griffin Park back in August, and my brother David and I made the bus trip across south-west London to see the return fixture. I remember the ground as pretty run-down and unloved, although the club had done brilliantly in getting into the League: indeed, our grandfather, who had played for Dulwich Hamlet against Wimbledon back in the 1920s, found it hilarious that this could ever be a league ground.

Womble_Till_I_Die!_Plough_Lane_gatesI don’t remember much of the match – I was 11, and I have to be honest and admit that I’ve had to look up the score at the wonderful stats site 11v11 (it was a 1-1 draw, for the record). My main memories are of the Brentford fans all arriving early and strolling into the home end. These were the bad old days of football hooliganism, remember, and fans bragged about their ability to take an end, but we certainly weren’t hooligans and I didn’t see any hint of fighting, so the impression I got was that the home fans can’t have been that bothered. I remember loud singing, and a good atmosphere, and I remember that David had a home-made banner – some partisan message painted on an old sheet. I remember the obligatory pitch invasion at the end – totally normal for lower league matches at that time. The only scary note came as David and I walked the length of the pitch to leave at the far end, when a Wimbledon fan who had obviously clocked our banner came up behind and relieved us of it. Again, no violence or intimidation, just a bit of casual pickpocketing.

Brentford left Division 4 at the end of that season, and so much of that promotion season still remains fresh for me – it was a formative experience, the first time that my team had really achieved anything. Wimbledon took a bit longer, but went on to their meteoric rise to the First Division and FA Cup triumph before their equally spectacular fall into debt and destruction. Now that AFC Wimbledon are back in the League alongside the interlopers from Milton Keynes, the circle is feeling complete. But Plough Lane, that stadium that my grandfather laughed at and where we had our banner nicked, is long gone. Wimbledon left it in 1998 for their nomadic last few years, and the ground was demolished in 2002. There is now a housing estate on the site, with a memory of the club resonating through the estate’s name, Reynolds Gate, named for Wimbledon legend Eddie Reynolds.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, the score in tonight’s game has gone from 1-0 to 5-1. Brentford are on the verge of their best victory for some time. For me, though, sitting here and following it on-line, the abiding memory that will come whenever I hear the names of Brentford and Wimbledon together, will be of a cold January in the late 1970s and a stolen banner.

 

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Pride and Prejudice at the Winter Olympics

The Free Word Centre invited me to write a piece for their website giving some historical perspective to the International Olympic Committee’s attitude towards the Sochi boycott calls. It looks at LGBT issues, and at some of the other times that the IOC has had to make a stand or ignore a political issue. You can read the post here.

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Emily Wilding Davison and the Political Disruption of Sport

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Davison’s martyrdom reported in The Suffragette, 1913

Over the last month, many people have been marking the centenary of Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death. Davison died in June 1913 after falling under Anmer, King George VI’s horse, at the Epsom Derby. She walked on to the racecourse as the horses thundered past, apparently with the intention of pinning a scarf to his bridle so that the Votes for Women message would be seen by the thousands of racegoers (including the royal family) and, through press and newsreel coverage, by millions beyond Epsom. Davison tragically misjudged the speed of the horses, and she died as a result of the injuries she received when Anmer hit her at full speed. While her death was an accident rather than suicide, she has become famous as the  martyr of the campaign for women’s votes.

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Emily Davison’s grave, St Mary the Virgin, Morpeth

To mark the anniversary, Davison’s story was told by Clare Balding in Secrets of a Suffragettean excellent Channel 4 documentary, which used forensic techniques on newsreel footage to chart Davison’s final steps and the fatal impact from Anmer. In Morpeth, where Davison is buried, the Emily Inspires group organised a range of memorial and celebratory activities, including workshops, music, and a 100-strong bicycle ride. Her story also inspired various dramatic reinterpretations, including Tim Benjamin’s opera Emily, which premieres in Todmorden this week, and Kate Willoughby’s touring play To Freedom’s Cause, which I was lucky enough to see at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. Here, Davison was presented as a fun-loving, vivacious woman who was dedicated to improving the lot of her gender. Willoughby’s portrayal emphasised her humanity in a way that is often lost in the official hagiography, with the rest of the cast playing off her to show the connections of family, friendship, and the WSPU that informed her decision to walk on to the racecourse. Tim Bennett’s portrayal of Anmer’s jockey, Herbert Jones, was similarly compassionate, as we watched a man who was catapulted, against his will, into history trying to deal with this tragedy. This was an intense, moving, and insightful play which deserves a wide audience. 

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Dutch campaign against the 1936 Berlin Olympics

As a sports historian, I’ve found the process of reinterpreting Davison’s death to be fascinating: and when we put these reinterpretations alongside some other events that have gone on recently, we can see some possibly jarring juxtapositions. Davison chose a sporting event for her protest. The WSPU had done this before, from sailing a boat along the course of the University boat race in 1908 to their arson attacks on gold club houses, cricket pavilions, and racecourses. Like many other political organisations since – including the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Black September in 1972, and trade union and Jewish groups opposed to the 1936 Olympics – the WSPU targeted sport because their attacks were bound to be noticed. Sporting events, then as now, have large audiences and press coverage, and any disruption to the event gets attention. Most such disruptions then generate a scripted knee-jerk reaction from people who think that sport should be apolitical, and this has been what has been so fascinating over the last month. Just as many people were retrospectively praising Davison for her bravery and risk-taking in a political cause, so we saw 2012 boat race protester Trenton Oldfield facing deportation, and the instant ‘snuffing out’ on anti-gay marriage protests on the tennis court at Roland Garros in the French Open final. Then, over the last week, we have witnessed the protests in Brazil that have focussed on the expense of hosting the Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympic Games.

How we react to these different protests depends, of course, on our own politics. From my liberal perspective, I share more ground with Trenton Oldfield (anti-elitism) and Emily Davison (pro-democracy and sexual equality) than I do with the anti-gay marriage protesters in France, who I was happy to see ‘snuffed out’. However, that’s too obvious to be worthy of note. Instead, we need to recognise that there is a long history to political disruptions of sporting events, and that what one generation sees as a loathsome expression of trying to politicise sport, a later generation can see as the turning point in a struggle.

 

 

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Wenlock here we come

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William Penny Brookes, founder of the Wenlock Olympian Society

This year’s Wenlock Olympian Games will take place through July, starting on Saturday 6th with the equestrian event and ending on Sunday 21st with the 50 mile walk. I’m hoping to compete in the 7 mile road race, and complete a heritage double for 2013 of running in both the Wenlock Olympian Games and the Cotswold Olimpicks. I’ll be blogging on Wenlock properly soon. Meanwhile, it’s great to see that my friend Chris Cannon, the indefatigable archivist of the Wenlock Olympian Society, is giving a lecture on the history of the Wenlock Olympian Games in Qatar on 29 June. Chris is a great ambassador for the Games, and his work helps the modern Olympic movement to understand its pre-Coubertin roots.

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