The 1908 Olympics were originally awarded to Rome, as the IOC President, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had wished. But in April, 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted again, leaving a cash-strapped Italy to abruptly cancel its plans to stage the Games.
Between 1904 and 1908 the Intercalated Games of 1906 in Athens had done much to revive the Olympic Movement. Though not recognised as an Olympics in record books, the 1906 Games created strong interest across Europe and elsewhere. When Italy had to cancel its 1908 Games, Great Britain stepped into the breach and London was named the new Host City.
The London Games was the best managed of the early Games. Organisers built a stadium with 68,000 seats and interest was high. However, the fickle English weather played its role, with many of the competition days disrupted by rain. A number of controversial judging decisions prompted the IOC to rule that officials would no longer be supplied solely by the Host Country. There were also some tense political disputes, both within the English administration and between international teams.
Athletes marched as teams behind the flags of their nations for the first time. This momentous occasion turned into a political squabble when American flag-bearer Martin Sheridan refused to dip the US flag to King Edward because organisers had failed to fly the Stars and Stripes beside the flags of other competing nations in the main stadium. The Finnish athletes, upset at being under Russian rule, marched without a flag. The Irish also boycotted in protest of Great Britain failing to grant them independence.
London marked the first appearance of diving and hockey. Winter sports, namely ice hockey and figure skating, also debuted at the Games. (The first Winter Olympics would not be held until 1924.)
American swimmer John Taylor became the first black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m medley relay. His countryman Ray Ewry won the standing high jump and standing long jump for the third consecutive time. He remains the only athlete to win eight gold medals in individual events at the Games.
The marathon became the defining moment of the Olympics. The original distance of 25 miles was changed to 26 miles and 385 yards to position the start line under Princess Mary’s window at Windsor Castle – the distance of 42 kilometres and 195 metres remains today.
In hot and humid conditions Italian Dorando Pietri entered the packed stadium first, but collapsed numerous times on the track trying to complete the final lap. Race officials illegally helped him to the finish line, resulting in his disqualification after a protest from the runner-up, American runner Johnny Hayes. Hayes was declared the winner. Pietri almost died in his vain attempt at victory. The saga made him a hero around the world and boosted the popularity of the Olympics and the marathon.
Great Britain led the medal table with 56 gold, more than double the second-ranked team, the United States, which won 23 gold. It remains the only time that Great Britain has been the best performed nation at a Games.