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By Rebecca Jenkins
Just over 100 years ago, London hosted its first Olympic Games: the Fourth Olympiad of 1908. It was a fledgling version of what we have today—only 2023 athletes competed, approximately the same number that will contest the athletic events in 2012.
Of course, the Olympic Games were rather different then—there was no torch relay, or spectacular opening ceremony with a stadium transformed by pageants of England’s green and pleasant land. In 1908, the tug-of-war was a medal winning contest, as were massed gymnastic displays (very popular with the northern European nations with military conscription) and marathon runners were not encouraged to re-hydrate, so the winning time would not have even qualified a modern athlete for the Olympic team today.
It is well known that in 1908, the marathon was run for the first time at the modern Olympic distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. But what is often overlooked is that these Edwardian games were the first to have an opening ceremony revolving around a parade of nations; in short, the first London Olympics witnessed the birth of Team GB.
It has been said that whereas the Germans excavated Ancient Olympia and the French reanimated its spirit, the Edwardian sons of the British Empire set out to organize it. In the first Games of the modern Olympics, any one—or perhaps more accurately, any sporting man (Baron de Coubertin, the “father” of the Olympic movement, did not approve of women performing in public sporting contests)—who had the private means to turn up at the venue could put himself down to compete.