How the Irish defeated the best of Britain at 1908 London Olympics


As Britain hosts the Summer Olympic Games in London, we look back on the first great modern Olympic confrontation between the United States – most of whose top athletes were Irish – and Britain, which took place in London in 1908. Notably, they were the last Olympic Games at which the judging committee was made up entirely of people from the host country.

In 1908, as the world’s attention focused on the Olympic Games in London, Britain had decided again not to allow Ireland to field its own team, saying simply that “Ireland is not a nation.” All Irish athletes would have to compete as members of the British team.

The policy had worked well for Britain in the 1906 Intercalated Olympics in Athens, where Irish athletes won most of Britain’s medals in track and field. Having to represent Britain infuriated the Irish athletes. One of them, Peter O’Connor, rushed to the Olympic flagpole after winning the hop, step and jump, and pulled down the Union Jack, which had been raised in honor of his victory. In its place he flew a green flag for Ireland.

Despite O’Connor’s action, Britain was now out to garner more victories by such “British” athletes in the 1908 Olympics in London. Several Irish champions refused to compete rather than be used again by the British. Helplessly watching the latest British suppression of Irish nationalism put the Irish Americans at a fever pitch.

On July 13, King Edward declared the Fourth Olympiad opened. The stadium displayed the flags of all the competing nations, except that of the United States. Where was the American flag? The British said that they had been unable to find one. Equally insulting, the American team was assigned a marching position just in front of the “British Colonies,” who, in turn, were followed by the United Kingdom. The symbolism could not have been lost on anyone present.

As the music of Grenadier Guards filled the stadium, King Edward settled into the royal box with Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria at his side.

At the Bugler’s signal, the gate leading to the athletes’ quarters was flung open and the parade of national teams began. One by one, they marched and dipped their flags to the King of England. It was a glorious moment for the host nation. Even the hard rain that had drenched the stadium earlier in the day had stopped. God seemed to be smiling on the empire.

Then came the Americans, including the world-record hammer thrower and New York City cop, Matthew J. McGrath. When they approached the royal box, the County Tipperary-born McGrath, a six-foot, two-inch, 245-pound human bull of a man, stepped beside the team’s flag bearer and is rumored to have  said, “Dip that banner and you’re in hospital tonight.” Old Glory went unbowed past the King of England.

The English were left in shock. London newspapers lashed the Americans with the severest criticism they could muster and called for an apology. Veteran Olympian and world-record discus thrower Martin J. Sheridan, another New York City cop, spoke of “Mighty Matt” McGrath and the other American team members when he answered the English by pointing to the flag and saying, “This flag dips to no earthly king.” The precedent had been set. To this day the United States does not dip its flag at Olympic ceremonies.

Preliminary heats were run for the “metric mile” or 1500-meter race later on opening day. Controversy continued. The British held the drawings for heat assignments in private. The Americans suspected conspiracy. The “luck of the draw” consistently left America’s best runners bunched together in one or two heats where they eliminated each other.

James E. Sullivan, the commissioner representing the United States, commented: “It is extraordinary bad luck or the manner in which the drawings have been made that has resulted in such unfavorable conditions for the Americans. We have tried to find out how the drawings are conducted, but have not been able to get anything from the officials except the reply, ‘The drawings are made in the usual way.’” Despite Sullivan’s protestations, the British continued to hold the drawings in “the usual way” throughout the games.

The first heat of the 1500-meter event went to J.P. Sullivan of the Irish American Athletic Club of New York City. Mel Sheppard, also of the Irish American club, took the second heat. However, several other Americans had also run the first two heats and thus were eliminated, while Englishmen had been nicely distributed in heats three through eight.

The next day Sheppard and Sullivan found themselves facing five Englishmen and a Canadian. Two of the Englishmen – world-record holder Harold Wilson, a tiny chap at 5’ 4” and 115 pounds, and Norman Hallows – were considered the favorites to win.

Mike Murphy, the coach of the American team, stepped up to Sheppard and said: “Mel, you might as well stay in the stands. You don’t have a chance.” Murphy then winked at Sullivan and walked off, Sheppard ran his best when angry and Murphy had left him steaming.