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


The Englishmen ran a tactical race and, for a time, it looked as if they might shut out the Americans. But Sheppard, still in a rage, put on a tremendous finishing kick and won by a couple of yards. He set an Olympic record in doing so. Ironically, Sheppard, who wanted to be a cop, had been rejected only months earlier by the New York Police Department because of what the department’s medical examiners called a bad heart.

The Irish American Athletic Club and the United States had a gold medal and now the English were the ones steaming.

Meanwhile, the final in the hammer throw was being held. The American powerhouses, Matt McGrath and his teammate, John J. Flanagan of the Irish American Athletic Club were expected to dominate. McGrath was the world-record holder and Flanagan the reigning Olympic champion. Flanagan, like McGrath, was an Irish-born New York cop. The lead seesawed back and forth, with first McGrath, despite an injured leg, and then Flanagan breaking the Olympic record. Flanagan ultimately wound up with the gold medal and McGrath the silver. The bronze went to Canadian Irishman Cornelius Walsh.

The awards ceremony must have been especially galling to the English, having to watch their king present the Olympic medals to a Flanagan, a McGrath and a Walsh. When Matt McGrath received his medal, he was said to have responded to King Edward’s compliments in “a brogue two sizes wider” than normal.

Two days later the Irishmen from America were at it again. They swept the discus final, with Martin J. Sheridan taking the gold medal. Sheridan would also take the gold in the “Greek Style” discus throw, and win the bronze in the standing broad jump. In three Olympic games, the Irish-born Sheridan won five gold medals, three silver medals, and one bronze.

Although he won the shot put in the 1906 Olympics, Sheridan didn’t put the 16-pound ball in London. In his absence, Ralph Rose of San Francisco won, and Dennis Horgan of Ireland took second. Horgan was a 37-year-old New York City cop, who retired from the force after being severely injured  trying to break up a brawl in 1907. Considering his injuries and his age, few thought he would ever compete again, let alone win an Olympic medal.

While American Irishmen were bringing home the gold in the track-and-field events, which Americans considered the real Olympics, Britain was racking up the medals in cycling, shooting, polo, walking and tennis. In addition, the British were using their own unique scoring system, which would practically insure them an overall victory even if American dominance continued in track and field. U.S. commissioner Sullivan formally protested the special scoring system but to no avail.

The British managed to qualify two runners, Theodore Just and Ian Fairbairn-Crawford, for the 800-meter final. They decided that Fairbairn-Crawford would set a blistering pace and sacrifice himself in an effort to run the kick out of Mel Sheppard, the American finalist. At the sound of the starter’s gun Fairbairn-Crawford raced into the lead and almost sprinted the first 200 yards. Sheppard did not take the bait. He ran at his own pace, and with 300 yards to go began a withering kick that destroyed the field. Fairbairn-Crawford dropped out and just finished, well back in the pack. Sheppard’s winning time set a new world record.

The same day another member of the Irish American Athletic Club was winning the high jump. Harry F. Porter easily cleared the 6’5 5/8” mark to set an Olympic record and then had the bar raised to 6’6” in an effort to break Michael F. Sweeney’s world record of 6’5 5/8”, set in New York City in 1895. Porter just brushed the bar off. Second place went to the Irish champion Cornelius Leahy, but his points went to Britain.

The next day Britain had something to cheer about when Reginald E. Walker of South Africa won the 100-meter sprint race, but Francis C. Irons of the Chicago Athletic Club won the broad jump and Daniel J. Kelly of the Irish American Athletic Club took second. Irons’ leap stretched 14’ 6”, an amazing distance for a man who stood just 5’5”. The mark bettered the old Olympic record by nearly a half foot but fell that same distance shy of breaking Peter O’Connor’s world record. Then in the 400-meter hurdles, Charles J. Bacon of the Irish American Athletic Club not only won but also set a world record.

The score in the track-and-field events at this point stood: United States 75: United Kingdom 56; Sweden 12; Greece 6; and some nine other with five points or less. Britain was leading in total overall points, but because Britain had introduced several new events (many of which she alone competed in) and was using her own unique scoring system, most observers thought the score meaningless. Real attention was focused on the track-and-field events.

British newspapers were daily publishing increasingly virulent attacks on the Americans. U.S. team coach Mike Murphy was worried. The day after Bacon’s world-record win in the 400-meter hurdles, the final in the 400-meter race was held. The four finalists included three Americans, J.C. Carpenter, W.C. Robbins and John Taylor, and one Englishman, Wyndham Halswelle. Murphy assembled the Ameri-can runners and warned that the British were looking for any excuse to disqualify the Americans.