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


The atmosphere was tense when the starter’s pistol cracked. Taylor got off slowly and the 400-meter quickly became a three-man race with Robbins in the lead by a yard, followed by Carpenter and Halswelle. Coming out of the final turn, Carpenter drifted wide but at the same time began a devastating kick, which carried him past Robbins to victory. Robbins held on to second and Halswelle, the Englishman, came in third. Or so it seemed; British officials began yelling foul and claimed that when Carpenter drifted wide coming out of the final turn,  he had interfered with Halswelle.

After a short delay, the British officials, declared the race void. As the New York Times reported: “A great British cheer broke out, and continued for several minutes, men who could not under any circumstances have seen the incident crying ‘Foul!’ louder than those sitting opposite the spot where the alleged foul was said to have taken place, and who, seeing Halswelle taking a wide turn, thought it a mistake in judgment, as he has lots of room to pass Carpenter on either side.”

Matthew P. Halpin, the manager of the American team, immediately entered a protest on behalf of Carpenter. A special committee of British officials assembled in private to decide the issue. They took testimony from the judges, who had first alleged that a foul had occurred, and from Halswelle, but refused to allow American officials or Carpenter himself to attend the meeting or even to submit statements. Their decision was predictable. The race was declared void and would be rerun, and Carpenter was disqualified.

U.S. commissioner James Sullivan said, “Never in my life, and I have been attending athletic meetings for 31 years, have I witnessed a scene that struck me as being so unsportsmanlike and unfair as that in which the officials participated. . . The race was as fair as any race run.”

The Times of London didn’t think so. In what it claimed was “a fair and impartial account” of the race, the Times said that Carpenter ran “diagonally” across the track and “elbowed” Halswelle. Moreover, this was a “definite and carefully thought-out plan.” Other London newspapers made the Times account look reserved.

It didn’t matter that none of the British reporters had been close enough to the action to really describe it accurately – if any of them had any such intention in the first place. There had been an eyewitness standing just inside the track on the final turn, however, Ray Ewry of the New York Athletic Club, who had won both the standing high jump and the standing broad jump, was standing at the final turn when the alleged foul occurred. He saw Carpenter drift wide but make neither a diagonal run nor throw elbows. “I thought Halswelle lost his head,” said Ewry. “He had the option of going either on the inside or the outside of Carpenter, but apparently could not make up his mind what to do.”

Carpenter said much the same thing. “I certainly ran wide, as I have done every time I have been on the track. Halswelle had lots of room to pass me on either side. We just raced him off his feet and he could not stand the pace.”

When the race was rerun, Halswelle was the only participant. Robbins and Taylor had refused to run unless Carpenter was allowed to compete also. Halswelle’s “winning” time was nearly two seconds slower than Carpenter’s. Halswelle had his gold medal, but the American Olympic committee gave special medals to Carpenter and Robbins – for first and second place.

While the battle over the 400-meter race was raging, the 200-meter final was held. Irish-born Canadian Robert Kerr won by inches over Bobby Doughen, a New York City schoolboy and member of the Irish America Athletic Club. In 1909 Kerr returned to Ireland – his family had immigrated to Canada when he was seven – and fulfilled his dream of competing for his native land in an international event.

Off the track, the British were continuing their duplicitous ways. The rules for the tug-of-war explicitly stated that participants must wear everyday footwear, and that “no competitor shall wear prepared boots or shoes.” Nonetheless, when the British arrived to pull-off against the Americans, the British competitors, policemen from Liverpool, were found to be wearing specially constructed heavy boots with steel rims around the soles.

The Americans protested, but British officials responded by declaring that the boots were everyday footwear for the Liverpool bobbies. After slipping and sliding on the wet ground and losing the first of the scheduled three pulls, the Americans gave up in disgust and withdrew from the competition.

British unfairness finally backfired on them, though, in the quintessential Olympic event: the marathon. Fifty-eight runners, including six Americans, began the race in front of Windsor Castle on a muggy day. More than 100,000 spectators filled the Olympic stadium some 26 miles away.