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Yesterday, the Track and Field events began in earnest at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Track and Field has always been the at the heart of the Olympics, even in ancient times. (Though, in the modern Games, women are allowed to attend and the athletes don’t run naked….)

There was a story that the winner of the 110 m hurdles at the 1908 games, American Forrest Custer Smithson (1884-1962), won the race while carrying a Bible in his hand. This was supposedly to protest the final being run on a Sunday. However, the final was run on a Saturday, and no newspapers of the time carried any such story. Historians think the story (or rumor if you prefer) got started because of the photo below, which was posed after the race and does show Smithson with a Bible in his hand. Since Smithson was a student of Theology at Oregon State University, which probably explains the Bible he is carrying in the photograph.

Smithson with Bible

Posed photograph of Forrest Custer Smithson (1884-1962), winner of the 110 m hurdles at the 1908 London Olympics. Smithson did not run the race with a Bible in his hand. This is a photograph posed after his win. From Wikimedia Commons.

I spoke of controversy at the Olympics yesterday, and the marathon was not the only race overshadowed by it. The 400 m final also had a controversial finish. In 1908, the 400 m was not run in lanes, as we see it today. It was run much like we see the longer races still being run – with runners jockeying for position. At the time, blocking another runner was allowed under American rules, but not under British rules. The Olympic races were run under the stricter British rules.

In the 1908 final, American William Corbett Robbins (1885-?) led with American John Condict Carpenter (1884-1933) a close second and British athlete Wyndham Halswelle (1882-1915) a close third. As they rounded the last bend, Halswelle went to pass the Americans on the last straight. Carpenter forced Halswelle out to the outer edge of the track and then used his elbow to prevent Halswelle from passing, a legal move under American rules but not under British and, therefore, Olympic rules. An umpire cried “Foul” and race was declared void. Carpenter was disqualified.

Robbins and fellow American John Baxter Taylor, Jr. (1882-1908) refused to race in the rescheduled final, and this left Halswelle to run the race alone. His gold-winning final thus became the only Olympic final ever to be won by a walkover.

1908 400 m final

Photo of the end of the controversial rescheduled 400 m final at the 1908 London Olympics, with Wyndham Halswelle (1885-1915) walking over the finish line. From Wikimedia Commons.

The controversy led to the 400 m being run in lanes at all future Olympic games. It also soured Halswelle on running, and he retired later in that year. Halswelle was killed in 1915 during the WWI, one of the “lost generation” of European men as a result of that war. Ironically, the notice of his death was published in the same issue of magazine of his regiment that also carried an article he had written for it earlier, in which he described a skirmish where 79 men died to gain 15 yards.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, August 4th, 2012 at 11:12 (11:12 am) and is filed under Daily Public Domain Image, Images from other sites. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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