On the eve of 2012, PHILIP BARKER looks back to the Olympic year of 1912, and the football reporter who won a gold medal for Britain at the Stockholm Games
The 2012 London Olympics men’s football tournament might have openings for “over-age” players in the under-23s squads, but it remains most unlikely, even for an accomplished footballer such as Henry Winter, that we will see the Telegraph‘s esteemed football correspondent, or any other sports journalist, turn out alongside the likes of Aaron Ramsey or David Beckham for Stuart Pearce’s Great Britain squad.
One hundred years ago, though, and matters were quite different, with sportswriter Ivan Sharpe, once of the Hertfordshire Advertiser and St Albans Times, playing at the Stockholm Games for the last British team to win the Olympic football tournament.
Sharpe’s road to Olympic glory began around 1907 when he signed as an amateur for Watford while continuing his career at the newspaper (remember, Olympics were strictly amateur in this era). His weekly match reports must have had some interesting angles.
“The player helps the journalist,” Sharpe wrote later. “Experience in the middle helps get into the skin of the fellow who, worried by ten, fifty, a hundred thousand spectators, misses a chance of scoring that looked so simple.”
A year or so later, Sharpe’s journalistic and football ambitions took a further turn. At the suggestion of a scout, he wrote to Samuel Hill-Wood, then chairman at second division Glossop FC. Hill-Wood had connections with the publishing world and fixed Sharpe up with a job at the Glossop Chronicle. On Saturdays between 1908 and 1910, Sharpe played in the forward line for Glossop.
Sharpe did well and won the first of nine caps for the England amateur XI. He also joined Derby County.
In 1912, England were still the undisputed masters of the game, FIFA even had an English President in Daniel Burley Woolfall.
The Olympic tournament in Stockholm was the nearest thing to a world championship in the sport at that time – albeit restricted to amateurs. Vivian Woodward, one of the stars of the day, played for Chelsea as an amateur that season. Sharpe’s Derby side had won the Second Division title.
FIFA’s rules actually allowed each country to enter four teams, a get out clause to enable all the home nations to enter individual sides in the Olympic tournament. In the event, only one team from the British Isles took the boat train from Kings Cross to Hull for the crossing to Sweden. They wore white shirts with a Union flag rather than the three lions, but were to all intents the England amateur team.
Although in Scandinavia, this was still to be a summer tournament for what was usually a winter game. “The weather was so hot, it was impossible to sit on the pitch for more than a few seconds, buckets of water were placed along the touchlines,” Sharpe wrote.
Even so, Britain put seven goals past Hungary. Henry Winter’s predecessors at The Daily Telegraph tactfully reported that “the Hungarians put up a stubborn fight”.
Sharpe was not as generous about the quality of other teams. “The Danes were the only danger. The Russians looked like the reserve team of Walthamstow Wednesday,” he said.
Next up, Britain beat Finland 4-0 . In the final, they met the Danes in a repeat of the 1908 final and won 4-2 in front of a crowd of 25,000.
Sharpe was “on the extreme flanks being the best forward on the field” according to “Strophon” writing in The Athletics News. Within 10 years, Sharpe would be editor of that paper.
Football was one of 10 gold medals won by Great Britain in 1912. Women didn’t yet have the vote, but Edith Hannam won gold in the women’s singles in indoor tennis and in an outdoor pool, the women’s 4×100 metres freestyle relay team also became Olympic champions.
The only individual champion on the track was in what was described as “the greatest race ever run”, the 1,500 metres final won by the splendidly named Arnold Nugent Strode Strode-Jackson, who had prepared for his Olympic record run with a few rounds of golf, some walks and regular massages.
Dissatisfied with this relative lack of success , the British set up a fundraising committee to improve performances. Signatories to the fund included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who had reported on the 1908 London Olympics for the Daily Mail, in particular championing the feats of the marathon runner Dorando Pietri) and Bernard Bosanquet, the father of ITN newscaster Reggie and, as a cricketer, the inventor of the googly, or “Bosie”.
By 1912, the Olympics were making headline news across the world. “The preparations were followed with a never ending interest. There is probably no paper of importance anywhere in the world which did not mention the Games in one form or another,’’the organising committee claimed.
The Stockholm Olympic Games featured equestrianism, the first modern pentathlon, saw 5,000m winner Hannes Kohlemainen the first to be dubbed as a “flying Finn”, and even artistic contests for the first time. IOC President Pierre de Coubertin spoke of “a splendid festival which will make a deep mark on our Olympic history”.
But for the American Jim Thorpe, the memories were bitter sweet. He won the pentathlon and decathlon but was stripped of his medals when it was discovered he’d received money for playing little league baseball, such were the Draconian rules on amateurism. Only long after his death were Olympic medals restored to his family.
The stadium in which Thorpe’s Olympian feats unfolded at least stood the test of time. Purpose-built, it staged the equestrian events of the Olympics in 1956 (when Australia’s livestock laws made it impossible for show-jumpers and eventers to take their horses to Melbourne), the 1958 European athletics championships, and in 2012 will again stage the annual grand prix meeting, set to be the first Diamond League event after the Olympics. A stadium still in use for its original purpose 100 years on: now that’s what you call a legacy.
ELSEWHERE IN 1912
- Captain Scott reached the South Pole but died on his return journey.
- The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage
- Woodrow Wilson became President of the United States
- The first movies featuring the Keystone Cops were released
- Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes.
CALLING ALL SJA MEMBERS: Make sure that your contact details and brief biog are up to date for 2012 Olympic Year. Send a revised biography to the SJA Yearbook editor Paul Trow by clicking here