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The portrayal of the 1908 Olympic Games in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

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Authored by Luke Harris
Published on 19th December, 2022 13 min read

The portrayal of the 1908 Olympic Games in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

During the Edwardian period, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (established in 1874) provided a visual insight into British sport and leisure, principally the events of interest to the middle and upper classes. In its reflections on the events of 1908, it included both quality action photos and editorial insight into the London Olympic Games. The coverage offered within this publication allows the historian to gain insight into British perspectives on the Olympics, along with an understanding of the nature of this publication. This article will examine a range of articles and photographs reflecting on London’s first Olympic Games. 

The 1908 Olympics marked a significant moment in Britain’s Olympic history, as although it had competed at the three previous Games, beginning in 1896, its sporting associations and press alike had paid little attention to the event until London hosted it, with minimal coverage of frequently small British contingents. During the six months of the 1908 Olympics (which remains the longest in the 124 years of the Games), a whole range of publications included extensive reports and editorials on the event, making it the most written about event of the sporting summer.

The newfound interest in the Olympic Games did not result in a wholly positive commentary regarding both the sporting contests and the event as a whole. For example, The Bystander – which like The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (ISDN) featured high quality images alongside editorial comment – believed “that there is no room in England at any rate-for these ‘extra turns’ in nearly every branch of sport. The sporting public doesn’t see the force of them, and doesn’t want them…” It concluded that “the chief thing that will be remembered in connection with the Olympic Games of 1908 after they are over will be that they are over.”[1] The preference in this publication, like so many others, were for the already well-established events of the British summer. While the tone of the ISDN was not quite so negative, it still bemoaned aspects of the Games, such as the exclusion of golf from the list of events. 

It had initially been the desire of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to include golf amongst the Olympic events, although in February 1908 the ISDN’s regular column “Golf Jottings” derided the proposed event, because many leading amateurs would be absent from it.[2] In June, after the proposed golf competition had been abandoned, it remarked: “Golf we know has cut off the Olympic games with some scorn. Obviously either because golf was not played in Greece, or because the Olympic games were not originated at St. Andrews”.[3] Clearly there was some frustration regarding the lack of golf’s inclusion in the Games, a sport which featured prominently within the pages of this publication.

The extensive coverage of golf within the ISDN could be seen as a demonstration of its middle- and upper-class nature. Another upper-class sport which featured regularly was polo, and its Olympic Championships took place in June. An ISDN editorial following the event was less than complimentary about the competition, remarking: “At Hurlingham last Saturday there was more horse show than polo. A curious thing is that the Olympic polo competition should be treated not at all as an international contest but as an inter-club competition. The entries are Hurlingham, Roehampton, and Ireland”.[4] The indication was that this event was not of the highest calibre, despite the two convincing victories by Roehampton which allowed them to take the gold medal. This was certainly not the only Olympic event that lacked international entries, damaging the event’s prestige and skewing the medals table in Britain’s favour.

The focus for press and public attention were the events of the “Summer Games” which took place in July, with several editions of the ISDN including quality photos. The majority of the events were held within the White City Stadium, which had been specially constructed for the Olympics on the same site as the Franco-British Exhibition in Shepherd’s Bush, West London. These events witnessed the biggest culmination of foreign athletes from the entire games, most prominently from the United States, which had established itself as the premier Olympic nation by 1908. 

Image one: Images of the 1908 Olympic Games in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News[5]

 Images of the 1908 Olympic Games in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

The track and field athletics meeting became a showdown between the British and American athletes, and this resulted in controversy and high tension. Much to the disappointment of the British press, who believed their athletes would be superior, it was the Americans who came out on top, winning thirty-four athletic medals, of which sixteen were gold. By comparison, Britain won just seven gold medals and only seventeen medals in total, damaging Britain’s belief in its sporting superiority, in a period where confidence in the national physique was low. 

The most controversial event on the track occurred during the 400-metre final when Scotsman Wyndham Hallswelle came up against three American athletes. This final was run without lanes and in the closing stages the “tape was cut” after the British judges (no other nation’s officials were seen as being worthy of officiating) believed that Hallswelle had been obstructed in the final stages of the race. This went against the race rules and resulted in the disqualification of John Carpenter and, subsequently, the other two Americans refused to race in the re-run.[6] 

The aftermath produced plentiful negative comment regarding the American approach and their lack of sportsmanship, and the comment of “Our British ideals of fair play appear to be too strict for our Yankee and colonial cousins” from The Edinburgh Evening News can be viewed as being quite typical in this regard.[7] The ISDN was rather more sympathetic: “…it should not be forgotten that British and American ideas and methods differ very much widely. ‘Tricks of the trade,’ which would not be tolerated in London for a moment, are simply considered ‘smart’ in New York, and what American athletes regard as justifiable ‘tactics’ in a race we stigmatise as deliberate fouling…”[8] The events of this race, along with the tug of war and marathon created a deep rift between those administrating sport on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The widespread defeat of British athletes to their American counterparts in track and field athletics was one which the British press did not take kindly to. One of the common ways which the press sought to dismiss and belittle the American successes was through deriding their athletes as “professional”. This was owed to the fact that many athletes had come via the American collegiate system, with coaching and vigorous training. This was completely akin to the British system of the “amateur gentleman”, who relied on natural talent, a philosophy often referred to as “effortless superiority”. 

The issue of professionalism was perhaps the most divisive in British sport during this period, and the establishment was very much against professionalism and payment of any kind, demonstrated by the split in Rugby, which witnessed the creation of the “Northern Union” in 1897 and witnessed the two forms of the game going in totally different directions.[9] An editorial on 11th July bemoaned the “amateur professional”, which the writer believed the Games had promoted: “Consequently the Olympic Games, as at present arranged, failed of the truest amateur spirit: they bar the professional, but give still-higher-than-ever encouragement to the amateur professional.”[10] This was a comment directed towards the upper and middle classes, as their belief was that this was not how sport should be played. 

A real strength and feature to the coverage within the ISDN were the quality photographs it included in its coverage. Right throughout the Olympics there were a substantial number of pages featuring high quality images, such as on 25th July which included images of the athletic and cycling competitions, presenting both posed and action photographs. Another notable group of images were the pre-Games sequence of photographs which demonstrated how the discus and javelin were thrown, with a detailed description that explained that “Discus throwing is one of the ancient Greek sports to be included in the Olympic games”, and also gave indication of the composition of both pieces of equipment.[11] The need to include such images suggests an interest in the event but could also suggest that they were unfamiliar to British audiences. 

Following the Games, an editorial was not quite so complementary about the two events. These were events which Britain performed particularly badly in, with the home athletes failing to feature in any of the four events (there were two competitions in each event). The article believed that prior to the 1912 Olympics, the programme needed to be “overhauled”, and that although the author believed that interest in the heavy throwing events “is by no means great”, it believed “it would be hard upon the ‘strong men’ of the world to abolish these competitions”. But it believed that “throwing the javelin and the discus might be quickly dropped! Both are relics of a bygone age, and seem utterly out of place in these days.”[12]

This damning criticism of these events was widespread, perhaps in a desire to prevent British embarrassment with famous dual international sportsman C.B. Fry asking the question “Who cares about the Champion Spear tosser” in one of his commentaries on the Games. He felt that “Both are obsolete. In no civilised country in the world does it avail a man to throw javelin. Our modern equivalent is rifle shooting; and that is enough.”[13] These were events that Britain has largely remained unsuccessful in (excluding a couple of notable examples), up to the present day. 

Image Two: Discus and javelin demonstrations in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News[14]

Discus and javelin demonstrations in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Following the end of the Summer Games, the press was split on the notion of British success. This division was between those who solely looked at the events in the White City Stadium (which featured plentiful foreign opposition), versus those who considered all of the Olympic events to date (many of which featured little outside interest). A popular reflection amongst those who bemoaned the British performances in the Summer Games, was that it was further evidence of British physical decline. This concept had begun following the recruitment problems faced during the Boer War, and further increased throughout the 1900s through international sporting defeats. To those writing in the ISDN, the performance signalled quite the opposite: 

To those pessimists who, with crocodile-like tears, went about bewailing the decadence of British athletes, and foretelling nothing but failure for the old country’s representatives in the Olympic Games, the past fortnight’s doings at the stadium must have come as a surprise. The United Kingdom did not win everything. That was not to be expected in a gathering of 2,000 picked athletes from something like twenty nations. But our gains were greater than our losses, which is more than can be said of any other country-not even excepting the much boomed America, whose chosen ones had, in some folks’ opinions, as good as wiped John Bull’s chosen ones off the earth before the games began.[15]

As previously explained, the United States focused its efforts on the athletic events and it dominated these. Overall, Britain did dominate and would finish with 146 medals, including fifty-six gold medals. The ISDN was one of the publications which felt that Britain had ruled the Games, and such nationalism is certainly present in other publications aimed at the upper and middle classes.[16]

Image three: “The Last of the Olympic Games - The Hockey Tournament at the Stadium”[17]

“The Last of the Olympic Games - The Hockey Tournament at the Stadium”


The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in many ways offered a quite typical perspective of the London 1908 Olympics amongst its pages. Like other publications, it was overtly pro-British, preferring to focus on British success and when its athletes failed it preferred to criticise aspects such as the amateur practices of other nations. This publication’s support of the “gentleman amateur” could be seen as a further indication that its target audience was the middle and upper classes; of whom this type of athlete would originate from. 

Although the editorial comment adds much to the understanding of the 1908 Olympics, the real value of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News comes via the numerous high-quality images it published throughout the course of the Games. These give in some cases unusual, but always high-quality insights into the 1908 Olympics.


[1] “Outdoor Life”, The Bystander, 15th July 1908, pp. 142-144.

[2] “Golf Jottings”, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1st February 1908, p. 875. 

[3] Editorial, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 13th June 1908, p. 579.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 25th July 1908, p. 844. 

[6] See Luke Harris and Iain Adams, “Wyndham Halswelle and the 1908 Olympic 400 metres final, the most controversial race in Olympic history?”, Sport in History (June 2018), pp. 216-245. 

[7] “Editorial, Marathon”, The Edinburgh Evening News, 25th July 1908, p. 4.

[8] “The Olympic Games”, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1st August 1908, p. 886. 

[9] See Tony Collins, Rugby’s Great Split (Routledge, 2006). 

[10] Editorial, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11th July 1908, p. 764. 

[11] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 25th July 1908, p. 844. 

[12] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1st August 1908, p. 886. 

[13] C B Fry, “Editorial”, C B Fry’s Magazine, April 1908, p. 93.

[14] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 6th June 1908, p. 550. 

[15] “Olympic Games”, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 25th July 1908, p. 874. 

[16] Such comment was commonplace in The Times, The Scotsman, The Observer, and The Bystander amongst others. See “The London 1908 Olympics”, in Luke J. Harris, Britain and the Olympic Games, 1908-1920 (Palgrave, 2015), pp. 8-38.

[17] “The Last of the Olympic Games - The Hockey Tournament at the Stadium”, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 7th November 1908, p. 369.

Authored by Luke Harris

Luke Harris

Luke J. Harris is a British historian with an interest in the history of sport, particularly the Olympic Games. His pirmary publication monograph 'Britain and the Olympic Games, 1908-1920: Perspectives on participation and Identity'. He has also written about athletics, darts, snooker, and golf.

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