David Owen: You think the weather's been bad? Well, here's what the British climate threw at Olympic competitors in 1908...
Thursday, 19 July 2012
These are the conditions actually faced by competitors the first time the Olympic Games came to London, 104 years ago. Admittedly, the events in those long-ago Games were spaced over several months.
Those hail stones in the lacrosse, for example, fell on October 24, not altogether surprising. But even summer events such as tennis, athletics and, as we have seen, cycling, had to cope with their fair share of rain.
A wonderful action shot in the Official Report of this, the fourth Modern Olympiad, shows gold medallist Ralph Rose of the United States putting the "weight", or shot, resplendent in cricket cap, while a smartly dressed official looks on sheltered by an umbrella.
"Only bad weather prevented a wonderful performance being registered by Rose", the report notes.
In cycling, the track was "under water in parts" when the 17 riders appeared for "The Prince of Wales's Cup for a hundred kilometres", with one competitor, JH Bishop, "wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the grit and rain".
In archery, which took place on July 17 and 18, the rain on day one was "bad", with the ladies' competition immediately disrupted as archers had to "fly for shelter". Competitors also had to allow for "very tricky eddies" from the gusting winds.
I think I know what that means, but I must admit that both me and my Oxford English Dictionary have been flummoxed by the "heavy smirr of rain" said to have affected a 12-metre yacht race staged in August on the Clyde.
In the tennis, played at Wimbledon in early July, one semi-final of the men's doubles was adjourned "with the players dripping wet".
Two events in particular stand out for the supreme awfulness of the weather and the consequences of the unfavourable conditions.
The clay bird shooting competition at Uxendon, between Wembley Park and Harrow, from July 8 to 11, was beset by "wretched" weather – a particular pity as a new Metropolitan Line station had been constructed and opened just a few weeks before the event.
"Heavy rains, high winds and changeable light made shooting difficult", the Official Report recounts. It goes on: "The specially constructed trench at Uxendon had, by careful planning, been placed so that the July sunlight should not shine in the eyes of the shooters. A more necessary precaution in the dark weather experienced was to insure [sic] that the birds should be clearly visible".
The clays were consequently whitewashed prior to use, giving them "a black and white magpie appearance".
It is a comment, no doubt, on the very different security arrangements in place then and now that cartridges were said to be on sale at the grounds.
Perhaps worst of all, however, were the conditions facing competitors in the motor-boat racing on Southampton Water on August 28 and 29.
"A strong gale was blowing from the south-west," notes the report, "with constant downpours of rain, and the heavy sea running made racing an enterprise of some considerable risk, and robbed it of all its enjoyment, except to the most confirmed enthusiasts. That any competitors started at all was a strong testimony to their pluck and determination".
An interesting explanation was given as to why it was "unfortunately impossible" to postpone the racing to await better conditions. The fixture had originally been made for the middle of July, the report states, "and postponed to allow of the return from America of the Duke of Westminster's crack forty-footer, Wolseley-Siddeley, which had gone over to challenge for the British International Cup – at present held by the United States".
Having established a commanding lead, Wolseley-Siddeley looked on course to win a gold medal, but, as the report puts it, "it was not to be. The tide was rather past half-ebb, and Wolseley-Siddeley getting too close to Hamble Spit went high and dry on the soft mud, and so eliminated herself from the contest".
Whatever hazards lie in store for the athletes of 2012, soft mud at Hamble Spit, one feels, is unlikely to inconvenience them unduly.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed by clicking here.