The rumble of the sudden eruption of a volcano in the Mediterranean reverberated around the world until its effects were finally felt in Southampton.
It was the unique combination of this natural disaster, and a humanitarian decision by a foreign government, which resulted in Southampton being picked to host, for the one and only time, a major event of the Olympic Games.
As the nation prepares for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, it is more than likely this Southampton connection with this great, global festival of athletic prowess would have remained just a footnote in the history books, if it wasn’t for a senior lecturer at the city’s university.
Martin Polley, a lecturer in sport at the University of Southampton, and the former chairman of the British Society of Sports Historians, has just published a new book, The British Olympics, tracing the country’s links with the games from, as far back as, 1612, right up to next year.
In the book, published by English Heritage, Martin recalls the time in 1908, when the Olympics were held in London, and the motor boat races, then part of the games, were held on Southampton Water.
The 1908 games had originally been awarded to Rome, but as the Italian authorities were preparing for the Olympics, Mount Vesuvius erupted in April, 1906.
The eruption devastated the city of Naples, and so the Italian government redirected funds earmarked for the Olympics to help with the city’s reconstruction, while London was agreed to become the new venue for the games.
Although given just two year’s notice, London successfully completed the necessary infrastructure. The main venue for the 1908 Olympics was the White City Stadium, built as part of the Franco-British Exhibition in west London.
The stadium included running and cycling tracks, an open-air swimming pool and a pitch for football, hockey, rugby and lacrosse, with the grandstands accommodating 93,000 spectators.
The Olympics ran from April 27 to October 31 and involved 3,000 competitors from 21 teams.
This was the first games to award gold, silver and bronze medals, and the first in which all entrants had to compete as members of national teams, rather than as individuals.
Diving and field hockey first appeared at the 1908 Olympics, but less successfully, powerboat racing and tug-of-war were held for the first and last times.
This was also the first Olympics to include winter events, although the figure skating events were held months after most of the other events had taken place.
It was decided that the events on Southampton Water were to be held under the auspices of the Motor Yacht Club, with start line off the organisation’s vessel, Enchantress.
All races consisted of five laps of a course of approximately eight nautical miles, for a total distance of 40 nautical miles.
Unfortunately the competitions were marred by extremely poor weather conditions, and, in addition to the three Olympic events, there were several handicap compeitions held concurrently at Southampton.
The Olympic motorboat racing was originally scheduled to be held in mid- July but as the dates did not suit the Duke of Westminister or Lord Howard de Walden, Briton’s main contenders in the events, so they were postponed for more than a month.
On the original date, these two influential figures were in America making an unsuccessful challenge for the “British International Cup”.
The “Olympic races for motorboats”
took place on Southampton Water, on August 28 and 29, which happened to coincide with gale force winds and large seas rolling up towards Southampton, but despite the conditions the British entries managed to stay the course and win a gold medal.
Motor boating never again appeared on the Olympic programme, and, in fact, it is not even permitted by the the games’ charter, which says: “Sports, disciplines or events in which performance depends essentially on mechanical propulsion are not acceptable.”
History records that the Olympics orginated in ancient Greece, nearly 3,000 years ago, died out about AD393, and were reborn in 1896 in Athens.
According to Martin, it is rather less well known how, during the intervening centuries, and assortment of British sportsmen, writers, “visionaries and romantics” helped to keep the Olympic spirit alive.
“The first published use of the word “Olympian” in the English language dates from about 1590, when it was used by William Shakespeare,” said Martin, a keen distance runner, who has written many other books and articles on the history of sport.
“The first games of the postclassical era to adopt the formal title “Olimpick” took place in a field close to the Cotswold town of Chipping Camden in 1612.
“Further Olympic games took place at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, Liverpool, London Llandudno, Birmingham, Shewsbury and in Morpeth, Northumberland.”