The London Olympics 1908

Before such things as LOCOG, Zil lanes and the athletes’ villages, the organisation of the first modern London Olympic Games was the responsibility of one man, William Grenfell, 1st and only Lord Desborough. Plans to hold the 1908 Games in Italy had been abandoned following the 1906 eruption of Vesuvius.

Desborough, who chaired the recently formed British Olympic Association, seized the opportunity to bring the Games to London by persuading the International Olympic Committee to invite Britain to be the host. As his grandson, Viscount Gage, says, he was a brilliant organiser: ‘Within 18 months, he had raised the money and a stadium was built at White City at no cost to the Government. He also persuaded Lord Northcliffe, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, to sponsor the Games.’

They turned out to be a huge success, with 22 competing nations sending 2,008 athletes to compete in 110 events. Bicycle polo and tug-of-war were two of these, but there was, of course, no beach volleyball. Rules were standardised and translated and, for the first time, athletes paraded under their national flags in the opening ceremony as part of a national team. The length of the marathon was also established: 26 miles and 385 yards, the distance between Windsor Castle and the Royal Box at the White City Olympic stadium.

‘Lord Desborough was a very remarkable man,’ explains his grandson. ‘He was a passionate sportsman and excelled at everything he did. He won a silver medal for fencing in Athens when he was 50, was a Double Blue (in rowing and running) at Oxford, rowed with an eight across the channel in four hours and 22 minutes, swam twice across the Niagara Falls rapids (once in a snowstorm), climbed the Matterhorn and three neighbouring mountains in eight days and, in 1888, as a war correspondent in Sudan, faced the enemy armed only with an umbrella.’

He adds: ‘I knew him as a 10 year old when he was in his late eighties. He appeared to me as a benign but formidable figure. He slept downstairs in his bedroom, surrounded by the cups and medals he’d won, and with a loaded rifle nearby in case an enemy approached. ‘My grandfather profoundly believed in the Olympic ideals of peace and friendship through international athleticism. Despite their tragic betrayal by the 1914-18 war and the loss of two sons, his commitment to them never wavered. I am sure he would have supported these principles today, which are still enshrined in the 2012 Games.’

An exhibition featuring hands-on activities, ‘Lord Desborough’s Sporting Legacy’, is open to visitors at his former home, Taplow Court in Buckinghamshire, on Sunday, August 19 and Sunday, September 2, from 2.30pm to 5.30pm. For more information, visit

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