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These Colors Run

Most fans of the Olympics Games recall that the United States boycotted the quadrennial event in 1980 as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many may still remember that black sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists on the medal stand in 1968. A few may recall the bloody water polo match between the Hungarian and Soviet teams in the ’56 Games. Histories of the Olympics always mention that Hitler used the ’36 Games in Berlin to promote German supremacy. This year, there have been protests against the 2008 host and her occupation of Tibet.

Politics, however, entered the modern Olympics for the first time in a major way a century ago in the 1908 Games held at White City, near Shepherd’s Bush in London. The Royal Navy still ruled the high seas, and the sun never set on the British Empire. To many Brits, the United States was still nothing more than a wayward colony.

When the American team arrived in London, the English were dismayed to learn that the U.S. track and field team was composed largely of Irishmen, either Irish-born or born in the United States to Irish immigrant parents. Most of the Irish-American Olympians trained together at Celtic Park, a seven-acre athletic facility long since developed for housing in what is today the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens. Many of the athletes, especially the weightmen, were also New York City policemen. Britain had already set the stage for fireworks by prohibiting Ireland to field her own team, claiming, “Ireland is not a nation.” The Irish members of the American team were fighting mad, and the ’08 Games would become known as the “Battle of Shepherd’s Bush.”

As King Edward VII declared the Fourth Olympiad open on July 13, the American team found itself positioned in the parade immediately in front of the “British Colonies” with the United Kingdom close behind. The symbolism could not have been more obvious. One by one the national teams—France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and a dozen others—entered the stadium. As they marched by the royal box, each team dipped its flag to King Edward. A hard rain that had earlier drenched the stadium had stopped and the sun momentarily broke through the clouds. God seemed to be smiling on the empire. Then came the American team, including world-record hammer thrower and County Tipperary-born New York City cop Matthew J. McGrath. When the Americans approached the royal box, the 6’2”, 245-pound McGrath broke ranks and stepped up beside the team’s flag bearer. “Dip that banner and you’re in a hospital tonight,” said McGrath. The Stars and Stripes passed by flying high.

The act was unprecedented. The English were outraged. Later, at a news conference, veteran Olympian and world-record discus thrower Martin J. Sheridan, a County Mayo-born New York City policeman, spoke on behalf of McGrath and other team members by pointing to the flag and exclaiming, “This flag dips to no earthly king.” A century later Old Glory continues to pass the reviewing stand unbowed.

Preliminary heats for the 1500 meters were run on the afternoon of opening day. The English held the drawings for heat assignments in private, and the American runners were bunched together in two heats, greatly increasing the likelihood that they would eliminate one another. U.S. team commissioner James E. Sullivan—for whom the Sullivan Award is named—protested, but throughout the Games the English hosts continued to hold the drawings in what they described as “the usual way.”

J.P. Sullivan of the Irish American Athletic Club of New York City took the first heat in the 1500 meters, and Mel Sheppard, a member of the same club, won the second. Several other Americans ran in the same heats and were eliminated, while Englishmen had been strategically distributed in heats three through eight. In the final a day later, Sullivan and Sheppard found themselves facing five Englishmen and a Canadian, whose points, should he place, would go to Britain. Englishmen Harold Wilson, the world-record holder, and Norman Hallows were considered the prohibitive favorites. “Mel, you might as well stay in the stands,” American coach Mike Murphy told Sheppard. “You don’t have a chance.” Murphy knew Sheppard ran his best when angry, and Sheppard was steaming.

The English ran as a team, and as they rounded the final turn, they appeared to have the Americans boxed and out of contention. With a tremendous burst, Sheppard broke free and accelerated down the homestretch to win going away. He set an Olympic record. Not bad for someone who had been rejected earlier that year by the police department for what medical examiners thought was a bad heart.

In the meantime, the final in the hammer throw had gotten underway. McGrath and his teammate, John J. Flanagan, another County Tipperary-born New York City cop and the reigning Olympic champion, exchanged the lead with nearly every toss and alternated breaking the Olympic record. A torn ligament in his knee finally slowed McGrath, and he had to settle for silver. His gold medal would come in the 1912 Olympics. A County Cork-born athlete, Cornelius Walsh of Canada, took the bronze. When King Edward presented the Irishmen their medals, McGrath responded to his comments in “a brogue two sizes wider” than normal.

Two days later, New York City’s finest were at it again, sweeping the discus final. Tall, muscular Martin Sheridan took the gold. He would also win the “Greek Style” discus throw and take the bronze in the standing broad jump. The American Irishman was becoming a legend. In three Olympiads he won five gold medals, three silver, and one bronze, and from 1902 through 1911 he broke the world record in the discus 15 times.

Although he was the reigning Olympic champion in the shot put, Sheridan did not compete in London. Ralph Rose of San Francisco won the gold, with the silver going to Denis Horgan of Ireland. Horgan was another New York City cop, but had retired from the force following a brawl that left him severely injured. He returned to his native Ireland and slowly began to recover and train again. He was galled that his second-place points would go to Britain.

Mel Sheppard was back on the track for the 800-meter final. In the final for Britain were Theodore Just and Ian Fairburn-Crawford. British coaches determined that Fairburn-Crawford should play the role of the race rabbit and lure Sheppard into running an overly fast pace and dissipate the latter’s famous kick. At the crack of the starter’s pistol, Fairburn-Crawford bounded into a near sprint. Sheppard refused to take the bait, setting his own pace, then beginning a withering kick with about 300 meters to go. The Irish American Athletic Club member pulled away from the field with ease, winning the gold in not only an Olympic- but a world-record time. Fairburn-Crawford dropped back long before the finish and failed to medal.

On the infield another member of the Irish American A.C. was winning the high jump. Harry F. Porter easily cleared 6’3” to set an Olympic record and then had the bar raised to 6’6” in an attempt to break Michael F. Sweeney’s world record of 6’5 5/8”. He only narrowly missed. The silver went to Cornelius Leahy of Ireland, but his points went to Britain. The next day Francis C. Irons of the Chicago Athletic Club took the gold in the broad jump, and Daniel J. Kelly of the Irish American A.C. took the silver. On the track, the club’s Charles J. Bacon set an Olympic and a world record in the 400-meter hurdles.

The United States, and particularly the Irish American Athletic Club, was running away with the track and field events. British newspapers made their displeasure known. U.S. coach Mike Murphy warned team members that British officials would be looking for ways to disqualify them. The Americans did not have to wait for long for Murphy’s prediction to come true. In the 400-meter final, held the day after Bacon’s record-setting win, American J.C. Carpenter won with a furious finish. American W.C. Robbins took second, and Englishman Wyndham Halswelle third. British officials yelled foul, claiming that Carpenter had drifted wide coming out of the final turn and had interfered with Halswelle. The officials conferred and declared the race void.

According to a New York Times reporter,

A great British cheer broke out, and continued for several minutes, men who could not under any circumstances have seen the incident crying ‘Foul!’ louder than those sitting opposite the spot where the alleged foul was said to have taken place, and who, seeing Halswelle taking a wide turn, thought it a mistake in judgement, as he had lots of room to pass Carpenter on either side.

The manager of the American team, Matthew P. Halpin, lodged a protest on behalf of Carpenter. A special committee of British officials met privately, taking testimony from the officials who had alleged foul and from Halswelle but refusing to allow American officials or Carpenter to attend the meeting or submit written statements. Predictably, the British officials ruled that the race would be rerun and Carpenter disqualified. “Never in my life,” said U.S. commissioner James Sullivan, “and I have been attending athletic meetings for 31 years, have I witnessed a scene that struck me as being so unsportsmanlike and unfair as that in which the officials participated. … The race was as fair as any race run.”

On the contrary, said The Times of London, Carpenter ran “diagonally” across the track and “elbowed” Halswelle. Moreover, asserted the paper, Carpenter’s actions were the result of “a definite and carefully thought out plan.” No matter that none of the British reporters had been close enough to the scene to describe it accurately. Standing on that fateful final turn and watching the race carefully, however, was Ray Ewry of the New York A.C., who won gold medals in both the standing broad jump and the standing high jump. Ewry said that while Carpenter drifted wide he neither ran diagonally nor elbowed Halswelle. “I thought Halswelle lost his head,” said Ewry. Carpenter said that he never made contact with Halswelle, who had plenty of room to pass on either side. “We just raced him off his feet,” remarked Carpenter, “and he could not stand the pace.” When the race was rerun, Halswelle was the only participant—the other runners refused to run without Carpenter. His “winning time” was two seconds slower than Carpenter’s.

While the 400-meter controversy raged, the 200-meter final was run. Irish-born Canadian Robert Kerr won by inches over Irish American A.C. member and New York schoolboy Bobby Cloughen. Kerr’s gold medal was tallied for Britain.

A new controversy erupted off the track in the tug-of-war event. Rules stated explicitly that participants must wear everyday footwear and that “no competitor shall wear prepared boots or shoes.” When the American team arrived to tug against the British, they were astonished to see their counterparts, policemen from Liverpool, wearing specially constructed boots with steel rims around the soles. The Americans protested, but British officials claimed the boots were standard issue for Liverpool cops. After slipping and sliding on the wet turf, the Americans withdrew from the competition in disgust.

For the British version of fair play, though, nothing surpassed their actions during the marathon. Nearly 50 runners began the race at Windsor Castle. Three Englishmen alternately led the pack for the first half of the race. Carefully pacing themselves well to the rear were two members of the Irish American Athletic Club, John J. Hayes and Mike Ryan. Hayes was the 19-year-old son of immigrants from County Tipperary. He looked more like a muscular featherweight fighter than a marathoner. At the halfway point, he picked up the pace. “You’re going too fast, Johnny,” warned Ryan. “No, we’ve got to move now. Stick with me, Mike,” replied Hayes. Ryan maintained the quicker pace for a time, but then dropped back. Hayes passed one runner after another until the leaders came within sight.

With two miles to go, it was a three-man race. Charles Hefferon, an Irishman from South Africa—a country that, like Ireland, Canada, and Australia, counted as part of Great Britain—and the oldest runner, was in the lead. Dorando Pietri, an Italian pastry chef who did not weigh much more than 100 pounds, was in second. Hayes was in third. Spectators encouraged Hefferon. Some ran onto the course and slapped him on the back. He wasn’t English, but he was the next best thing—a British subject. A fan rushed out and gave him a drink of water. Hefferon gulped it. A few hundred yards later he developed stomach cramps and slowed his pace. Pietri passed him. Then Hayes. After the race Hayes said, “I found out later that Hefferon was of Irish descent. If I had known, I would have talked with him.”

Hayes was only 50 seconds behind Pietri and closing. But Pietri was about to enter the Olympic stadium and, once inside, would have only 385 yards to go on the track. As the diminutive Italian, seemingly impervious to the strain of the race, entered the stadium, he suddenly staggered. He turned in the wrong direction and could barely keep his legs moving. British officials grabbed him and put him back on track. He took a few steps and collapsed. Officials lifted him to his feet, steadied him, and helped him on his way. A few more steps and he collapsed again. The process was repeated.

Enter John J. Hayes, running strongly and smoothly. The packed stadium was now in a frenzy. British officials continued to encourage, lift, drag, and push Pietri toward the finish line. “He staggered along the cinder path like a man in a dream,” said a reporter, “his gait being neither a walk nor a run, but simply a flounder, with arms shaking and legs tottering.” Only yards short of the finish line, Pietri collapsed for a fifth time. He lay there in a heap. Hayes was swinging around the track and about to enter the homestretch. Not just any official but the chief British official, Jack Andrews, lifted Pietri and dragged him across the finish line. Although such assistance was clearly a violation of Olympic rules, the British immediately raised the Italian flag and announced Pietri the winner of the marathon. The pastry chef from Capri didn’t know or care. He was delirious and twitching and was carried from the stadium on a stretcher.

Hayes strode strongly across the finish line, appearing well able to continue for many more miles. He said the heat and humidity that took a toll on others bothered him little. “My father and grandfather were bakers, and I worked in a bakery as a boy. I’m used to the heat.” He had watched as Pietri was carried across the finish line and thought he would surely be disqualified. Not if left up to the British. Only a formal protest by the United States succeeded in having Pietri knocked out of the competition.

The next day, Timothy J. Ahearne of Ireland won the hop, step, and jump, but his victory was tallied in Britain’s column. Americans swept the high hurdles, and Mel Sheppard, running anchor, led the American team to the gold medal in the 1600-meter relay race, the final track and field event of the games.

Of the 23 individual championships in track and field, Americans won 13. Eight of the wins were by members of the Irish American Athletic Club. Seven individual championships were counted as British, but two of those were won by Irishmen and another by a South African. Englishmen accounted for only four gold medals, and one of those was Wyndham Halswelle’s solo 400-meter victory. Two others came in walking events that had almost exclusively English participants.

Throughout the Games, the bias of the British officials was evident. “In nearly every event the boys had to compete not only against their competitors but against prejudiced judges,” noted high-jump gold medalist Harry Porter. “The judges may not have been intentionally unfair, but they could not control their feelings, which were antagonistic to the Americans. This was especially true in the field events, where the boys came in closer contact with the judges. The Americans were continually nagged and made uncomfortable. The officials were discourteous to our men and, further, by their encouragement of the other men, tried to beat us.”

The British officials understood that a larger drama was being played out on the Olympic fields at White City. The empire was losing a second time to American colonials and, to make it especially humiliating, the Americans were mostly Irish. The significance was not lost on Ireland. When Irish members of the American team arrived in Dublin after the Games, they were greeted by crowds of thousands. “The streets along the route to their hotel,” reported the New York Times, “were completely blocked by Dublinites, and the enthusiasm displayed recalled the triumphant entries into the city of Parnell when he was at the height of his popularity.” The Easter Rising would erupt less than eight years later and the war for independence four years after that.

The team members were also greeted like conquering heroes upon their return to New York, and a parade of thousands was held in their honor. President Teddy Roosevelt threw a party for them at his home at Oyster Bay. “By George! I am so glad to see all you boys,” exclaimed the president. Mel Sheppard gave Roosevelt one of his Olympic gold medals. The president said that he could not possibly accept it. Sheppard pleaded with Roosevelt to take it, telling him not to worry, “I have two others.” John J. Flanagan then gave Roosevelt one of his gold medals. The president was overwhelmed and said the medals would be among “my most treasured possessions.” Irish American Athletic Club president P.J. Conway then made Roosevelt an honorary club member. Celebration of the team in song and story, poetry, and prose followed:

So Flanagan and Sheppard, McGrath and Sheridan
Showed them all the kind of stuff’s in a good Cork Yankee man
At jumping too, and running they showed the English tricks,
Although they knew John Bull could sprint since back in ’76.
They chewed them up, and spat them out, and trounced them good and sound,
That’s how the Yankee beat the world in good old London town.
So let the Eagle scream, me boys, from ‘Frisco to New York.
From Dublin town to Galway Bay, from Derry down to Cork.
Hang out the starry banner and never take a dare,
For they still raise brawny Yankees in Donegal and Clare.
—E.P. McKenna
“How the Yankees Beat the World”  

Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.

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