Beyond Dorando Pietri: some other heroes of the 1908 Olympics at White City

The U.K. hosted the Olympics in 1908 at White City in West London. Announcements were made by a toastmaster with a huge loudhailer; the stadium swimming pool was unheated; and the judges were all British!

That said, this was the first-ever Olympics with a purpose-built stadium and there were more women competitors than ever before. 37 women competed in archery, figure skating and tennis.

The classic story of this Olympics is the marathon. It started, at the Royal Family’s instigation, outside the royal nursery at Windsor Castle so that Edward VII’s grandchildren could watch. About a mile from the stadium, the Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, an improbable figure running with a knotted handkerchief on his head, overtook the South African frontrunner, Charles Heffron. When Pietri entered the packed stadium, he initially headed in the wrong direction away from the finishing line, before officials redirected him. Pietri collapsed several times but crossed the finish line first. Johnny Hayes from the US team came in second. Eventually, the judges disqualified Pietri and declared Hayes winner because Pietri officials had helped him across the finishing line =.

The race caught the imagination of the public and Pietri became famous.The following day, the final day of the competition at White City, Queen Alexandra presented him with a gold-plated cup in recognition of his efforts. Dorando Close in White City is named after Dorando Pietri, not Johnny Hayes!

But beyond the achievements of Johnny Hayes and Dorando Pieri, various men of colour made their mark at these Olympics.

John Baxter Taylor Jr

John Baxter Taylor Jr became the first in a long line of African-Americans to win an Olympic gold medal for the US team. Taylor won his medal in the 1,600m medley relay, running the third or 400-meter leg. The U.S. team also set a world record for this event.

The U.S. 1,600m medley relay team, 1908 Olympics Left-right:Nate Cartmell, John Baxter Taylor, Melvin Sheppard and William Hamilton

Taylor had also qualified for the 400m final but this ended in controversy. The British judges claimed John Carpenter from the U. S.  team had jostled Wyndham Halswell, the only British runner. The judges disqualified Carpenter and ordered a re-run. American officials forbade the two remaining U. S. runners, one of them Taylor, from competing.

Taylor’s life was cut short only months later. He died of typhoid fever , aged only 25.

Tsökahovi Tewanima

Tsökahovi Tewanima, 1911, New York City

Tsökahovi Tewanima, a Hopi from Second Mesa, Arizona, ran the marathon for the U.S. at White City. He finished in ninth place.

In 1906 the U. S. army had abducted Tewanima, a teenager, and other children in Arizona because their families had refused to enrol them in government-sanctioned boarding schools. Tewanima ended up far from home in Pennyslvania at “Carlisle Indian Industrial School”. This was the U.S. government’s flagship boarding school for Native American children. It aimed to “civilize” young Native Americans by forcing them to adopt Western ways..

Tewanima subtly subverted the goals of the brutal school regime. He took up running – an important cultural practice for Hopi. Incredibly by 1908 Tewanima was running at the Olympics in London. He then went on to win a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

In 1912, Tewanima returned home to the Second Mesa. He became leader of his clan’s holy organization, Tsu’tuv (the Antelope Society). According to his family, he refused to speak English.

Louis Bruce

Louis Bruce was the first known Black man in the British Olympic team. He competed in the men’s heavyweight freestyle wrestling, getting through to the second round.

Louis lived nearby in Hammersmith. He worked as a tram driver for the London United Tramways Company (LUT). He even drove the LUT Managing Director’s private tram, used for commuting to work! Louis eventually rose to the rank of Inspector.

Louis’ story only came to light in 2021 when two Canadian researchers, Connor Mah and Rob Gilmore discovered a of 1908 Olympic wrestling documents at a Wigan wrestling club.

There is only one image known to exist of Bruce, dating from 1906. He is shown in his tram driver’s uniform next to the Mayor of Kingston  who is about to drive a tram across Kingston Bridge to mark the opening of a new route.

Unveiling of blue plaque commemorating Louis Bruce, Hammersmith, 25 April 2023.

On 25 April this year, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Nubian Jak Community Trust unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Bruce’s achievements at his former home at 7, St Peter’s Grove, Hammersmith.