Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

Team GB: 116 years in the making

Since the birth of the modern Olympics, Great Britain has played its role consistently in the movement. It has competed in every Summer Olympics since 1896 and is the only team to have won a gold medal in every single Summer Olympics. To add to these laurels, London is now the only city to have hosted this prestigious event three times.

Britain’s Olympic success began in 1896 at the first modern Olympics in Athens. One notable competitor was John Pius Boland who arrived as a spectator but found himself leaving with a winning medal in the tennis after borrowing a racquet and beating the man who lent it to him in the final.

British enthusiasm began gathering pace and in 1905 London was awarded its first Olympic Games.

The IV Olympiad in London 1908 became known as The Battle of Shepherd’s Bush because of the location and intense rivalry between Great Britain and the USA that permeated the games. The best example of this was in the 400m. British runner Wyndham Halswelle was obstructed on the last corner by John Carpenter of the USA.. The race was ordered to be re-run and Carpenter was disqualified.

In 1936, the Olympics came to Berlin in what were a tense sixteen days. Jesse Owens was undeniably the hero for his part in humiliating the racist ideology of the Third Reich. Britain however, had its own heroes in the form of the double sculls pair of Leslie Southwood and Jack Beresford who caught the German favourites in the last 500 metres, overtaking them in front of Hitler’s box to win the race.

London was selected again as the host city for the XIV Olympiad in 1948.

It had been twelve years since the last Olympics and the world was still reeling from World War II. Yet, Britain was praised for the “improvisation and organisation” by IOC President Sigfrid Edstrom. It was an austere Olympics: athletes were housed in RAF camps and were encouraged to bring their own supplies. The Germans and Japanese were not invited and the Soviet Union did not send a team.

Through the next three decades, Britain had limited success, never taking more than 24 medals in each Games. However, there were individual British heroes, amongst them Sebastian Coe. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he took gold in the 1500m becoming the first man to win consecutive gold medals in that event. Britain finished Los Angeles with 37 medals, the highest number in three decades.

In 2012, when once more, London took the stage hosting the XXX Olympiad. Over 10,000 athletes took part. It turned out to be Britain’s most successful Olympics as Team GB took a haul of 65 medals to finish third in the rankings. New heroes rose such as Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah and new records were set, particularly in cycling.

This represented the culmination of 116 years of British determination to excel in the greatest sporting event in history.

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