Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Going for the Gold: When Powerboat Racing was an Olympic Sport

The Olympics are in full swing and with that many sports are brought into the limelight that are, shall we say, questionable in their inclusion on the Olympic program.  Some of the usual targets are Synchronized Swimming, Synchronized Diving, Table Tennis, Dressage, and a seemingly endless line of shooting and gymnastics events.  With that said, a look into the Olympics’ past finds even more less than deserving “sports.”  Among these include Croquet, Basque Pelota (whatever that is),Rogue, Polo, Tug of War, and even powerboat racing.  It’s hard to believe now, but for one year powerboat racing had a place on the Olympic program.  In the 1908 London games, medals for powerboat racing were awarded along with the other sports that many have long associated with the Summer Olympics.
                Before looking at the action of the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports (as it was more commonly called back then) events, it should be duly noted that the Olympics in those early were quite different from the two week festival they have grown to be.  The Summer Olympics in those early years were often spread out over months and were often tied to World’s Fair exhibitions with Olympic competitions merely being another event on the program of these multimonth events.  The 1908 London Games were spread out over seven months, with the Opening Ceremonies being held on April 27 and the Closing Ceremonies held on October 31.  Instead of representing their country, athletes often wore the colors of their athletic club, University, or simply what they chose to wear, although the 1908 Opening Ceremonies were the first time that Olympic athletes marched behind their nation’s flags.  The events on the Olympic program often had a local flavor, sometimes even hosting events that were rarely if ever played outside their host nation.  For example, in the 1904 St. Louis Games Basketball, which was a sport that was thirteen years old but was quickly spreading in popularity through American YMCA’s, was staged as a demonstration sport.  With this in mind, powerboat racing was wildly popular in Great Britain at this time.  The first Harmsworth Trophy race (officially the International Motorboat Trophy) was held in Queenstown, Ireland in 1903, over two decades before the first British Grand Prix.  These Harmsworth Trophy races were often huge events that drew crowds of over a half a million spectators.  Despite the wide popularity in Great Britain, the footprint of powerboat racing in the early 20th century didn’t go much further than France and the United States.  So despite the fact that the sport was rarely if ever staged outside of these three nations, the fact that the Olympics were held in the hotbed of powerboat racing of that time was enough to get the sport on the program.  It should also be of note that, despite these were the London Games, the races were held 75 miles south of London in Southampton, another example of the wide open feel of the Olympics of that time.
The Water Motorsports events were scheduled for August 28 and 29, 1908in Southampton.    

       Plans for the event were apparently optimistic, as three different classes of boats were scheduled to compete for medals: an open class, an under 60 feet class, and a 6.5-8 meter class which essentially broke the competition down into a “large, medium, small” event.  Despite the seemingly optimistic staging of the event with three different medal competitions, the boat attendance had to damper that optimism.  Only six boats showed up to compete in the events, five of which were British boats and one of which was a French craft.  Only two boats entered the three events, and the events were, shall we say, less than competitive.
                The first event to be held was the Open Class (officially Class A).  Two boats, the Dylan and the Woleseley-Siddely, answered the starting gun.  The race was scheduled for eight laps around the five mile course, but before one lap was completed the Dylan withdrew.  The Wolseley-Siddeley completed one lap, but then returned to the dock after it was determined that the weather was too severe to continue.
The Wolseley-Siddeley making its way through the rough Southampton course

                Despite the first race being called due to inclement weather, later on that day the Under Sixty Foot class (officially Class B) event was held later that day.  Once again only two boats entered, the Quicksilver and the Gyrinus.  Just to clarify, the Quicksilver that competed in this class was an offshore style boat that would cut through the water, and was not the same Quicksilver boat that would compete in the Unlimited Class many years later.  The Gyrinus boat was a pioneer, and early attempt at having a boat plane over the water.  The Quicksilver boat was noteworthy at the time for having a female member on the crew who rode along.  Wife of Quicksilver driver J.M. Gorham, identified only as Mrs. Gorham, was described by a contemporary account as “worthy of special remark as an example of female endurance” for being able to endure a ride on the rough Southampton waters that day.  Both boats ended the first lap pretty much even, but on the second lap the Quicksilver began to take on water and was forced to retire.  The Gyrinus also took on water, but crew members Bernard Boverton Redwood and John Field-Richards were able to dump water off the boat quicker than it was coming on allowing Isaac Thomas Thornycroft to win the first Gold Medal ever awarded for Water Motorsports.  Later in the day a third race, a handicap race between larger and smaller boats, was ran but was not an official part of the Olympic program.
                The next day’s activities began with a Class C (6.5-8 meters) race.  The competitors this time was a small craft known as the Sea Dog, and once again the Gyrinus boat.  For the first few laps it appeared to once again be a very competitive race, with both boats exchanging the lead and officially scored as less than a second between them.  The Sea, Dog, however, had a faulty valve and wound up breaking down on the course.  Thus Thornycroft once again was able to drive to a Gold Medal with no running competition.
Gyrinus II, one of the first examples of a boat that attempted to plane over the water

                After another exhibition handicap race and a sailing race, and other races featuring yacht dinghies and another handicap powerboat competition, the rerun of the Class A “open” class took place.  Once again, the race was seen as a letdown.  The London Times account of the event noted “It will be noted that nothing has been said of the Olympic Race for motorboats of any length or power.  But really, there is very little to be said.”  Once again only two boats entered the event.  The Wolseley-Siddeley returned from before, and the lone French entry the Camille, driven by Emile Thubron.  During the course of the race, the Wolseley-Siddeley ran and was unable to continue, govomg the race to Thubron and the Camille.  The inaugural Olympic powerboat competition was done: three events, six entries, only three finishers.  Before the following Olympics in Stockholm, the International Olympic Committee passed a rule that said no events on the program will include motorized vehicles (a rule that still stands to this day) which ended powerboat racing as an Olympic Sport.  However, considering the nature of the Olympic Water Motorsports racing I’m guessing the news was met with little disappointment.
                What’s just as noteworthy about the Olympic Powerboat competition is how little attention it got, certainly not what one would expect of an Olympic Sport.  Few contemporary accounts exist of the event.  No major competitors were drawn to the competition, as none of the six boats that competed ever won the Harmsworth Trophy, and as far as I know none of them had even entered the competition.  Even during the actual events, the other races held seemed to attain more attention from the spectators and from the newspaper writers covering the event.   So the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports event exists as a historical anomaly that gets little attention and even in the most complete Olympic accounts.  So while it got little attention, the races were far from a crowdpleaser, and they’re more exemplary of the wide open days of the early Olympics, it should be noted that, yes, the Olympics once really did have powerboat racing on the official program.

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