These Colors Run

By McGrath, Roger D. | The American Conservative, July 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

These Colors Run


McGrath, Roger D., The American Conservative


At the 1908 London Olympics, the Irish American Athletic Club brought home gold for the red, white, and blue.

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 worldrecord 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, hi 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. …

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