London famously stood in as hosts of the 1948 Olympics after the Second World War, but that wasn’t the first time the British capital had been pressed into service. Forty years earlier it had done the same duty when Italy, having been awarded the rights to stage the Games in Rome, withdrew due to financial pressures after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Lasting over six months and running as the support act to the Franco-British Exhibition (both staged in White City), most of the sports held were pretty much as today, with a few exceptions. There is no (horse) polo in Rio, nor jeu de paume (essentially real tennis). And while track and field athletics will happen, there will be no medals in the discipline of tug of war.
Part of the athletics programme, there were originally seven entries for the tug (is that the right abbreviation?), but Germany and Greece withdrew leaving just Sweden, the United States and three British selections. Those Team GB eights were in fact the City of London Police, the Liverpool Police and the Metropolitan Police K Division (essentially the East End).
Only one quarter-final was needed, pitting Liverpool against the US, whose team was made up mainly of throwing field event specialists. Liverpool won the first pull, but the Americans then complained that their opponents were wearing heavy boots in contravention of the complicated footwear regulations. The protest was dismissed, and despite an offer from Liverpool to tug again barefoot, the US withdrew.
They did so with some bitterness, as the New York Evening World recorded:
The American team was handed a real sour lemon here this afternoon when the tug-of-war event was announced. When our men went into the Stadium for the event they wore regulation shoes, without spikes or projecting nails or tips, as laid down in the rules for the contest.
What was our surprise to find the English team wearing shoes as big as North River ferryboats, with steel-topped heels and steel cleats in the front of the soles, while spikes an inch long stuck out of the soles. The Englishmen had to waddle out on the field like a lot of County Mayo ganders going down to the public pond for a swim. The shoes they wore were the biggest things over here and were clearly made for the purpose of getting away with the event by hook as well as crook.
J. Park, honorary secretary of the Liverpool Police Athletic Society, responded to the British Olympic Association:
The policemen who pulled in the tug-of-war against the American team in the Olympic Games wore their ordinary duty boots, as it is their invariable custom to pull in such boots which have gone too shabby to be worn on street duty. The boots were not prepared or altered in any way.
In the all-British semi-final, the City of London beat the Met team, while Sweden faced Liverpool and lost 2-0. There is no record of whether Sweden had the same objections as the Americans to the Liverpudlian footwear, but it is certainly the case that the Scandinavians did not turn up for their bronze medal match against the Met, ensuring a British 1-2-3.
The City of London won the final, and it was actually one of three medals claimed by the Force in the Games, as they also took heavyweight boxing gold and wrestling bronze (thanks to Irishman Ned Barrett, who had also been in the tug of war team). In fact, so sporting were the City policeman that they offered to take on the US team in bare feet, an offer snubbed.
The City of London Police went on to represent Britain at future Olympics, taking silver behind a Swedish force in 1912 in Stockholm, then winning again in Antwerp in 1920. Particular impressive were the contributions of Frederick Humphreys, Edwin Mills and John James Shepherd, who were part of all three teams.
There have been no Olympic tug of war contests since, though it is still held in the IOC-affiliated World Games, Britain taking men’s 640kg silver last time out in 2013 behind Sweden. The team was made up of non-policeman from nowhere near the City (mainly from Staffordshire, as it happens).
Also in this series:
1896 – Launceston Elliot, moustachioed strongman
1900 – CBK Beachcroft, cricketer and music hall star
1912 – Arnold Jackson, runner and Versailles negotiator
1920 – John Wodehouse, polo winner and proto-Bertie Wooster