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1912 logo1912 Stockholm

The 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden, marked a genuine coming of age for the Olympic movement. For the first time, the Olympic Games took on a truly international tone, with athletes representing five different continents for the first time.

The Stockholm Games were the fifth and most successful Olympics to that point, serving as a future model of organizational standards. The time Swedish organizers had to prepare -- four full years, unlike the last-minute scrambles of previous Olympics -- had much to do with Stockholm's success. A 22,000-seat stadium and new swimming pool were built, as well as accommodations for the athletes.

It also helped that Swedish organizers appeared to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They shortened the schedule to two months -- about four times longer than the current Olympic schedule, but considerably shorter than the five-month periods of Olympiads in 1900 and 1904, which failed to sustain any interest. The Games were also staged as a standalone event -- not forced to play second fiddle to another exposition.

Peace, harmony and electronic timing

Canadian George Goulding won gold in the 10,000-metre race walk.
Canadian George Goulding won gold in the 10,000-metre race walk. (Canadian Olympic Committee)

The overriding sentiment at the Stockholm Games was one of peace and harmony. There were no significant protests, and competitors, many of whom competed together at the 1908 games in London, had begun to form a kind of fraternity. The 1912 Games were the largest yet and were also the first games to enjoy major attention from the world's media, with events making front-page headlines in U.S. newspapers.

The 57 female athletes in attendance also made a splash at Stockholm, as they were allowed to compete in swimming and diving events. Prior to 1912, women could compete only in archery, tennis and golf.

The Stockholm Games ushered in the electronic age of sport. For the first time, electronic timing devices that could register tenths of second were used track and swimming events. During the events, a public address system allowed spectators to follow events much more closely. Using chalk instead of cord to delineate lanes also spiffed up the track events.

Less was more

There were 13 sports and 102 events overall at the Stockholm games. In an effort to improve competitive standards, a number of sports were cut from the 1908 games, which, judging by the amount of new world records established, was a visionary move.

Equestrian competition made its debut, as did modern pentathlon, a pet project of modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin. Based loosely on a day in the life of an officer during the Napoleonic wars, the modern pentathlon consists of equestrian, swimming, fencing, shooting and cross-country running.

The new event caught on with contemporary officers. Decades before he cut a swath through Europe with tanks and artillery as a U.S. Army general, a young George S. Patton, a lieutenant at the time, finished fifth in the 1912 modern pentathlon. Now, however, the sport is fighting to remain on the Olympic program.

Boxing was also supposed to be a part of the program, but the sport was illegal in Sweden and was left off the Olympic slate. The Swedes were also not familiar with freestyle wrestling, so that was dropped, too. Those hiccups led to the International Olympic Committee's decision that in subsequent Olympiads, the IOC would determine which sports would appear at the Games.

Jim Thorpe

Stockholm's most memorable athletic performance likely belongs to the Olympic Games' first real star, American Indian Jim Thorpe, who cruised to victories in the pentathlon and decathlon. Thorpe also placed fourth in the high jump, seventh in the long jump and was even on the American baseball team, which held an exhibition game against the Swedes.

When presented with his gold medals, Sweden's King Gustav V called Thorpe "the greatest athlete in the world." He was later honoured in the U.S. as the greatest athlete of the first half of the century. Unfortunately, his baseball prowess landed Thorpe in controversy. Thorpe was disqualified and had to return the medals because he received money for playing minor league baseball earlier in his career.

Thorpe had the dubious distinction of being the first athlete disqualified by the IOC, and his records were erased from the books. Thorpe was finally pardoned in 1982 -- almost 30 years after his death -- and the medals were presented to his family.

Swimming stars

Swimming took big strides in 1912, as Australia and Japan -- competing in its first Olympics -- were starting to produce world-class swimmers. George Hodgson became Canada's first swimming legend, winning gold in the 1,500-metre freestyle in a world-record time of 22 minutes flat -- good for a winning margin of 39 seconds. Along the way, he set a world record in the 1,000m.

Hodgson also established a new record for the mile. A few days later he won gold in the 400m, breaking another Olympic record along the way. Canada didn't win another swimming gold until the 1984 Olympics.

Noteworthy, too, was the great Hawaiian Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, who won the 100m freestyle with his pioneering front crawl style. It was the first of three Olympics Kahanamoku would compete in before going on to be a film star and becoming an early surfing icon.

The original Flying Finn

Hannes Kolehmainen, the Flying Finn, was the top track athlete at the games, winning the 5,000m, 10,000m and 12,000m cross-country events, winning silver in a team event and setting the stage for Finland's pre-eminence in distance running, which lasted until the 1940s.

Those medals don't exactly tell the full story, though. Kolehmainen set a new world record in the 5,000m, become the first to run it in less than 15 minutes, and in the course of running his leg of the team event, he set a world record for the 3,000m. Had the 1916 Olympics not been cancelled because of the First World War, Kolehmainen would likely have upped his medal count. Instead, he pushed his limits further in road racing and returned to the Olympics at the 1920 Antwerp Games to win the marathon.

Endurance tests

The unofficial theme that unfolded over the course of the Stockholm Olympics was endurance. For starters, there was the longest one-day cycling race in Olympic history, a cruel 320 kilometres that it took South Africa's Rudolph Lewis almost 11 hours to win.

There were more epic struggles in Greco-Roman wrestling competition -- the two longest wrestling matches in history, in fact. After nine hours in the light heavyweight final between Sweden's Anders Ahlgren and Finland's Ivar Bohling, judges called it a draw, but somewhat perversely, awarded both wrestlers silver medals instead of gold.

But that bout was topped by an 11-hour, 40-minute middleweight semi-final won by Estonian Martin Klein, who reluctantly fought under the Russian flag. But Klein was too exhausted to compete in the final and his tired eyes watched Sweden's Claes Johanson accept the gold by default.

In addition to being host country of a harmonious and well-organized Olympics, the Stockholm Games marked the beginning of a real golden age for Sweden and Finland in Olympic competitions. Though the Scandanavian countries had a fraction of the population of other top nations, neither placed lower than eighth in overall medal standings until the 1956 games in Melbourne.

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