Cricket and the Olympics July 6, 2005

Going for gold

Philip Barker
Lord's will host the Olympic archery competition, after London pipped Paris to the post in the race for the 2012 competition

Lord's will host the Olympic archery competition, after London pipped Paris to the post in the race for the 2012 competition. In this article, first published in April 2004, Philip Barker reveals that cricket has closer connections with the Games than some might imagine

Olympic Archery is coming to Lord's © Marylebone Cricket Club

Lord's will become part of an exclusive Olympic club if London's bid for the 2012 Games is successful. The `Home of Cricket' will become the `Home of Archery' for the duration of the event, adding another chapter to the history of cricket's minimal but fascinating relationship with the Olympics.

Cricket has been played only once at the Olympics, in 1900, and 26 first-class cricketers have competed at the Games in other sports. If the bid is successful, Lord's will join the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Gabba in Brisbane as the only Test venues to have been used as Olympic arenas. MCC's chief executive Roger Knight is an enthusiastic supporter: "We would love to welcome the Olympic family to Lord's. The Olympics is the ultimate festival of sport, so we are keen to help the bid in any way we can."

There are eight other candidates and, if all goes well, London will be chosen for a final short list before the vote is taken in July 2005. Britain's Craig Reedie is one of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members who vote for the host cities. "The idea now is to hold Olympic sports in unusual and spectacular places, just as this year they're trying to stage some of the athletics in Ancient Olympia," he says. "The Victorian pavilion and the spectacular grandstand at Lord's would be a superb setting. In addition, archery is a very simple sport to put on. It is what I call a flat sport, it causes minimum disturbance when it is staged. That is why it can be held at Lord's during the season."

It would not be the first time MCC has received the Olympic family. When the evaluation committee from the IOC visits Lord's this summer, it will be exactly a hundred years after an IOC party first came to the ground. They saw Middlesex tie a three-day match with the South African tourists and later rushed to Regent's Park to watch, of all sports, archery.

Marcus Trescothick practices with a bow and arrow © Marylebone Cricket Club

Two of cricket's most illustrious names, CB Fry and WG Grace, helped welcome the IOC members who were meeting in London for the first time. Fry, a brilliant athlete, had equalled the world long jump record in 1893 and would have had a shot at winning gold at the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens. However, he missed the Games and later explained his absence by saying he was simply unaware they were taking place.

A teen-aged Grace had actually competed in the National Olympian Games, an early attempt at reviving the Olympics back in 1866. He made a high-speed dash by cab from The Oval to Crystal Palace to win the 440yds hurdles race and dashed back - all while playing for All England against Surrey and apparently with the approval of his captain VE Walker, later to become MCC president.

Although `Cricket, according to the rules of the Marylebone Cricket Club,' can be found in early plans for the Athens Games, no match was staged. Four years later the IOC went one better. The first and, as it turns out, last Olympic cricket match took place at the Velodrome de Vincennes in Paris. The Devon and Somerset County Wanderers, who represented Britain, beat All-Paris, who represented France but were made-up of British ex-pats, by 158 runs.

The 12-a-side match, played over two days, was a low-scoring affair. There were no pitch inspectors in those days and the wicket evidently left quite a lot to be desired. Perhaps even less desirable were the Wanderers' victory mementoes. With medals not introduced for another eight years, the Wanderers received models of the Eiffel Tower to take home as proof of their Olympic success.

At the time there was a real chance cricket would become a regular fixture at the Olympics. The driving force behind the modern Olympics was a French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who loved England and its sporting culture. The organisers of the fourth Olympics in 1908, originally awarded to Rome, also included cricket in their sports portfolio to be held at the Villa Borghesi.

De Coubertin wrote: "There is no reason to expect very many teams for the cricket. Maybe four or five. I think 2000 francs should be enough to stage the competition." However, the tournament never took place. Vesuvius erupted, Rome withdrew from hosting the Games and London stepped in.

Lord's: the home of archery in 2012 © Marylebone Cricket Club

Even a cricketer could not bring cricket to the London Games. Lord Desborough, responsible for organising them, was a veteran of the 1874 Eton v Harrow match and a man who had swum across the pool at Niagara Falls. He was to become MCC president in 1911. He organised the London Games brilliantly. However, cricket disappeared from the programme of events and, appropriately, one of the sports that replaced it was archery.

Not all was lost for cricket, however. Cricketers did win gold medals in London. JWHT Douglas, later to captain England when the Ashes were won in Australia in 1911-12 and when they lost to Warwick Armstrong's all conquering Australians in 1920-21, won the middleweight boxing gold medal. Representing Mincing Lane and Belsize Boxing Club, Douglas beat Snowy Baker in the final. The official report described how "the exchanges were of a heavy order before Douglas lifted his adversary clean off his feet with a blow to the jaw."

Elsewhere Warwickshire's Reg Pridmore top scored with 10 goals for the British hockey team that rounded off a triumphant year for Britain with the last gold medal. Twelve years later in Antwerp John MacBryan, who played a solitary Test for England, won hockey gold alongside Surrey captain Cyril Wilkinson.

The Olympics did not return to London until the year of Bradman's last tour in 1948, and in fact opened two days after the Don had scored a masterful unbeaten 173 as Australia made 404 in the last innings to beat England at Headingley. At the Games Middlesex's Alastair McCorquodale just missed out on a medal in the 100m, finishing fourth. He found consolation in the 4x100m relay with a silver medal in the Great Britain quartet.

For a short while McCorquodale and his team thought it might have been gold after the winning Americans had initially been disqualified. But the United States appeal was upheld and the British were downgraded to silver. He is the last county cricketer to win a medal. "I'd been in the army and during the war there was little chance to play cricket or run but I managed to win the Army championships in 1947 and went on to the Olympics. After that I never ran again."

Inevitably, perhaps, cricket has maintained a presence at the Australian Olympics. As the Duke of Edinburgh, then still a keen and active cricketer, was declaring open the 1956 Games at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, marching into the stadium as part of the Australian hockey team was New South Wales' future Test batsman Brian Booth. "It was the first time I'd ever been cheered walking out at the MCG," says Booth. Forty-four years later he was helping Steve Waugh carry the Olympic flame at the Sydney Games in 2000. What chance an England captain helping the flame on its long journey to the Olympic stadium in 2012?

This article was first published in The Wisden Cricketer in April 2004