Wearside Echoes: The year Sunderland hosted its own Olympics

Advertising bill for the Olympia - the Sunderland stadium inspired by the revival of the Olympics
Advertising bill for the Olympia - the Sunderland stadium inspired by the revival of the Olympics
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WITH the 2012 London Olympics now in full swing, nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner recalls the year Sunderland played host to its own version of the ancient games.

THE revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 sparked renewed passion for sport worldwide – but nowhere more so than in Sunderland.

Indeed, just one year after Greece staged its first Olympics for more than a millennium, the town’s championship-winning football club played host to its own version.

“Some of the events were the same as those held in Athens, such as the pole vault, high jump and wrestling,” said Alan Brett, author of new book Sunderland At Work And Play Volume Two.

“But others had more local appeal, like the dribbling competition – which was open to not only aspiring footballers, but also seasoned professionals.”

Sunderland AFC’s home ground, at Newcastle Road, was chosen as the venue for the event and, as the sun shone down, some 10,000 spectators packed the stadium on August 14, 1897.

“It was billed as the greatest athletic meeting ever to be held in the North of England,” said Alan. “Events included traditional Olympic sports, as well as Band and Neatest Costume contests.”

A first prize of £12 – more than a thousand pounds in today’s money – attracted huge interest in the 110 Yards Handicap – with world champion Charles Harper among those to enter.

Harper took a room at the Norfolk Hotel while competing, but was to leave disappointed. It took 35 races to decide the winner – and resulted in an upset as Harper ended up unplaced.

An athlete called Ritson, of Derwentside, was eventually to claim first place, with Dickman of Sunderland winning £4 as runner-up and Rumford, from Silkworth, scooping £3 after coming third.

“The main wrestling competition had a prize of £10 for the winner, who also received the Henderson Challenge Cup – donated by James Henderson of Sunderland AFC,” said Alan.

“George Steadman, British champion at five different wrestling styles, was the eventual winner. He later gave a wrestling exhibition with ‘Greek George.’

“The daughter of the ‘Terrible Greek,’ Mary George, gave a wrestling display too – in the Greco-Roman style – against a lady called Miss Flora Nelson.”

Another athlete to thrill the crowds at Newcastle Road in August 1897 was R.D. Dickinson – billed as the ‘World Champion Pole Vaulter.’

“He won the contest with a height of 11ft 4ins, which was six inches higher than the clearance with which the American William Hoyt claimed the Olympic title the previous year,” said Alan.

The band contest also attracted stiff competition, with Sunderland East End winning the Quickstep section, beating South Shields Garibaldi into the runners-up position.

But Sunderland East End was to miss out on the Selection Competition to Backworth Institute, after coming in second, while Jarrow Borough had to settle for third place.

“The Neatest Costume contest for wrestlers drew only three competitors, with Matthew Steadman winning the judges’ vote,” said Alan. “But the Dribbling Competition proved far more popular.”

Local lads paid a shilling to enter the contest, with £5 – around £500 today – up for grabs. The competition was, however, extremely tough – with several Sunderland AFCmembers taking part.

“It was these professionals who dominated the competition, with four Sunderland players winning the heats and advancing to the final,” said Alan.

“Matthew Ferguson eventually took the first prize, sponsored by auctioneers Foster and Spencer. Runner-up, claiming £2 presented by J. Lowe, was Hugh Morgan. Tom Bradshaw took third place.

“Ferguson made 182 League and Cup appearances for Sunderland, Morgan scored 17 goals in 60 appearances, Bradshaw went on to join Nottingham Forest..

“Tragically, although Ferguson captained Sunderland to the League Championship in the 1901-2 season, he took ill only weeks later. On July 12, 1902, he died from pleuro-pneumonia at 29.”

Such was the success of Wearside’s first Olympic Games that a second contest was arranged, this time to be held at Sunderland AFC’s new stadium at Roker Park.

With a total prize fund of £250 on offer – more than £21,000 in today’s money – a crowd of 15,000 made their way to the ground on August 13, 1898, to enjoy five hours of sporting prowess.

The Newcastle Journal reported: “Sunderland’s splendid ground was used for the first time, when the second Olympic Games took place in what will, in all probability, become a famous enclosure.

“The weather was gloriously fine. If there was any fault to find, it was in the fact of its being the hottest that has been experienced during the year. The sports proved of high-class character.”

Once again, the 110 Yards Handicap was extremely popular – with W. Smith of Sunderland taking the first prize of £20 – just beating Ferguson of Seaham by a foot in a blanket finish.

Meanwhile, the 1,000 Yard Challenge Match was won by a Mr Bacon, who scooped £50, while Mr W. Clark of Morpeth cleared more than 5ft 1ins to win the High Jump.

“The Olympia in Holmeside opened in the wake of the Olympic Games revival too,” said Alan. “It had roundabouts, gondolas, a circus, acrobatic troupes and, in later years, a roller skating rink.”

** Details taken from the book Sunderland At Work And Play Volume Two, by Alan Brett. It is available at £9.99 from Waterstone’s, Sunderland Museum and Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Sidebar: Wearside Olympic stars and links

** Swimmer John Arthur Jarvis appeared at Sunderland’s YMCA Swimming Gala in 1899. He went on to win the 1,000 and 4,000 metres swimming contests at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

** Former Sunderland goalkeeper Ronald Gilchrist won a gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, as part of the Great Britain football team. The team beat Denmark 4-2 to win.

** Sunderland-born Helen Aitchison scooped a silver medal in the 1912 Games, in the indoor mixed tennis doubles competition. She trained at Ashbrooke before the event.

** Former Sunderland player Billy Maxwell was the coach of the Belgium football team which won the Gold medal at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

** The 1924 Olympics live on in the public imagination thanks to Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, which was produced by David Puttnam – later Chancellor of Sunderland University.

** Johnny Weissmuller became a favourite of Wearside film fans after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics – when he swapped his swimming trunks for a loin cloth to play Tarzan.

** Miner’s son Jack Potts, a runner from Catchgate in County Durham, represented Great Britain at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – which were opened by Adolf Hitler.

** Charmain Welsh developed her diving skills at Dawdon pit pond, near Seaham, before being picked for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. She also took part in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

** Three players from Bishop Auckland FC – then the top amateur team in the country – were members of the Great Britain football team at the 1956 Games, including Bob Hardisty.

** Lev Yashin, goal-keeper for the Gold medal winning USSR football team at the 1956 Games visited Thorney Close Youth Centre in 1966, while competing in the World Cup.

** Muhammad Ali won the Light Heavyweight Gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He went on to visit Wearside in 1977, as the reigning heavyweight champion of the world.

** Sunderland gymnast Monica Rutherford, a member of Fulwell Gym Club, competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics at the age of 20. Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska claimed three Golds.

** Gymnast Olga Korbut, star of the 1972 Munich Olympics, was a TV guest during the screening of the 1973 FA Cup – and declared she was rooting for Sunderland to win.

** Hebburn athlete Brendan Foster took bronze in the 10,000 metres at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

** Sunderland supporter Steve Cram won a silver medal in the 1,500 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He also competed at the 1980 Moscow and 1988 Seoul Games.

** Training at Crowtree helped Joanne Conway win six British figure skating championships and two Olympic appearances. She competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games.

** Sunderland swimmer Ian Wilson competed in the 1,500 metre freestyle event at the 1992 Barcelona Games – training at Newcastle Road Baths. He finished fifth in the final.

** American runner Michael Johnson, who won four Olympic gold medals between 1992 and 2000, was awarded an honorary degree from Sunderland University.

** Former Sunderland striker Patrick Mboma won an Olympic gold as a member of the Cameroon side in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

** Paralympian Hazel Robson, from Herrington Burn, won five medals from three Games – a gold at Sydney in 2000, two silvers in Athens in 2004 and two bronze in Beijing in 2008.

** Former Sunderland player Nicolas Medina won a gold medal with Argentina in the 2004 Games. Two other players, Asamoah Gyan and John Mensah, also played in the contest.

** Sunderland boxer Tony Jeffries won a boxing bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.