Arthur Conan Doyle and the Berlin Olympics of 1916 that never took place

Duke of Westminster

A century ago in 1916 the sixth Olympics of the modern era were scheduled to take place in Berlin but due to war they did not go ahead. Our collections include publications about the planning and preparations for these Olympics that never were. “The evolution of the Olympic Games 1829 B.C.-1914 A.D.” by F. A. M. Webster a noted javelin thrower and sports administrator was published in 1914 and according to the stamp on the title page was received by the Library on 3 September 1914 just over a month after war had broken out. The book includes a chapter “The future – preparations for the Sixth Olympiad Berlin 1916” and a photograph of the specially built stadium in Berlin reproduced below. The chapter outlines the preparations for the forthcoming Games in Berlin and the fundraising and sporting preparations by the nations that planned to take part.

America for example had set up the American Olympic Association in 1912 with an annual subscription of $5 the funds raised to be used for the expenses of the U.S.A. team to be selected in May 1916. Sweden in a wave of enthusiasm after hosting the Stockholm Games in 1912 at which Sweden had come second in the medal table just behind the USA had already raised substantial sums from Swedes both at home and abroad with hope highs that they might do even better in Berlin.

Webster’s book has an introduction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a lifelong sports enthusiast. Doyle had played in goal for Portsmouth Association Football Club and cricket for the MCC famously taking W. G Grace’s wicket. Doyle took the lead in calling for Britain to make similar preparations for the 1916 Olympics. Britain was perceived to have underperformed at the 1912 Olympics being eclipsed by both the hosts Sweden and the USA and that this was part of a long term national sporting decline. The amateur ethos then dominated British sport and to an extent this frowned upon formal coaching and specialisation.

Doyle a strong patriot wrote a letter to the Times in August 1912. “The debate as to our preparations for the next Olympic Games tends to take the shape of recrimination rather than of construction. Might I appeal to all concerned to let bygones be bygones, and to centre our efforts upon the future? The scoring of debating points over each other only darkens counsel. The chief offender in the past has been the easy-going public, which has not taken an interest until our comparative failure at Stockholm came to waken it out of its indifference.”

Doyle’s call for reform and unity was to lead to the launch of an appeal in 1913, Doyle was part of the administrative committee. Led by the Duke of Westminster; then as now the holder of this title is probably the wealthiest man in Britain; the appeal aimed to raise £100,000 which today would be the equivalent of over £10 million. A book was published to benefit the fund priced at threepence in 1913 and this is pictured above.

“The Olympic Games and the Duke of Westminster’s appeal for £100,000” is arguably one of the most important books on British sport ever published. The book covers the failings of the British at recent Olympic Games, the inadequacies of British sports administrative bodies and the need to fund coaching schemes for elite athletes. The appeal combines this with a legacy element that would encourage participation in sport and fund facilities for the general public. A century later this is still broadly our approach to sports funding.

The appeal marked a shift in how the British establishment approach sport but in 1913 it was a failure. Sections of the press heavily criticised the appeal viewing it as a threat to the amateur ethos central to British sport and that the money raised would go only to a very few elite athletes and not more broadly benefit sport. The various British sporting administrative bodies though had signed up to the need for reform and if this was not possible for Berlin in 1916 it was hoped Britain would be in much better sporting shape by the 1920 Games. A similar crisis of confidence hit British sport in the aftermath of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when we won one gold medal and finished 36th in the medal table. This led to administrative reforms and the introduction of National Lottery funding for elite sports in 1997 and the success of Team GB in London in 2012 and Rio this year. The seeds of this success arguably lie in the failed preparations for the Games that never took place in Berlin in 1916 and the then changes in how we plan for the Olympics.

Berlin 1916